Changing Planet

Nat Geo WILD: From ‘Shark Attack’ Expert Ryan Johnson

From Ryan Johnson, marine biologist, shark expert, scientific adviser on Shark Attack Experiment LIVE:

Like many people, my initial attraction towards sharks was driven by a combination of fear and fascination of a genuine man-eater. They were the atypical predators of the ocean, and like all kids growing up in the island nation of New Zealand, I had watched Jaws enough times to be afraid. Back in 1998, I was presented the opportunity to live on Dyer Island, South Africa for a year to research the great white shark. For an aspiring marine biologist, who could ask for a better adventure?! The year I spent on Dyer Island changed my view of sharks forever.

In the late ’90s, Gansbaai, South Africa was a ‘Mecca’ for shark film crews, scientists, tourists, and conservationists. Thrust into this hotbed, I was educated about the precarious state that global sharks were in. Despite appearing powerful and fearless, their biology makes them incredibly vulnerable to over-fishing and this was resulting in massive population declines around the world.

The second thing that changed my perception was the great white itself. Over the year, one of my mentors, shark free-diver Andre Hartman, introduced me to the ‘true’ great white shark, by taking my hand and teaching me to dive (outside of the cage) with the world’s greatest predator. Entering the same waters as these awesome predators, and realizing that they willingly tolerated us, interact with us, but do not eat us, changed my mindset of them forever.

Whilst my fascination grew, my fear diminished. I feel, however, that I have not succeeded in illustrating the reality of sharks to the people who still retain the man-eating image of them. My hope is that through Shark Attack Experiment: LIVE, I can make a genuine contribution to presenting the truth about sharks and the danger they represent to us. I also hope that we can identify the behaviors that humans should avoid to minimize the possibility of an incident. The successful conservation of sharks is dependent on human will and perception. Minimizing attacks will go a long way to achieving widespread support for such conservation.

Aliwal Shoal, South Africa: Ryan Johnson and Clare Daly inspect the scuba gear during production. Photo by Skye Ebden.


Ryan Johnson is a marine biologist, shark expert, and extreme scuba diver based in South Africa. In 2007, he founded the South African Marine Predator Lab (SAMPLA), a research institute aimed at generating world-class scientific knowledge on marine predators.  As part of the research team who satellite-tracked sharks from South Africa to Australia and back, his work has altered our understanding of the great white’s migratory abilities. Learn more about Ryan Johnson and his work with sharks.

Alison Walsh is Director, Digital Media, for National Geographic Channels. She loves history, space, cats, and the Oxford comma.
  • Denzil Linhares

    … we need all the information we can get about Sharks from the right people … thank you … Ryan Johnson …

  • Denzil Linhares

    Thank You … Ryan Johnson … for sharing your experiences with Sharks through your work … we have been subjected time and again to wrong information that Sharks are out to get us humans … thus they have been unfairly targeted … Your Education and Experience with Sharks must empower you to dispell all Myths about these beautiful creatures Sharks… Thank You once again … Scubadenz …

  • Jonathan Kenji

    Hola Ryah Johnson, después de haber revisado tu trabajo y mirar tus videos te has convertido en mi héroe.

  • Joanna Mae Briones

    Hi, I’m Joanna Mae G. Briones and I’m a student from Capella State High School in Australia. I am emailing you because I’m doing my Personal Knowledge Pursuit program and this year I’m trying to learn about sharks. I chose this topic because as I know most people think that sharks are scary and I’m not denying that, I’m a bit scared of them too but I want to know more about them, to know these fascinating creatures from a different viewpoint. So if you have enough time, can you please answer my questions to help me on my assessment and learn more about different types of sharks?

    My questions are:
    1) What exactly is your role and experience with sharks?
    2) Do you think the main reason sharks are being hunted is because people are scared of them?
    3) What do you think is the main reason for the decreasing population of Daggernose sharks and why?
    4) What can you tell me about finning?
    5) Do you think that our modern day is somehow affecting the size or other features of sharks?
    6) What would the future be without sharks?

    I would be really grateful for any help you can offer.

    Your sincerely,
    Joanna Mae

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