Swiming with sharks After suffering a brutal attack, photographer returns to the waters
By JUSTIN PAPROCKI
Published Sunday, October 14, 2007
LeRoy French's latest DVD, "The Apex Predator," follows a recent underwater excursion to photograph the sharks. French was attacked by a great white in 1962 but continued his career as an underwater photographer and dive instructor.
LeRoy French had a hard time sleeping the night before his diving expedition off the coast of San Francisco. He just felt like something was not right.
He got that same feeling the next day
in the water, as he led his fellow scuba divers to photograph the colorful rockfish and other marine life below the surface.
The first dive went well enough,
LeRoy French's latest DVD, "The Apex Predator," follows a recent underwater excursion to photograph the sharks.
despite the fact that there was little to
no visibility as they swam the first 30 feet into the chilly waters.
French had made it back to the surface and was floating on his back when he felt a nip on his wrist. A steady stream of blood flowed from it.
He turned to see a 16-foot great white shark hurtling toward him.
The shark clamped down on his mid-section, only to be impeded by French's metal air tank. The shark circled, came back and bit into French's forearm. Then his calf.
The shark dragged French underwater. At some point in the struggle, French hit the shark in the nose with camera equipment, and his inflatable life vest popped him back up to the surface.
A fellow guide who had dived in after seeing the attack grabbed the screaming, badly-bitten French and helped him back on the boat before the shark could
The attack kept him in and out of hospitals and out of the water for about a year.
That was 1962. But, because it was all French knew, he dove back in the sea, and spent the next 45 years as a dive instructor and underwater photographer.
Only recently did the 69-year-old decide he wanted to swim with the great whites again.
On Monday, he'll release his new DVD, "The Apex Predator," on his Web site. The documentary follows an expedition French joined off the coast of Mexico to photograph great white sharks last month.
After spending about 30 years operating a dive shop on St. Maarten in the Caribbean, French recently relocated to Hilton Head Island to be closer to his two grown sons.
He's traveled the world to photograph and film sea life. His work has been published in National Geographic, Life and several diving magazines.
French developed underwater photography equipment during the scuba boom in the late 1960s and '70s.
He's been scuba diving since he was 17, using some of the earliest equipment. By the time he turned 24, he already was an expert,
opening a dive operation in California. He and the co-owner of the shop -- the same man who saved him from the waters -- were taking out dive club members when the attack happened.
The incident has gained him some notoriety: His story has appeared on the Discovery Channel, in Sports Illustrated and several nonfiction books.
After recovering, French never had much trepidation about going back in the sea, mainly because, he now says with a faint smile, he had to keep the shop going.
Since the attack, he's swam with hammerheads, whale sharks and other varieties of shark, but never intentionally the great white.
"It was always in the back of my mind," he said. "After being attacked, I really wanted to see what the animal looks like."
So in the waters surrounding Guadalupe Island, he dove 40-feet underwater to a floating platform.
The sharks -- as long as 12 feet -- were close enough for one to momentarily knock the camera out of his hand.
French came back to the surface unscathed and a bit wiser. He understood his attack
better. He saw first hand how the great white had attacked the bait the divers had floated to attract the shark. It swam around, nipping at the bait, gauging its reaction before finally devouring it.
Just like the shark had done to French.
The biggest lesson? At sea, you're at mercy of the sharks. There wasn't much French could have done differently 45 years ago to save himself.
He's seen how it feeds, how it glides through the water. He's marveled at its majesty close up. And now he's on to the next adventure, the next adrenaline rush.
He'd like to swim with great whites again. But he's learned what he wanted.
Now, he said, it's almost anti-climactic.
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