Meet the man who's worried when sharks DON'T show up

"Shark Week's" Joe Romeiro captures heart-racing photos and videos. He shares the stories behind some of his unforgettable images.

Posted: Aug 14, 2020 5:31 AM
Updated: Aug 14, 2020 5:31 AM

Let's say you're ready to ditch your ho-hum job and swap it out for a not-so-typical, always dangerous, adrenaline-pumping kind of career.

If that's the case, shark cinematography might be a good fit for you. That is, if you are OK with the possibility of an 1,400-pound tiger shark occasionally stealing your camera gear. Or a mako shark sneaking up on you during a night dive.

All in a day's work for Joe Romeiro, shark cinematographer extraordinaire. For the past decade, his main focus has been filming some of the largest predatory marine animals in the world.

You name it, he's filmed it. From massive great whites in Cuba to tiger sharks in the Bahamas and hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands, which can grow up to 20 feet long.

This begs the question: Why does he swim toward sharks when most humans do the opposite?

Simple: Through years of careful research and firsthand knowledge, he knows that the odds of being fatally attacked are extremely slim. Sharks are simply not the man-eating machines that "Jaws" made them out to be.

For Romeiro, the obsession began at 4 years old when his family moved from the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal, to the United States. He couldn't speak English, so he gravitated mainly to monster movies and natural history films that required no translation. Anytime sharks were on the screen, he was enthralled.

"Through that I found my first heroes," he recalls.

'I try and change the way people see sharks'

In adulthood, the fascination continued to build. Launching this hobby into a career just made sense.

"I was shooting and diving all the time, and I made the conscious decision one day to just go for it," he says.

Romeiro got certified by PADI, NAUI and SSI, scuba schools that teach diving skills, in his 20s.

He began filming sharks right away with a small camera, and after about 15 years, he had worked his way up to impressive cinema systems used to film Hollywood movies. Although he has followed the advice of mentors along the way, he is a self-taught filmmaker.

He eventually snapped a really impressive shot of a shark's pearly whites and sent it to a producer at Discovery Channel's Shark Week (August 9-16 this year). That opened some doors and eventually led to him hosting and producing for Shark Week.

Fast forward a decade and his gear now costs more than the price of a starter home and Discovery Channel, BBC and National Geographic fly him around the world to film everything from makos, the fastest shark in the world, to gentle whale sharks, which can grow up to the length of a school bus.

"I try and change the way people see sharks through the photography and videos I create," he says. "It allows people to see how these sharks interact with me and how they behave in their natural environment."

One thing's for certain: It's not your typical 9-to-5 job. While most people only think about sharks for a few weeks each summer, Romeiro has sharks on the brain every day of the week all year long.

When he's not jet setting around the globe to film the toothy creatures, he's at home collecting footage in Rhode Island, brainstorming ideas for upcoming shows, sketching sharks and serving as CEO of the Atlantic Shark Institute. All in the name of shark conservation.

Wriggling out of dangerous encounters

Needless to say, Romeiro's career path keeps him on his toes.

"I have had many close calls," he says. "All of them were either mine or someone else's fault, but never the shark's."

While diving at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, for example, there was one curious female who had him spinning. While he was distracted with several other tiger sharks that curious female went to clamp down on Romeiro's head from above.

"Thankfully I noticed the reactions on my fellow divers' faces, and I knew that she was above me. I was able to push her off gently."

On another shoot he was inside of a shark cage that fell over and was being dragged behind a boat with him still inside.

That said, his job is definitely not routine. And that's exactly its appeal.

Peaceful encounters, believe it or not, though, are the norm. Take for example the time he removed a hook from a shark's mouth and it hovered at eye level as if to say thank you.

Or the first time he met Emma, a famous female tiger shark who frequents the Bahamas, for the first time. She's what Romeiro calls a supermodel shark because she's willing to let you take closeups.

"Once you see them long enough, you can tell that different individuals have different personalities," he explains. "You can see one, and it's like seeing a friend."

When it comes to this weird and wonderful career he's conjured up, Romeiro says it's a dream come true -- and to be able to educate people about his favorite marine animal is an added bonus.

The gear is serious

On any given shark-filming excursion, Romeiro's go-to gear includes: his RED Weapon 8K digital camera, PhantomVEO, Canon 1DXII, Mavic Pro and GoPro.

"We use the same cameras you see used in Hollywood movies," he says. "Just inside of a metal, waterproof box."

Safety precautions include his wife, Lauren Benoit, who is also a camera operator. They keep an eye out for each other. Plus, there are always three trauma kits on board with every safety item imaginable from bandages to tourniquets.

When it comes to mastering the art of filming these apex predators, Romeiro says it's important to keep your head on a swivel. These are wild animals after all and therefore unpredictable.

Beyond that, making sure your white balance is on point is crucial. And, of course, double check to make sure your camera is turned on and rolling.

"Ten percent is being there and 90 percent is being ready," he says. "There are so many shots that are missed by not having a camera in easy reach or one not turned on and rolling."

No matter what role you want to play -- whether it's an underwater videographer, topside cameraman, sound tech, lighting tech, writer, producer, narrator or editor -- it's definitely a competitive field.

But for those who are persistent enough to make it a career, it can certainly be a rewarding one. Romeiro's best advice is to never give up.

"You only fail at stuff you eventually give up at," he says. "I have always believed it, and at least for me it has been a truth."

Do you have what it takes?

During nonpandemic times, Romeiro and his wife lead shark expeditions from their home base in Rhode Island from June to October. They teach serious underwater photographers and videographers how to master the craft.

The photo subjects: blue and mako sharks. The backdrop: Emerald and blue water about 20 to 40 miles off the coast.

Don't be surprised if you also come across duskies, smooth hammerheads, tigers and basking sharks. If you're lucky, maybe even a thresher, porbeagle or great white shark. They've even come across the occasional whale shark.

They also led expeditions in the Bahamas in search of tiger sharks, oceanic whitetips and great hammerheads. However, all of these trips are on hold for now because of Covid-19. Check the website for updates.

Expeditions are $500 a person a day for a 12-hour day.

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