How a Documentary on Great Whites Aroused Romantic Notions of Sharks—and Raised Distressing Questions About Race

Two men stand on the deck of a boat, dripping water as they dismantle their breathing apparatuses. Moments before, they clambered out of the bloodstained patch of ocean where they had hung suspended—defended only by a colleague with an electric prod—in a feeding frenzy of whitetip sharks. One man turns to the other and says, “You know what I mean now, Stan? You’ve got to have a sense of well-being!”

The speaker is Peter Gimbel, the leader and bankroller of a crew who set out in 1969 to find and film great white sharks underwater and in color for the first time. He’s talking to Stan Waterman, an underwater photographer and a producer of the film. Waterman doesn’t quite get why Gimbel would think he had a sense of well-being among all those sharks, even if they weren’t great whites. “Because you did,” Gimbel replies, shaking his head in wonder. “We both had it stacked. You couldn’t stand it otherwise.”

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Blue Water, White Death, a documentary about the expedition released in 1971, four years before Jaws, introduced to screen culture much of the imagery that artists from Steven Spielberg on would use as inspiration for their work: now-iconic elements like sharks’ mouths photographed wide-open, with teeth flexing down from the lip and black gills visible down the gullet. The film also contains fragments of very familiar tropes—elements of shark cinematography that have since been codified—but in an unfamiliar order and narrative context.

The narrative structure of Blue Water, White Death is the inverse of the story in Jaws. Instead of being hunted by the shark, Gimbel is the hunter. Heir to the Gimbels department store fortune, the adventurer had abandoned an early move into investment banking to cast himself as a kind of Jacques Cousteau of postwar American entertainment. In 1969 he was in late middle age, almost handsome, often shirtless. His attitude during the filmed expedition is frequently bombastic and impatient. When sharks appear, Gimbel demands to get into the water first, ahead of his crew. He clearly believes that being stacked with inner well-being—a kind of sheer confidence in the face of monsters—is what makes him the right guy for the job.

Two scuba divers under water, one with a camera and the other with a prod.
Divers in Blue Water, White Death, 1971.

This idea of the noble quest recurs throughout the film. At one point, noted shark expert Ron Taylor says of the motivation behind his work in the film and in general, “it’s human nature for someone to try to achieve the ultimate.” It seems that Gimbel and his entire crew identify as questers of the most terrifying predator of all, seeking to strip it of its supernatural aura of unknowability.

Also on board is the young folk singer Tom Chapin, who spends his time mostly plucking through romantic ballads about waves and freedom. At the close of the film, he performs an original song titled “The Chivalrous Shark,” about a “man-eating shark” who, “though his record be dark,” will “eat neither woman nor child.”

Gimbel himself describes a shark jumping up out of the water as “like a French knight,” and Blue Water, White Death is indeed structured in essence as a medieval romance story, like the quest of King Arthur and his court, including Sirs Gawain and Lancelot, for the holy grail—the original “ultimate” pursuit.

Scuba divers underwater in a cage with a shark surrounding it.
Divers in Blue Water, White Death, 1971.

WHILE HUNTING FOR SHARKS, the crew sail for the Indian Ocean to follow a whaling ship into harbor in South Africa. This sets up the most disturbing scenes in the film. After the ship drags the bodies of dead whales to port, where they travel to a processing plant by train, we see people hacking at the animals, shoving bits of meat down a smoking hole in the floor. They carve the fat away from the skin with oar-size instruments. A guy with a cigarette in his mouth gestures to get out of the way of the gore. Light machinery tears the rest apart. It’s absolute carnage.

Everybody working at the processing plant is Black. In Durban in 1969, every one of the workers at this maritime abattoir were being terrorized by a white supremacist state. White Afrikaners dominated the apartheid government, which created a complex and unusually overt system of racial classification, and structured the violence that the white minority were free to inflict.

Gimbel tours the whale processing plant only because it aids him in his search for “whitey,” as he calls the shark he seeks. He is unusually silent as he steps around the flesh on the ground. Meanwhile, Chapin sings, in a winsome voice, about “going where those chilly winds don’t blow.”

The dissonance between the studious obliviousness that Gimbel and his crew show toward the people around them and their obsession with the all-but-invisible great white shark gets stranger and stranger as the movie goes on. When a great white eventually shows up in the last 20 minutes of the film—it’s certainly scary: fat white gulping flesh materializing out of pastel blue sea—its violence feels insignificant following the scene of Black laborers wading through blood.

A great white shark is discovered off South Australia’s Dangerous Reef in Blue Water, White Death, 1971.

I WAS AROUND 7 YEARS OLD on the first trip to Cape Town that I remember. On the street in the place where my mother was born and grew up were children running around begging, all of them Black. As a white child from London, I vaguely knew about racism, in theory. The TV news at the time was full of reports about the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a Black teenager in Southeast London whose case remains unsolved due to what an inquiry called “institutional racism” among the police. But beyond the rantings of bus drunks and the odd, weird comment about the new Kurdish children at school, I had never been around anybody who was willing to be seen as racist. In Cape Town, I did not understand what was happening.

This is all jumbled up now with memories of going to the beach. Big rocks, a crab skittering over hot stone, swimming and penguins and seals. Back at home I had a large binder full of educational pamphlets about animals. One was about the great white shark, and it contained a very high-saturation image of a white man, from the side, with his elbow raised and the immense imprint of a jaw in puncture wounds wrapping around his torso from armpit to hip bone.

One day at the beach, I noticed that all the shark spotters were Black—the same as the kids in the street. When I asked why, nobody volunteered to explain. Someone older than me said I shouldn’t worry because most of the people who were attacked by sharks were “local people” who swam outside the tourist hours, at dawn and dusk, and therefore were more at risk. What did that mean? My mother was born in Cape Town. “Local people?”

Somewhere in there was the weird idea that sharks might attack different people according to race, and that such a fact should assuage my fear of whether or not it might happen to me.

WHEN I GOT OLD ENOUGH to formulate my questions better, the explanations got much more frightening and frank. I asked my dad outright why my elderly grandmother said racist things. He explained that, when she was young, it was normal for white people living in the colonies always to be afraid, and people can be demented when they are afraid. Left unsaid, but obviously implied, was that the fearing minority was made more afraid by the fact that they knew they had done something wrong and were continuing to do it.

This oscillating logic, a toggle between inflicting violence on the people you fear and feeling afraid—of hunting and being hunted—is the logic of colonial violence. It’s also the logic of the monster-oriented romance narrative.

As with Moby Dick, the great white shark in Blue Water, White Death is the subject of a quest by people who systematically ignore the racist violence around them by channeling their anxiety into symbolic battles for dominance over monsters. Animals are often the objects of this kind of ritual. Stories about Alexander the Great, describing how he fought against elephants, fascinated Europe in the Middle Ages.

A preserved shark cadaver in bright blue tank filled with formaldehyde.
Damien Hirst: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991.

The notion that monster stories set in faraway places can express unresolved tensions from home is common in contemporary science fiction, a genre related to shark horror movies—with outer space and the deep sea both being voids from which horrific threats emerge. As with chivalric romance and sci-fi, Gimbel’s hunt for the great white relies on remote locations to generate an adventuring
spirit and permit participants to experience acts and scenes not possible at home.

The great white shark has shed its chivalric aspects in the decades since Jaws redefined its personality on-screen. Now we have schlocky movies like Roboshark (2015) and generic indulgences like “Shark Week” on TV. But sharks retain a strong sense of alterity in visual culture. The idea of the unknowable shark lives on in Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a sculptural restaging of the encounter between human being and marine predator that makes a dark parallel to Blue Water, White Death. Where Gimbel wanted to create groundbreaking moving images of sharks, which must always move forward to survive, Hirst forced a real shark to a halt in formaldehyde, fixing it in place to become a sort of dead image. Its glossy eyes have clouded over. The romance is gone.  

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