For marine biologist Jeremiah Sullivan, a trip to the beach involves something far more extreme: thrusting his arm inside a shark’s gaping, teeth-lined mouth.
Sullivan rose to prominence in the 1970s after he designed a "shark-proof" wet suit made out of lightweight chainmail. His design, patented in the 1980s, has since become the template for many other similar suits.
According to Sullivan, who is known among the diving and marine biology circles as a pioneer of extreme interactions with sharks, his research for his suits involves regularly spending time in the ocean's depths, where he proceeds to wait for sharks to try and take chunks out of him ?– so far, the sharks haven’t been successful.
"I’ve been bitten thousands of times. Been thrown around a bit. Beaten up pretty good. Nearly had my teeth knocked out. Certainly chewed on a lot," Sullivan said in an interview.
Sullivan, who is based in San Diego, now spends his days designing newer, more advanced iterations of his now-famous shark-proof suits, the latest being a composite suit designed to withstand blows from an ax.
The suit has since made its debut on a special episode of the television show Man VS Shark, in which several tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) ?– one of the deadliest shark species in existence according to the International Shark Attack File ?– clamped down and unleashed more than 400 pounds of bite force on Sullivan’s armored arm, with one even trying to drag him off.
By the time the episode ended, Sullivan swam away from the predators in one piece, with only a few dents and scratches in the suit to tell of the spine-tingling encounter.
Sullivan admitted that the experience made him feel a twinge of fear, especially considering that tiger sharks are known to prey on armored sea turtles in the wild. (Related: NOT like the movies: Sharks are vulnerable creatures – and one of the species hurt most by commercial fishing.)
"I felt pretty confident in what I was doing but the tiger sharks I’d been saving for later, they’re known to have among the most destructive bites and to do a lot of damage when they get a hold of things and try to chew on them for a bit," Sullivan said, noting that he and the rest of the crew were, for the most part, unsure about what was going to happen during the episode’s filming.
"I had a lot of people with me that were quite sure that when one bit me, the other tiger sharks were gonna come swarm on me," Sullivan said, adding that he had to proceed with the encounter with the idea that the situation could go haywire at any time.
"I had to approach this thing knowing that it could be bad, but I was sure I was on the right track."
Sullivan’s fascination with the deep blue sea and its misunderstood residents, the sharks, began during his childhood, which he spent in the beachside communities in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
According to Sullivan, he found himself inspired after watching the classic film Born Free, which featured a couple adopting orphaned and abandoned lion cubs in Africa.
"It occurred to me, wow, if we can have these friendly encounters with these so-called worst-of-the-worst predators, then why would that be limited to one or two species?" Sullivan noted, adding that the film sparked in him the idea that there could be more to sharks than the "hyperbolic noise we’re hearing out of the media" about shark attacks.
This isn’t to say that shark attacks are overblown, he added.
Sullivan stressed, however, that those who want to interact with sharks should have a very healthy level of respect for the predators ?– as well as the damage they can inflict on those who forget to show them that.