43 Hours, Circling Fins, No Boat: All for the Shark Week Glory

In “Sharkwrecked,” Paul de Gelder and James Glancy spend nearly 43 hours floating in the Atlantic Ocean together, with potentially deadly oceanic whitetip sharks circling much of the time.

James Glancy didn’t necessarily intend to star in what the Discovery TV network has called “the most dangerous experiment ever attempted on Shark Week.” A former British Royal Marine, he initially conceived of “Sharkwrecked,” a one-hour special that debuts on Thursday, as a stunt whereby he would strand himself and others at the wreck site of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which was sunk in the Pacific Ocean by Japanese torpedoes in 1945.

There’s a reason that event was used in “Jaws” as back story for the grizzled shark hunter Quint: Of the roughly 900 initial survivors, only 316 made it out of the water alive; many were attacked by what are believed to have been oceanic whitetip sharks. But as a conservationist, Mr. Glancy knew that he would encounter few whitetips at the wreck site today: The species, classified as threatened, has been severely reduced by aggressive commercial fishing practices. In trying to document the challenges of surviving a shipwreck there today, the special would have an underlying message of conservation.

“Everyone thought that was a really good idea,” he said. “Except for Shark Week — it has to have sharks.”

Producers moved the location to Cat Island, in the Bahamas, one of the few places whitetips are still frequently seen. In search of a partner, Mr. Glancy contacted the Shark Week fan favorite Paul de Gelder, an Australian military veteran who in 2009 lost a hand and a leg to a bull shark during a counterterrorism exercise in Sydney Harbor. For hours over FaceTime, they shared their own stories, as well as those of relatives who served in their countries’ merchant navies: Mr. de Gelder’s grandfather had survived after his ship was torpedoed in the South Pacific in World War II; Mr. Glancy’s great-uncle had been killed by a shark when he fell overboard in the Atlantic in World War I. They decided they would have each other’s backs.

The two men spent 43 hours together in open water, using life jackets solely at night in case they fell asleep. At the same time, they battled not only the threat of opportunistic sharks (whitetips can go more than a month between meals) but also the effects of exhaustion, dehydration and hunger. In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Glancy explained why the challenge was worth it. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you prepare for this experience?

This hasn’t been done before. Most people involved with Shark Week are very experienced, but no one knows what it’s like to spend hours and hours in the daytime, through the night, and then back again to see how the sharks behave. Safety-wise, we thought if we’re in the daytime, we can control them as long as we’re awake. But at nighttime, you lose your vision. I had designed this safety net, which is not a classic cage, but it gives you some basic separation. Generally, sharks don’t like going through barriers. Even though it looks like they do in the movies, that’s not what they do.

You know the nets that kids use for baseball pitching? It’s literally that sort of net. We were anywhere between 50 meters and 10 meters away from it. As night came in, we basically got closer and closer so we could jump in. I was also making sure I was in the same sort of mental and physical shape I was in when I was in the Royal Marines.

On Night 2, a shark bumped the safety net. Was that the most nerve-racking moment for you?

I would say there were two. First of all, the oceanic whitetip is a big shark, and while two is fine, because you can keep your eye on them, when we started to get three, four or five, that unnerves you. It’s fine the first eight hours in the water — we’re fit guys. But as you start getting dehydrated and tired, you just don’t have the energy to keep looking. Towards nighttime on the first day, it got a bit more hectic. You’re like, “[Expletive], this is serious now because it’d only take one mistake, and somebody could get hurt.” That first night was very difficult.

And then being woken up the second night by the bump. Paul saw the fin. I was actually asleep, and half my body and head was outside of the netting. I’d kind of fallen backwards in my life jacket. So Paul shouted out, “White!” He meant whitetip. But for some reason, I took that as “great white.” I woke up, immediately thinking: “What on earth is happening in this experiment? It’s just gone wrong if we’ve got bigger sharks coming in.”

It’s like, over those two days, we went from elation at seeing things that nobody ever gets to see — because, one, there are so few of them left, and two, nobody really hangs around in the middle of the Atlantic for days — to [worrying that] if anything does happen, help is so far away.

There was a medic on a boat nearby to monitor your vital signs. How long would it have taken to get you to a trauma center?

The current had changed. We were meant to drift into shore, and we drifted away. We were supposed to be an hour back to shore, where there’s a plane on the runway; when we drifted away, it was two hours back into shore. So it would have been five hours, which, being a military man, where we do everything to precision on a medical timeline, that’s right at the extreme of risk. And, of course, there were little micro storms everywhere, lightning strikes going on.

Was the threat of electrocution not in the forecast before the experiment began?

The weather was meant to be clear. I was more worried about being burned alive for 10 hours in 100-degree Fahrenheit sun and being dehydrated, because I thought that would take us down quicker. We were quite happy to have a bit of fresh rain. Paul’s plan and mine was to use his prosthetic leg to try to catch rain water. His leg is like a cup. We did give it a go. That’s a great part of our survival training — that we can use anything that we had to adapt.

When the weather was calm at night, the only sound was that of fins breaking the surface. That seems like something that could haunt a person. Did it haunt you?

No, not at all. What you find — and this is very similar to the military — is when your adrenaline is heightened for more than 10 to 12 hours, as ours was for those two days, you get massive exhaustion afterwards. I was pretty tired for two weeks. But I was happy we’d done it and elated to have such an amazing experience, and that we were all safe. I’ve got my next trip planned — I’m actually going to South Africa to dive with great whites in August. And then the trip after that, we’re going up to the fjords in Norway to swim with orcas as they go on a herring run.

What made this experience worth it to you in the end?

Even for me, as someone who’s been diving with sharks since I was 14, the oceanic whitetip is one of the sharks that’s been feared as dangerous, that takes a lot of shipwreck survivors. What we learned is that they’re actually very graceful and cautious. Ultimately, if you do spend a lot of time with them, they’re wild animals — let’s not pretend you’re not gonna get hurt. But what I find so sad is that there is only really one or two places that you can now go to have this experience, and that’s because of overfishing.

That’s the contrast: We’re dispelling the myth that they’re these wild animals that go crazy when you jump in with them, and they’re trying to kill you. Actually, they are very cautious, and we have done so much damage to their population. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get yourself in that situation because there aren’t that many oceanic whitetip sharks left. It changed my perception even more toward the conservation work I do.

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