Playing with tiger sharks in the name of conservation

For most people, the thought of coming face-to-face with a tiger shark is a nightmare. For Michael Dornellas, it’s more of a dream come true.

Dornellas, 30, is part of a group of spear fishermen called the Spearheads who have developed a dedicated online following by recording their exploits of spearfishing off the coast of Florida and in the Bahamas.

But beyond the simple act of fishing, Dornellas and the group have an important message about oceanic conservation, but more specifically, the conservation of the global shark population.

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“Sharks are as important to the health of our oceans and reefs as anything else,” Dornellas, who runs shark encounter charters in Florida, told GrindTV.

“There have been studies done in the Bahamas and Fiji showing that where sharks populations can blossom reefs grow and the number of fish on the reef skyrockets, and where sharks are wiped out the reefs die. They are essential to our oceans.”

Michael Dornellas playing with tiger shark

Dornellas interacts with sharks in a gentle way, hoping to disprove the notion that they are bloodthirsty killers. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Dornellas

In an effort to spread that message, Dornellas takes a rather unique approach.

Instead of, say, starting an online petition to lobby elected leaders to add extra protection to the world’s shark species, Dornellas prefers to take a more hands-on approach: He specializes in freediving and handling some of the world’s most dangerous sharks, putting all of his interactions online for thousands of fans to enjoy.

“I’m just trying to change the perception people have about sharks,” Dornellas said over the phone from his house in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Sharks aren't these blood thirsty animals that attack people, they’re very precise in the ways they hunt and we are not prey. “That's what I’m doing out here: Allowing people to see how wonderful these creatures are with their own eyes.”

Michael Dornellas freediving with tiger shark

Despite the slightly ominous appearance of this photo, Dornellas feels completely at home amongst the ocean’s top predators. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Dornellas

And so, Dornellas goes out everyday, diving with everything from tiger sharks to bull sharks to lemon sharks. He’ll not only swim alongside the sharks but often time will “pet” them, rubbing the sensory nodes on the nose of the shark until they fall into an almost trance-like state.

From there, Dornellas can take photos with the sharks and even remove fishing hooks from their mouths with his bare hands (as observed in the video above).

But that’s not to say Dornellas, who has been diving and working with the sharks for the past two years, hasn’t had his share of brush ups and close calls.

“I had one very close call recently when I was taking pictures of a tiger shark at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas,” said Dornellas. “I was looking through the viewfinder of my camera, swimming alongside these two lemon sharks, and shooting pictures of this big tiger shark.

“Well, I was burst shooting, and I guess the vibrations from the camera must have imitated a fish in distress, because suddenly the two lemon sharks bit both sides of my camera housing.”

Michael Dornellas playing with tiger shark

Not all of Dornellas’ underwater escapades are with dangerous sharks, he’s been known to fool around with an octopus or two. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Dornellas

Still, despite that close shave, Dornellas says he plans to continue freediving and interacting with sharks for as long as he can.

“I’ve given up everything to devote my life to this,” Dornellas said. “When you’re underwater surrounded by these apex predators and they’re accepting you in their space, tolerating you, and allowing you to swim amongst them as a predator yourself, that really is an incredible feeling.”

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