Not to take anything away from the powerful influence Jaws had on my life, but nothing can compare to Blue Water, White Death. Released five years before Jaws, this documentary feature film really sealed the deal for me in my obsession and subsequent decision to study these magnificent beasts. I wasn’t even born when this band of scientists, photographers, and all around nut jobs sailed around the world on the Terrier XIII in the quest to capture the Great White Shark on film … and introduce an unsuspecting audience to the beauty and grace of the ocean’s apex predator.
This movie played on television during my childhood, and I watched it every damn time. I memorized every word uttered, sang along to every folk song and fell in love with every crewmember. I even recorded it on a blank VHS tape so I could study every second. The crew are all heroes of mine to this day … especially Valerie Taylor. As a young girl aspiring to jump in the water with sharks as soon as she possibly could, Valerie was like Wonder Woman to me. Her shocking blonde hair belied her big brass balls that could rival the nards of the most seasoned male diver. Yaaassss, queen!
For a documentary, the suspense and drama in this film is palpable. It grates along your spine like a shark’s teeth on an aluminum cage. They begin the search for whitey in Durban, South Africa. Following whaling ships to the inevitable slaughter, the crew took advantage of the carnage to do some cage diving with feeding sharks. This section of the film is immensely disturbing to watch as whaling was very much legal at the time. The indiscriminate killing of these gentle, intelligent and social animals is brutal, but to see the processing plant in action is a punch to the gut. So wasteful and shameful. You can see the disgust and heartbreak in the crew’s eyes. But this is a snapshot of the time, and it was what it was. When a whale was killed, the blood attracted sharks from miles around. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them. These lunatics got right up in the action to witness criss-crossed layers of oceanic whitetips, blues and dusky sharks, all getting fat and happy on the massive cetacean. They even do this AT NIGHT! You are literally holding your breath as the lights fail, casting the fearless cage divers into total darkness, surrounded by heaving masses of teeth and fins. Dayumm!
The co-director and main man of this perilous voyage is Peter Gimbel, who thinks he sees a pattern emerging in these pelagic sharks and it might not be a huge risk to get out of the cages and swim among the feeding fish. So they do that. Let me just emphasize that this had NEVER been done before. These divers spin in circles just trying to simultaneously survive and film the shit out of this pioneering event. Valerie has to kill a shark with a bangstick when it comes too close, fins dropped down into a pre-attack posture. Oh but the footage they got! Gives me the vapors! Just the sheer amount of sharks alone is mind-boggling. They hadn’t yet been decimated by overfishing and misplaced fear.
Yet, they don’t meet up with whitey.
So off they go to the Mozambique Channel, Grand Comoro Island and Batticaloa where they dive the wreck of The Hermes. All with hope in their hearts that the elusive Great White will make an appearance. Which he doesn’t. So this part is pretty boring, right? WRONG. Peter stays down at the wreck too long and gets the bends, an extremely painful condition caused when nitrogen builds up in the joints and tissues. In addition to that drama, a strong river-like current sweeps one of the cinematographers out to sea.
Finally, Ron Taylor convinces Peter that it’s time they tried South Australia. I mean, we know that’s the first place to try now, but back then not many folks were actually trying to find these leviathans. Remember, this is pre-Jaws, so many landlubbing people hadn’t even heard of a Great White. They meet up with Rodney Fox, another one of my lifelong heroes, who survived a gory and violent attack from a white shark while spearfishing. It’s another scene that glues you to the screen as Fox recounts the story of his near-fatal encounter.
When the first Great White makes an appearance, the excitement and joy aboard the ship is palpable and explosive. Clearly, this shark is like no other in size, aggression and sheer action. The crew scrambles over themselves to get into the cages and film as another white shark joins the party. The sharks gnash and thrash their way through a lot of bait, always accompanied by the whoops and hollers of the astonished crew. One of the sharks gets tangled in the bait line and proceeds to destroy one of the cages … with a poor guy standing in it! He manages to cut the line with his diving knife but not before so much damage is done that “it looks like King King tried to break out of jail.”
Having met the star of the epic journey at long last, the film ends with a final shot of Peter Gimbel’s face, beaming with a grin as wide as the Indian Ocean. It’s hard not to smile along with him. The movie takes you on one of the most amazing adventures ever captured on film. You feel every minute of it, warts and all. It’s made all the more impressive when you stop to think about what this movie meant, and what it accomplished. Surely, I can’t be the only kid who saw it on TV in the late 70’s or early 80’s and decided she just simply MUST do that herself. Just like the dogged crew of the Terrier, I was doing it no matter what it took to get there.
Is this a sharksploitation movie? Well, I suppose not since shark movies weren’t even a thing at that time. I would argue, however, that this film rivals even the best sharksploitation has to offer in sheer exhilaration alone. Maybe it’s time we all went back and met the Great White Shark again, and for the first time.
Director: Peter Gimbel, James Lipscomb
Where to watch: Apple TV
A deep dive into the world of amazingly terrible and wonderful shark movies through the eyes of a degenerate marine biologist!