Steve Lichtag – Up close & personal with the Great White

Steve Lichtag, photo: www.lichtag.com

Steve Lichtag, 54, is a respected Czech-American filmmaker who has travelled the world mapping everything from activity on coral reefs to the life of the Blue Whale. But most famously, the director captured what it’s like to swim with the ocean’s most feared predator – the Great White Shark – a creature any sane person would try their hardest to avoid. Not Lichtag: if there’s anything he enjoys, he made clear in a recent Radio Prague interview taped safely on dry land, it’s adventure. And when it comes to that, what better place to find it than in the deep blue sea…

Director Steve Lichtag:

“The main reason why I started, why I basically started and continue to specialise in underwater films is that I started scuba diving when I lived in Florida. It was fantastic and I fell in love with diving straight away: the underwater world was just so mysterious and beautiful and exciting. And it was somehow very simple to decide: I told myself if I was going to direct my own films, I would focus on underwater films and that’s how it happened.”

Photo: Richard Jaroněk, Steve Lichtag
Filming underwater is of course a far different experience from filming on land, with its own pitfalls and specific techniques. All told, there are countless factors to consider.

“Making films, regular documentary films and features and making underwater films, is a completely different ballgame requiring completely different techniques. It’s having camera in sealed equipment, having underwater lights, and you also have to be a good scuba diver so that you don’t have to preoccupy your mind with technical elements of diving: watching how much air you have left, how deep you are, how far you descend and so on. [These things have to be second nature]. Basically, you are dealing with what I call the main ‘producer’, which are the weather and the animals. On the one hand that can be very difficult, on the other, very exciting.”

Photo: Richard Jaroněk, Steve Lichtag
Capturing a particular fish on camera can be a long drawn-out process and consequently many areas are often revisited: it isn’t easy whether filming minnows or barracudas. But arguably none of Lichtag’s projects has been more ambitious to date than Carcharias: the Great White, in which Lichtag and shark specialist André Hartman set their sights on the most respected - and feared - shark on the planet. It was Hartman’s as well as the film crew’s goal to film the fish in open water – without the safety of cages. The project, years in the making, was completed in 2001. Says Steve Lichtag, a large part of its success was thanks to Hartman’s focus:

“André Hartman was a very important and key figure in the production of Carcharias: the Great White because he was basically the only one who at that time really knew what he was doing! Of course, the bigger question is if anyone can really know what they are doing when they swim with a Great White! André Hartman is a South African ‘animal’ who lives on the coast of the Indian Ocean, for whom sharks are [as common] as ‘dogs’. For him it was no big deal and he really gave us the power and the spirit to overcome ourselves.”

Overcoming themselves meant first luring an individual Great White and then and only then getting cameras into the water, one of those manned by Lichtag himself. André Hartman was the one to swim closest to the specimen armed with a spear gun. How do you get a Great White to take an interest in your boat? A series of different baits are used. The first is shark liver, the director explains:

“The oil from the shark liver floats on the top and just goes with the current and sends a signal to any potential predator to let him know that ‘something is cooking’, so that eventually the shark follows the track of the smell.”

Photo: Richard Jaroněk, Steve Lichtag
Then a rubber seal is used to further attract the creature and finally “chum” – raw fish - is thrown into the water on a line to keep it interested. But the key is to not let the shark eat.

“When you repeat it ten or twenty times the shark basically stays around the boat and that’s the time when you get your cameras and get in your wet suit, cross your fingers and say ‘God help us’ and jump in the water.”

The results are sobering even on one’s TV screen: what it must have been like in person is difficult to imagine. But there were steps the crew relied on routinely when filming the Great White. Basically, never let the fish focus too long as it continually circles and continues to close in. Two, when things do get tense, take assertive action with the camera to keep it away.

Photo: Richard Jaroněk
“When I see a five-metre shark coming, when he’s one metre away and is opening his maw, it is not the time to try to get away but to speed up towards him and punch him in his snout.”

Easier said then done but nevertheless effective although eventually the cameras conk out, one by one. In the film all the crew get away without serious incident, but who’s to say it wasn’t nerve-wracking? At once point André Hartman even swims up to the Great White and allows himself to be towed, holding onto the shark’s fin, leading even the film’s narrator to question the swimmer’s “sanity”.

“In South Africa it is not permitted, it is absolutely forbidden of course. I would say it is much better to go in a cage because usually when you meet a Great White somewhere while swimming, most of the time it will not be the best time and most of the time the shark will surprise you.”

Photo: Tom Conlin, Jan Tutoky, Bill Parks
But in the case of the film crew, Lichtag makes clear, all were aware to bring back never-before-seen footage, they had to take risks.

Photo: Tom Conlin, Jan Tutoky, Bill Parks
“If it would be only one camera, I wouldn’t feel very safe because no one is ever safe. But yeah, we did it without the cage, all the time. Basically, we had to follow the Great White. I am sure we could not have done it from just within a cage. It could not be done.”

The Great White is only part of Steve Lichtag’s story: he has also filmed the plight of the Blue Whales, a far different experience, as well as a series about all kinds of sea life. But one of the projects closest to his heart was something else entirely: filming life in streams and rivers in Moravian and neighbouring Slovakia. He went from sharks to the leviathan to filming the story of a tiny freshwater fish.

Photo: Lubomír Pospěch, Steve Lichtag
“It is the story about these little animals which we humans don’t see. It was all shot in macro and I really love this story. It’s about the Bullhead – a seven centimetre long fish which actually used to live in the oceans. But when the oceans receded and dry land remained, this particular fish stayed here. It is a fish which has no gall bladder, can not swim basically, can only jump. It looks like a prehistoric creature, it’s incredible. It’s also the story of trout, their eggs, and little iddy-biddy shrimps which are just 2 mm long. It’s really an amazing story.”

Photo: Lubomír Pospěch, Steve Lichtag
But not without a serious message, says Lichtag, who points to long out-dated legislation which controversially still allows fisherman to use electric current. The aim was to show the impact and cause a stir, which it did.

“I wanted to show our government and our lawmakers that legally there is a very strange kind of fishing going on using electric power and I wanted to show what was happening in this invisible world, how these creatures suffer electric shock. The film created a lot of noise in Parliament but the use of electricity is still on and still legal – absurdly legal – in this country.”