I’ve been bitten thousands of times,” offers a chuckling Jeremiah Sullivan. “Been thrown around a bit. Beaten up pretty good. Nearly had my teeth knocked out. Certainly chewed on a lot.”
Since the early ‘70s, Sullivan has been the world’s leading chronicler of human-shark interactions. A bearded, shredded-up marine biologist in his sixties, he’s taken thousands of dives, and been intentionally bitten by sharks more times than he can count in order to test his custom-designed suits of armor to protect humans from shark bites.
“We’re studying human-shark interactions, and the only ones I’m interested in are those that are most accurate and realistic so that we can protect anyone who happens to be in the sea and learn the behavioral range and capabilities of these apex predators so we can conduct safer interactions,” he tells me.
On the evening of July 17th, National Geographic will air the special Man vs. Shark, featuring Sullivan being intentionally bitten by a deadly, 14-foot tiger shark in order to test his latest protective gear—a composite suit built to withstand the blow from an ax. Given its saw-shaped teeth, so sharp they can easily mash through turtle shell and bone, even Sullivan found himself a tad bit nervous about the risky stunt.
“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 ahold of things and try to chew on them for a bit,” he says. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen. 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.”
He laughs: “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 sharks began early on. He grew up in Hawaii (“before it was state”) and Puerto Rico, where he was raised by his mother, who worked for the World Health Organization (his father, a Hollywood actor of the same name, was largely out of the picture). In addition to his proximity to sharks and access to the sea, one of his biggest inspirations came in the form of the film Born Free, a 1966 picture telling the tale of a couple raising orphan lions in Africa.