Sharks: To ride, or not to ride?

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Mark Healey gives “The Heisman” to a shark that just 30 minutes prior, he was riding.

Interview by Taylor Paul

A few years ago we would have laughed. The same way we would have laughed about people paddling into Jaws before Marcio Freire started doing it in 2007. But then he paddled it, survived, and now everyone from Shane Dorian to Ricky Whitlock are out there. Everything is impossible until it’s not, and then it’s common. We’ve known for a few years that riding sharks was a real thing, thanks to Mark Healey. And while Mark wasn’t the first, he helped bring it into the popular consciousness and in his wake we’ve seen a surge of swimmers clutching the fins of great whites, tigers and more. It’s in ad campaigns and on national morning shows. Most say they do it to show the public that sharks are not the man-eating machines they’re sometimes depicted as, but rather majestic creatures that should be conserved. And that’s great. I agree. But a few times a year they do eat man, and aren’t we increasing those odds of becoming an exotic dish to an open-minded great white when we start mounting them like a pony at the county fair?

So I called Mark Healey, and I asked…

SURFING: Are people getting too comfortable?

Mark Healey: Well if you’re talking about people like Ocean [Ramsey] and Kimi [Werner], they’re really good divers. Ocean’s been doing this for a long time, and Kimi is super experienced with ocean animals as well. But it’s definitely an example of, once it’s known that something’s possible, whether it’s riding sharks or big wave stuff or anything, then you’re past that barrier and more people will start doing it. But it’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. It’s not a sport. [laughs]

So why do it?

The whole point of doing it is to make people think about how they perceive sharks. If more people are feeling comfortable with sharks and seeing them in different ways, then that’s a good thing.

Do you think there would ever be a time when people could pay to have someone help them get on a shark?

Not with great whites, and not with tigers. But there could be a way to pull it off. When I did that GoPro shoot with Roberta [Mancino], I got her onto that tiger shark and she’d never done it before. Which was great. But when we were heading back to the boat, about a half hour after we’d got on that shark and it was really mellow, it turned on me. I was on the surface and it swam right at me [see above video]. And since I didn’t have anything in my hands, I basically had to give this 12-foot tiger shark the Heisman. And that just shows how quickly things can change, because that shark could not have been more disinterested in us earlier.

Do you ever think someone who’s inexperienced will get hurt trying something like this?

Well, it’s a numbers game. The more you’re around sharks, the more likely it is you’ll get hit. But if you’re inexperienced, you’ll probably be all skittish and scare the shark away, anyway. Because it’s not like you’re forcing them to do anything, they make the conscious decision to let you be there with them. But at the end of the day it’s natural selection. Like, I just answered that question for you [for SURFING’s Feb 2014 big-wave issue] that asked, “How do we prevent more deaths in big waves?” And the answer is to stop surfing big waves. That’s basically it. Because you can dance next to the fire in a calculated way but there’s a certain amount of risk that will never be taken out of the equation. These things aren’t safe and they never will be.

Kimi Werner:

Ocean Ramsey:

Healey and Roberta Mancino: (rides shark at 3:10)