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Q&A: Five minutes with shark wrangler Richard Fitzpatrick

Meet Richard Fitzpatrick. He’s the Steven Spielberg of underwater cinema who catches tigers by their tails – tiger sharks that is.

You might recognise him as the man in the bobble-head dive helmet from our Underwater Classroom series, but what you might not know is that Richard is actually an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer with more than 50 films for the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery Channel under his belt. His most recent project was the three-part BBC wildlife documentary series, Great Barrier Reef.

Richard Fitzpatrick

When he’s not behind the camera, Richard is working as a marine biologist at James Cook University where he pioneered an unusual shark wrangling technique; preferring to catch tiger and other species of sharks by the tail to reduce stress. Just getting that close to them would stress me out more than the shark!

I caught up with Richard recently to talk about his obsession with sharks, his favourite places to dive in Queensland and why he hopes his films will inspire people to care more about the planet.

Have you always lived and worked in Queensland?

After leaving the UK at an early age I consider myself an Aussie, having spent most of my life growing up in Queensland. My lifestyle has always revolved around the Great Barrier Reef and I’ve been mucking around under water since I was about 10.

You’re involved in the Catlin Seaview Survey which has made underwater Google Street View possible on the Great Barrier Reef. Some say that this sort of ‘virtual diving’ will deter people from physically visiting the reef. What are your thoughts?

No way – I think it will encourage those who have never dived to try it, and for those who have dived the reef it will inspire them to get back in the water to explore the different environments and locations that it has to offer.

What are some your favourite dive experiences in Queensland

My favourite dive sites are Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea – I’ve done it hundreds of times and it still never ceases to amaze me. Also Raine Island is a favourite location as we can only go there when doing tiger shark research and I absolutely love diving with them.

You’ve worked with sharks of all shapes and sizes for years, why do you love them so much?

So little is known about them – I’ve been researching them for over 15 years and still know next to nothing. Every time I’m in the water with them I see something new – it’s like unravelling a mystery that never ends.

Spotting a dugong in the wild has totally evaded me. Is there one marine creature that you’ve always wanted to see but haven’t yet?

Hmmm – a leatherback turtle!

What would you say to those people who want to try scuba diving but are too scared of what lies beneath the surface?

Don’t believe what you see on Discovery and National Geographic. The reef is not full of nasty animals – as a film maker we have to go to a lot of effort to find dangerous animals. The reef is like an underwater fantasy world and when you take the time to stay in one location for a while you can see the daily drama of all the reef creatures take place as they dart about looking for food, shelter and a mate – it’s a soap opera.

How important are films like the BBC’s Great Barrier Reef documentary in helping people understand the ocean and how we need to protect the marine life that lives there?

Hopefully the films I make will inspire people to take care of the environment in their own backyard. It doesn’t matter where you are on the planet – what you do right now will make a difference to the degree of climate change that we are now facing. All the environments of the world are interconnected and climate change is the single biggest threat to the reef.

Richard’s work will hopefully help future generations think a little more about how to look after our magnificent reef.

In the words of the African environmentalist Baba Dioum:

“We only conserve what we love, we only love that which we understand, we only understand what we know, we only know what we are taught.”

Ben :)