Paul de Gelder has every reason to steer clear of the ocean. In 2009, the former daredevil Navy clearance diver was attacked by a bull shark in Sydney Harbor. He lost his right arm and leg in the process. Images of reenactments, which have become synonymous with Shark Week, are likely filling your head right about now. This, however, is not an attack story.
Saturday, de Gelder will return to the water, this time with great white sharks, to investigate a spike in deadly shark attacks in Australia for Great White Matrix. De Gelder, who had never seen a great white shark until making this program, will co-host alongside long-time Shark Week filmmaker Andy Casagrande.
The pair have undeniable chemistry (“We get along like a house on fire,” de Gelder says), but Casagrande was initially wary about telling a shark attack story, fearing they would demonize sharks. His concern quickly changed upon meeting and subsequently working with de Gelder, who is making his hosting debut. “He once told me it definitely wasn’t a great thing to get attacked by a shark, but it sort of allowed him to actualize, not his goal in life, but why he’s here,” Casagrande says. “He’s a champion for sharks and conservation.”
For de Gelder, it’s simple: Having faced death, there’s not much else to be afraid of, which is why he’s back in the water, working to protect the declining species. “The bottom line is knowledge dispels fear,” de Gelder says. “The more we can teach people, the more they can understand and respect, and be in awe of these animals; the more they’ll fall in love with them, the more they’ll want to protect them, just like Andy and I want to do.”
In Great White Matrix, de Gelder and Casagrande hope to answer a number of questions: When do shark bites turn into fatalities? What do juvenile great white sharks tell us about adults and attacks on humans? Is every mature great white shark a man-eater?
By the end, they only scratch the surface (we’ll avoid spoiler territory), but they learn about the myriad attack styles of great white sharks using multiple GoPro cameras to capture the different angles of a bite. In the process, the sharks are shown baring their jaws, lunging toward prey, and acting violently.
This is where the criticism comes in. Though the show has yet to air, Casagrande is a vet, and expects at least some backlash for showing such predatory behavior and further “demonizing” sharks. “The reality is, I say it in the show, if you’re going to showcase the world’s greatest athlete, you’re not showing him sitting on his coach, hanging out, drinking coffee, just chilling out there,” Casagrande says. “You’re going to show his amazing or her amazing athletic prowess: how fast she is, how high she can jump, her strength. That’s what we do on these shows.”
Criticism aside, both would love to make a tentatively titled follow-up, Great White Matrix 2. If not a sequel, they have a few other ideas up their sleeve (which they declined to share at this point). There’s still much more to explore with the elusive great white sharks and we can certainly expect de Gelder to get back in the water.
“There’s so many unanswered questions and that’s true with a lot of sharks, but great whites are sort of a mystery still,” de Gelder says. “It’s kind of like hunting Big Foot, except you know Big Foot’s there and now you just want to learn about him. It’s just an enchanting sort of exercise in a world where we kind of know everything about everything or we think we do. There’s still these unanswered questions about one of the oldest species of animals on the planet.”
Great White Matrix airs Saturday 16 August 2014 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Discovery Channel.