Polite predators

Interview by Beth Finney
Photographs courtesy of ABC4 Explore

I’ve learned that if you respect sharks, they’ll respect you.

Having fallen in love with sharks from a young age, Andy Brandy Casagrande IV did everything in his power to be able to work with them. Now an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer for the likes of National Geographic and Discovery Channel, a passionate marine conservationist and a member of the Sea Legacy Collective, he shares his love of these apex predators with people around the world. Look out for his work on Discovery – he helped shoot, produce and host seven different Shark Week specials.

Oceanographic Magazine (OM): When did you first connect with the ocean?

Andy Casagrande (AC): The first time I connected with the ocean was as a little kid. I went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, which is off the coast of Florida – I actually ended up living there. I was born in New York City but I was never really a city person, even as a baby. I was always drawn to the coast. My grandparents moved to Florida so we used to come here every summer and go swimming at the beach and that’s kind of where my fascination with sharks began. You know, from a young age just watching them on television was the stimulus that inspired me to fall in love with them.

OM: What was it about them that really fascinated you?

AC: I remember my parents telling me not to believe everything I would see on television, so when I saw a shark for the first time on TV I thought it wasn’t real. It just looked too incredible, too surreal too mind-blowing to be real. When I realised that sharks were actually a real thing that was the only thing I could think about.

OM: When did you first pick up a camera?

AC: I became a cameraman almost by mistake. I started working for a research team taking dorsal fin photographs of great white sharks for identification purposes. Then I started getting into motion video filming and that just happened because I was working with The White Shark Trust research team in Cape Town.

OM: So you always knew you wanted to work with sharks?

AC: Yes, so right out of right out of high school I went to university to study marine biology, but I quickly got jaded and became disinterested in the academic approach. My objective was to get in the water with sharks to learn about them and study them, but when I saw the fifth and sixth year graduate students in their marine biology degrees stuck in laboratories wearing lab coats, and I thought four years at university and then another two years in a lab was going to take way too long. I switched my major and did a semester at sea. I sailed around the world on a big cruise ship from Vancouver to Miami. Then I went to the University of Pittsburgh – I switched my major almost every year from marine biology to photojournalism, to journalism and then I changed my major to psychology. My mom had schizophrenia and she was quite a fascinating person. Then I just decided I didn’t really want to get a degree in business or in biology. I got a degree in psychology with a minor in biology and studied abnormal psychology so I could better understand my mom. When I got out of school I was still fascinated with sharks, I just hadn’t figure out how I was going to work with them.

As soon as I got out of school my I got a job working at a software company as a tech support engineer. The whole time I was working in the tech industry all I was doing was Googling great white sharks and then I decided I was going to learn to dive, so I got my dive certification in Monterey Bay, which is super sharky, murky and cold. That’s where my diving career started. I quit my job and went to Cape Town to volunteer. They were working with a lot of film crews like the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery, and National Geographic came down to make a documentary about the research we were doing. Somehow I impressed the producer and the director and at the end of a three weeks shoot they offered me a staff job at National Geographic. So I moved to Washington DC and started my professional career as a filmmaker.


OM: Is that how you met your wife?

AC: I met her in Tanzania. When I got my job with National Geographic they then sent me all over the world for the next two years to film everything, from polar bears and killer whales to king cobras and lions. I made five different lion films, two for Discovery and three for National Geographic. It was during one of those lion films is when I met my wife, Emma. She’s from Sweden and had been backpacking through with her friends in the same area that we were making our film so we ended up meeting in a camp in in the Serengeti. So that was pretty cool. And now we’re married with two kids, Ace and Nova. At the time she was not into cinematography at all. Now she’s a full-blown underwater photographer. She dives and travels with me. We have to juggle and balance the family life as well. She now does pretty much what I do and she has way more patience. She’s good at filming people and I’m not, so we make a good team.

OM: Would you say you’re better at filming wildlife than people?

AC: I just don’t have a lot of patience for people. It’s just so much nicer to spend the time underwater with just sharks – animals don’t have egos. When I started out as a filmmaker with National Geographic, they sent me all over to do amazing shoots so I got spoiled. Then I did a few of the more reality TV style nature shows and that just never appealed to me. The money can be good but it’s just not interesting enough to be worth being away from my family.

OM: Why is it important to change the conversation around sharks?

AC: It’s pretty easy to see the effect that Jaws had on the world with regards to the reputation of sharks, and a lot of past and current programming focusing on sharks is usually based around fear. For me it was never a fear thing. When I saw sharks with the first time I was just fascinated. The reality is is that’s it’s a creature that we live with on this planet – we need to coexist with it and understand it, and the only way to do that is by continuing to show people that they are cognitive animals. They even live in families. I think Shark Week ultimately creates a bigger fascination and it’s made the shark the most famous wild creature on Earth – they’ve become this cult icon of nature. When you create awareness, you get celebrities speaking out against shark-finning. It’s definitely creating a buzz around sharks that in my opinion is way more positive than negative because the people that are afraid of sharks aren’t the ones who are going out there cutting their fins off and selling them on the high seas at a high profit. So the more focus people have on their plight the better off we’ll all be.

OM: What would you say is the most important story you’ve ever told with your work?

AC: This profile I shot with Panasonic would be a message that I would want to get out to people. We went along the coast of California and to a few other spots. It’s basically just a short profile on me,  it’s part of a short stories series of films called Inspire Change.

OM: You’ve had a lifelong mission to inspire people to care about our planet. How do you go about doing that?

AC: I think the best way is by vicariously bringing it to them. The unfortunate truth is that there are billions of people that’ll never see the ocean or any of these incredible predators that I get to see on a regular basis. People will fall in love with the planet if they’re able to see it. If they can see it, they can care about it and start to understand it, then they’ll fight for it. But if they live somewhere where they’re never going to get the opportunity to experience it, they’ll have no empathy for it. So I guess, bringing these images to people through media gives them an experience that they would not have it any other way. I think that pictures speak a thousand words. You could write the most incredible research paper explaining that we’re all going to die next week and maybe a handful of scientists around the world would read it. If you make a film, something they can be distributed visually, and it can change the world overnight. So you just have a much wider reach and grasp by using imagery and storytelling to inspire people.

OM: What challenges do you face in the modern era of filmography?

AC: It is changing now but a lot of the programming is for pure entertainment and it does very little for the audience. I like to create incredible visuals and tell amazing true stories about initiatives that allow people to get involved. There needs to be an action so that people know what to do other than feel depressed. But now that people have realised that you can partner with teams that make a difference like Sea Legacy – they’re actually out there on the ground, making change happen in the world of conservation and capturing the content that’s needed to inspire people to change.


OM: Why do you think community is important in terms of ocean conservation?

It’s crucial to empower localised communities in conservation, to make it important to them. To encourage the approach that anyone can make a serious impact in one area to save the planet. For example, in areas where they used to hunt mantas there’s now eco-tourism and places where fishermen that used to fin sharks are now taking people to see them in the wild. If it’s not important to them then we have to make it important to them. Otherwise, it’ll never work.

OM: Do you find it like quite hard to speak to people who knowingly harm the creatures you love?

AC: I just can’t fathom people being malicious or evil to any other living creature. I guess I have more of a Buddhist approach – if you can’t help someone don’t do them any harm at least. So when I come across people that don’t understand or they’re too stubborn to care, then I just try to wish them well and keep them away from sharks as best I can. There’s a way to tastefully get your point across without having to finger point.

OM: Have you had any close shaves when filming sharks?

AC: If something a little sketchy happens on a shoot it’s almost always based on human error or bad decision making. I have been diving with sharks intensely since 2002 and I have never had any shark bites or any injuries sustained by sharks. No blood drawn, knock on wood. However, I have been on shoots where people have been bit on the hand, head or leg. One of the closest – my wife never likes me to tell this  – was when she and I were working on a film with tiger sharks and she almost got decapitated by one. It was a quite a close call. I’ve learned that if you respect sharks, they’ll respect you – they’re very polite predators. And if you abide by commonsensical non-Darwin Award winning rules then you’ll usually be okay.

OM: Has your equipment of a paid the price of human error when filming?

AC: I definitely had a really epic fail with the 360° rig in New Zealand, when I didn’t have a tether on it. The shark appeared and I wanted it to come close to the camera, but it got a hold of the rig and ripped it off. I lost the whole $8,000 GoPro 360° setup. We didn’t really get the 360° shot, but someone filmed the me losing the whole thing and it was pretty embarrassing, so that was funny.

OM: You’re quite well-known for using quite advanced camera technology – how do you continue to think outside the box?

AC: I always try to think like a shark – like what would I do if I was a shark? Where would I go, what would I eat? I just like to try to do things differently. My biggest passion is remote animal imaging and putting cameras on sharks in non-invasive ways. This is when you can get a deeper insight into their secret life and what they do when they’re not being prodded at and being messed with by human sea monkeys.

OM: What’s been your proudest moment as a cinematographer?

AC: I don’t really have any really proud moments. I really had an incredible moment with two great white sharks in Australia diving out of the cage with no fins in about 75 feet of water – they were like twin brothers that swim over top of me and then came back. In this this one sequence they never leave each other’s side, they stay right next to each other. We even went back 14 months later and found these two sharks together again, which proves to me that they form these kinships. It’s pretty cool because most people just think sharks are these lonely demon predators, whereas dolphins are these cool hipster mammals hanging out in groups. Sharks are or cool too they’re just not hipsters.

Photographs courtesy of ABC4 Explore