How to Dance with Tiger Sharks

Hannah Fraser can hold her breath for three minutes and tickles tiger sharks on the nose.

At first glance, I sort of thought this Avatar-meets-sharks in an underwater ballet was better suited for the side of a van—or maybe black velvet—than a video. But then, the longer I watched it, the more baffling and impressive it became. Getting past my unrelenting preference for hipster aesthetics, I wondered: who is this person, and why isn't she in scuba gear? How far underwater is she, how is it so clear, and how is she there at all? Did that tiger shark just try to bite her boot? I called her up.

The long and the short of it is that her name is Hannah Fraser, and she's an Australian underwater model who has made a name for herself over the last 12 years swimming with humpbacks, manta rays and many types of sharks—from massive-mouthed whale sharks to the great whites—all while dressed as a mermaid.

While the whole point of “Tigress shark” is to demonstrate that tiger sharks aren't the mindless killing machines that the Western Australia government has portrayed them to be in order to justify culling the population, according to Fraser, it was obviously really dangerous. While the team was able to mitigate the danger of swimming with an apex predator by eschewing the prey-like mermaid tail, there was still the issue of dancing 25-feet underwater on the Bahamanian ocean floor, with limited vision, no scuba suit, and no air. Oh yeah, and, you know, the sharks.

I was mildly panicked just hearing about the shoot over Skype as we chatted Friday, as Fraser described four days of body paint, holding her breath for a minute and a half at a time, and giving sharks nose tickles. We started with my aesthetic concerns, though.

MOTHERBOARD: So why the body paint?

Hannah Fraser: We had talked about the fact that anything light—white in particular—is a big attraction to the sharks. Their visual cue is tapped into anything that looks like a fish and the fish they eat have white bellies and are kind of shiny. So tail? Totally out. A big shiny tail down there would've been eaten immediately.

But the tail wasn't a problem when you were swimming with the great white sharks?

It was interesting; I didn't have as many scales on the tail back then. It was blue and kind of painted, and had a couple little scales on it. The tails I have now are completely sparkle overload. So there was that.

With the great whites, they were more dangerous for what I was wearing, but less dangerous because I wasn't in the middle of a sharknado. It was one or two great whites that would circle the boat, and as they would go by, I would go swim with them. I would focus on that one animal. If it could see that I knew exactly where it was, they're very wary predators and they wouldn't go for me.

But I was in the middle of six tiger sharks with 50 lemon and reef sharks swirling around me. There's no way for me to interact on a one-on-one basis and judge and be able to be strong in the face of any kind of interest or attack. So what we had to do was minimize the risk as much as possible.

So these sharks are used to seeing scuba divers who always wear black or dark colors, so we knew we had to look like a nice shiny fish. Especially my fingers—floating around doing my hand movements all the time. If they're uncovered and look really white under the water, that's definitely increasing the risk a lot. So we came up with this idea: it has to be dark, so why not have me look like the tiger sharks, to have a cohesive artistic vision. So we came up with this tigress look.

We put it together and realized it kind of looks like the Avatar image, but we're okay with that. The point of Avatar was to create the connection to the natural world. It was something that was inadvertantly created that worked totally for our purpose.

Image: Shawn Heinrichs, used with permission.

We had Julia Chavez, who's a Hollywood airbrush artist come with us to do the paint. It took two and a half hours for every time I got in the water on an incredibly rocky, stormy boat. We used so much paint—it was like $800 worth of paint and we nearly ran out, so we were on rations. I couldn't take the paint off—so I slept in it. To get off [water-proof] paint you have to get this crazy solvent stuff to get it off, and so we didn't have time in the schedule, because we were shooting and then I'd get a couple of hours of sleep, and get up and do it all again.

So I was blue the whole week, just doing two hour touch ups every time I got in the water. It was pretty intense on the body, but her skill is unmatched. The girl was half-seasick on a rocking boat in a windstorm, and touching this up. It was pretty impressive.

You're down there, touching the sharks, and there's one part of the video when that one checks out your boot....

I don't remember that shark touching my boot. Whether I felt it or not, it looks like I reacted to it. But in that moment when I saw it, I was like 'Holy shit, it went for my foot!' I didn't have any recollection of it when I was down there.

What did you guys talk about for the worst-case scenario? What was the plan?

We did try to avoid a lot of 'worst case scenario' talk. We wouldn't have done the shoot if we felt there was a huge risk. Of course there's some risk—walking across the street is risk. Everything I do under the water is risky, but the animals are not. But we really felt confident that what we were bringing and the preparation we were putting into was going to give us a safe shoot.

So we knew where the First Aid kit was, but we did have the discussion that, if anything goes wrong, we're hours from the shore. If we have to radio for a helicopter it's going to take a long time to get there. We knew that if anything really bad happened ... I would've bled out before I got to the surface, so it was a calculated risk.

"I remember him pushing a 15-foot tiger shark out of the way, with his eyes just locked on me, to bring me air. Nothing stopped him getting air to me."

But what about the other risks? Were you far enough down to worry about nitrogen levels?

We were 25 feet down, and, yes, breathing compressed air, I can't go up very fast. So in the event that something bad happened and we had to do a rapid ascent, that would've also been really dangerous for decompression. A lot of safety issues.

We had to do a five minute stop at a couple meters before the top. That's always a challenge for me, because I push to the very end of my ability. So by the time I'm calling it and saying 'I'm done', I'm already freezing, I've probably lost a contact and have no vision left and I'm just ready to just get out of the water, but we have to stop for five minutes.

And the more dangerous spot is lifted above the ocean floor. Down on the bottom tiger sharks can't come up from underneath, which is how they generally like to attack prey. It's much more dangerous ascending. We had to be on the lookout, to make sure we didn't look like dying seals or sea turtles on the surface before we ascended. So that was challenging.

They had a large cooler that they had filled with hot water as a surprise on the last day—a mermaid spa. My own little hot tub.

Image: Shawn Heinrichs, used with permission

How many of you were underwater at one time?

Around seven or eight people, and two shark wranglers, who worked with the bait boxes, to make sure the sharks didn't eat them in half. We weren't actually feeding the sharks we just put fish in a box with a scent so the sharks are interested. We weren't upsetting their natural diet.

So around 10 people in there with me.

It's amazing they don't show up in the video, even as bubbles.

The whole thing we kept saying to everybody was 'This is a point of a spear. Hannah is the point of the spear, then we have Sean and Jim who are the next points, and everyone else must at all times be directly behind them.' So there's no option of them getting in the back of the shot and putting bubbles everywhere.

The biggest challenge was the air coming in—my safety diver. There's that moment where its on, and he has to get out of there. And then once I've pushed it to the ultimate limit, I make my signal for air, and he's got to come as soon as possible. I remember him pushing a 15-foot tiger shark out of the way with his eyes just locked on me, to bring me air. Nothing stopped him getting air to me. He was amazing.

How long were you under there?

Four days of shooting. The tigress video itself is only a minute and a half. We edited it down to be the most media ADD friendly piece.

Would you work with tiger sharks again?

I'd love to; they were great.

Could you contrast working with them versus working with, say, dolphins?

Dolphins are just easy, friendly, benign, interactive, playful creatures. The whole energy with them is a breeze. Sharks—no matter how awesome and interactive and genuinely friendly they are, there's always that knowledge that should they be confused, startled, threatened, or just overly interested, they don't have hands they have rows of razor sharp teeth.

When you talk about how they're curious and friendly, what do you mean? Where's the shark personality manifesting itself?

They literally come up to you and are interested in the human touch on the nose. That's where all their nerve endings are, so for them it's this overwhelming experience to have a nose tickle. And you can see them coming back around and around and presenting themselves for a nose tickle. They look like big friendly dogs, and their eyes roll back in their head when you tickle their nose. They're obviously enjoying it because they keep coming back for more, not even coming back to the bait boxes. It's like the bait is a sign that the humans are there for tickle time.

Image: Shawn Heinrichs used with permission

How do you feel about the final product?

It blows me away. I'm impressed. I look at it and think 'It looks so graceful and easy,' and then I laugh at just how much went into that.

So what are you diving with next?

I don't know. How are we going to top this?

Squid. Giant squid?

For more on shark dancing, see "How to Swim from Cuba to Florida," Motherboard's film on Diana Nyad's most epic swim