Swimming with Sharks in Virtual Reality

Michael Muller, Into the Now

Director Michael Muller

Would you swim cage-free with great white sharks? “Growing up surfing in northern California, I had a huge fear of sharks,” says photographer Michael Muller?, whose portfolio includes top movie stars and music icons. “Then I got a bug to go see and photograph a great white—the experience changed my life.” So I began a relentless pursuit. He first approached sharks ten years ago in still photography and invented the world’s most powerful underwater strobe. Later he embraced an emerging format—virtual reality. His new film series, “Into the Now,” cut from 80 hours of breathtaking VR from eight locations around the world, captures the true story of sharks and the impacts of climate change and overfishing. The first film of the series will premiere April 18 at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Below see photos and read an interview with Michael.

When we’re under water, they’re the dominant creature. Once the tables are turned, our deep insecurities come out.
— Michael Muller
ROAM: Swimming with Sharks in Virtual Reality
Photograph by Michael Muller

Your work with celebrities appears everywhere. Are there similarities between shooting celebrities and shooting sharks?

Michael Muller: Yeah, there are definitely similarities. Sharks, like people, all have different personalities. Males act much different than the females, and within each sex, they also have different personalities. Some are shy, some are more brazen. There are definitely similarities with that. And then you’ve got the hierarchy of animals. And you’ve got the egos. So yeah, there are definitely similarities.

The one thing that’s great when dealing with animals is it’s quiet down there in the ocean. It’s you and the animals. You’re really in the moment. You don’t have all of that dialogue that goes on in your head that happens when you’re shooting celebrities or people. I’m a bit of a hermit, so diving fits in perfectly with that.

Tell us about your scariest encounter with sharks.

Michael Muller: To be really honest, I haven’t had too many scary moments. Probably the most tension-filled moments were the first year of swimming with sharks when I was very inexperienced and still had a lot of old prejudices and perceptions of the animals.

But for instance, in the Sardine Run, which is off of the Wild Coast of South Africa, the baitball is getting smashed by 50 to 100 dolphins and sharks as they feed. The Wild Coast is the most shark-attacked beach in the world, and it has really shark-infested waters.

The visibility isn’t so good, and when I swam and approached that baitball, it wasn’t scary, but you can see in the film, we actually cut back, to show a 13-foot dusky shark coming and sort of bumping and grabbing the pole in between me and the camera. I wasn’t scared because I know that they’re in a frenzy in that moment. You just have to really be aware of your surroundings.

How do you keep your wits about you in those intense situations?

Michael Muller: We have extremely quick reflexes and just know their behavior. I saw that shark coming, and it definitely was a more high-tense moment. I’ve had one encounter with a great white, who came a little close, and his head sort of swarmed toward me, and I had to give it a little tap on its gills. But that wasn’t even really that scary.

I’ve got to say the scariest moment was two years ago, getting the first VR footage I ever shot, I was out of the cage with the great whites. When a great white approaches, they approach two different ways—slow and methodical or 20 miles an hour, straight up at us. When we start swimming toward them, they usually bank off. One shark was coming at me heated, really quick. I started swimming toward it with the VR camera ball in front of me. Morne Hardenberg came on my right side, Brocq Maxey on my left.

All three of us were swimming toward this shark, and it didn’t bank off until a couple of inches from the VR ball. When those sharks are coming that fast and they’re so big, it definitely get the blood pumping.

Definitely! You alluded to this, but we have this Jaws-informed culture perpetuates the myth that sharks are blood-thirsty, vengeful human hunters. Why are sharks so misrepresented in media?

Michael Muller: Yeah, 100 percent. That’s also what sells, that fear factor. TV networks and movies sensationalize sharks because it taps into our primal fear. We own the land, so to speak. Our species is the dominant creature above water. When we’re under water, they’re the dominant creature. So, I think that as humans being so used to being in that power position, when the tables are turned, our deep insecurities come out.

So yeah, it sells tickets, and it sells weeks of footage on some networks. It helps fuel the fire. But it doesn’t help the sharks any. If we were killing 100 million squirrels every year, people would be up in arms. Or 100 million deer, just to kill them for their ears, people wouldn’t have it. Yet, we kill 100 million sharks, cut their fins off, throw the body overboard, and people don’t seem to get too alarmed by it.

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Looks like a PIG digging up truffles right!??? They use that nose to push stuff up into their triple row of hacksaw teeth. They eat through turtle shells so you can only imagine what 3 rows of razor sharp teeth can do, yet it still takes a good couple hours to get them to come in close and swim with us. So a couple days ago the team and I bounced to Bimini and Tiger Beach for a quick dip. Think we had 5 Tigers at the end of the dive. Emma the local star showed up, she’s a 14ft Tiger and got into it with one of the boys. BIG thank you to all my partners who helped the last 18 months to make the 9 expeditions some of the best of my life and get me into the #ITNVR #RSAfilms #IWC #PATAGONIA #LDF #RED #LEICA #PHASEONE #BRONCOLOR #MARES #STANFORD #HUBERMANLAB #FREEPORTLNG #SHARKEXPLORERS

A post shared by Michael Muller (@michaelmuller7) on

Did you encounter shark finning while you were shooting?

Michael Muller: Yeah. I documented that. It was extremely tough.

What infuriates you most about the pressures on shark populations?

Michael Muller: Sharks are the top of a very fragile ecosystem. When you wipe out the top predator, there’s a domino effect that happens. When you take out that part of that ecosystem, all types of effects happen. Where you used to see sharks, for example, you’re not seeing them anymore. It’s not a subject I even like to talk about. It’s really scary.

When you are in the water, it’s just you, the sharks, and your cameras. Do the sharks respond to the cameras or the divers very much?

Michael Muller: If we weren’t feeding the sharks the chum that we do, they wouldn’t even be near us. They swim the opposite way. They really are skittish of people. And for the most part, we have to almost lure them in with the bait. It’s like giving a dog a bone, a treat. It really is. Without those—and sometime even with them—the sharks literally still swim the opposite way a lot of times.

What do you think that behavior means?

Michael Muller: I think we’re a threat, and they know it. People are a threat to them. The cameras don’t bother them. Sometimes they see the shiny domes and will come in to try to investigate. But the camera is really the only device that’s my protection. I use my camera to tap, to give the sharks a little bump, if they get too frisky or too curious.

If you were to ask what’s my favorite shark, well, great white for sure. They’re on a level above everything else.
— Michael Muller

One thing I’ve heard about over the years is the idea of this test bite. Have you experienced a test bite?

Michael Muller: Yeah, I see it quite often. They’ll bite the chum bucket, they’ll bite motors on boats. That’s one of the ways they sort of “see” if this is something to eat or not, and give it a bite. With people, that’s often what happens. There’s one bite to test to realize it’s not on their menu, but that one test bite, obviously, can do some damage.

Definitely. It sounds like you guys know how to read the sharks and haven’t had any mauled limbs or anything like that.

Michael Muller: We’re also very careful. We’re very humble. We very much risk-assess what we’re doing, and we do it as a team. I don’t do it alone. You need eyes in the back of your head, which we don’t have. So you work in a group and make like a triangle. Then I know someone is watching my back as I’m watching theirs.

Is there a contingency plan, if something does go wrong?

Michael Muller: Yeah, the contingency plan is to not let anything ever go wrong. Where we’re diving are usually in such remote places, so it doesn’t really cross our minds. It’s like Alex Honnold free climbing. There’s no contingency plan. You don’t make a mistake in this type of diving. There’s no room for an error.

Absolutely. Is there a place where you filmed sharks that really captured your curiosity?

Michael Muller: They’re all unique in their own different ways. I don’t necessarily have a favorite place. I love Guadalupe for the great whites, the Galápagos for the size and variety of animals, South Africa for viewing the different behaviors. I do enjoy all of the dives, and they all offer something unique. Obviously, if you were to ask what’s my favorite shark, well, great white for sure. They’re on a level above everything else. But I still love tiger sharks and whales and rays. I love the ocean.

Is there a sense of not wanting to share exactly where these sharks are, so that people don’t go find them and take their fins?

Michael Muller: No, because the fishermen know exactly where all of these things are. They’ve got it down, they’re using satellite technology to find densities in schools of fish. They have these ships that are the size of small cities that are processing plants. They’ve been pillaging the ocean’s marine life, and usually not in any countries’ waters. Especially in South America, where they don’t have the Navy to protect their waters. They take full advantage of these countries and bring multiple ships over there.

So when did you start diving?
I started diving at ten years old in the Persian Gulf of Saudi Arabia. I lived in Saudi Arabia for four years in a city called Jubail that my father was building. That was when I first got serious about diving.

When did you start diving with sharks?

Michael Muller: I had a huge fear of sharks, growing up in northern California surfing, and just being a surfer in the water a lot. Jaws had an impact on me, like it did everyone. About ten year ago, I got a bug to go see and photograph a great white. I went on a trip to Guadalupe Island and saw the great white. My life changed from there.

At the same time, I invented a type of strobe lights, the most powerful underwater lights in the world. I said, “I want to bring the shark into the studio and light it, like I did Ironman. I can’t bring the shark to the studio. It would be dead. So, I’ve got to bring the studio to the shark.”

The lights didn’t exist, so I actually went out and fabricated and designed and made—in just a couple of days—the most powerful underwater strobes in the world. I got four patents on them and have spent the last ten years working on that.

Did you use the strobe with the VR?

Michael Muller. No. That was for photography. I spent ten years self-funded, very expensive, and the book came out with passion. I sort of had reached the goals in the photography world, my main goal being to change peoples’ perceptions, which I found to be a bit challenging with photographs, because it’s showing one little moment.

I was going to cut all of the 32 expeditions I had done and filmed into a documentary film. I was thinking “This should help more than a photo,” and was about to start cutting that, and start working on my next animal project. And then, the VR idea came along. I was like “Wait, VR. That’s the future.”

Are you an avid surfer these days, too?

Michael Muller: Yes. I still surf as much as I can, whenever I can. I have three daughters, so fortunately, they love surfing. My oldest is on a surf team. That gets me out to the beach a lot, more than if my family didn’t surf.

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