Interview with Shark Hero Joe Romeiro

Part 1: Chatting with Joe Romeiro, Shark Videographer & Filmmaker – and Shark Angel!!!
By Tim Gideon

It’s not easy getting Shark Angel Joe Romeiro on the phone. He’s usually leading Blue Shark dives off the coast of Rhode Island or filming Oceanic Whitetips in the dead of night in the Bahamas. Joe’s an underwater videographer and filmmaker, and his company, 333 Productions, which focuses on the plight of sharks worldwide, has won several awards in the process—like the Blue Ocean Film Festival Best Emerging Filmmaker in 2009 and the Ocean Inspiration award for a 100-second Jacques Cousteau tribute. We were lucky enough to get Joe on the phone recently to chat about how he got his start, his upcoming projects, and a breathtaking video he shot with shark handler Cristina Zenato - another shark angel! See her profile here...

Joe filming sharks in the Bahamas

SHARK ANGELS: So, how did you end up filming sharks for a living?

JOE ROMEIRO: Well, I was born in Terceira, in the Azores, and I came over here when I was three years old. When I was five, my grandfather took me out fishing and I saw my first shark. So, I’ve just loved sharks ever since I was a little kid. When I was 21, I opened my first business and ended up doing well with that and opened a second one of the same sort and eventually got really into diving. I was able to fund some of my earlier film expeditions with money from the businesses. Even to this day I still fund quite a few of my own filming expeditions [[laughs]]!

SA: Are these businesses you started up related to sharks or diving?

JR: No, I own two tattoo studios—I was an artist when I was younger and won a RISD award when I was in high school. Anyway, I was always out on the water when I was a little kid, but when I was 26 is when I first started getting into diving. And eventually, in addition to the tattoo business, I became a commercial fisherman, but during that time, I started to get really disgusted with the ocean because everything you saw was always dead, everything you did [in commercial fishing] was horrible. A lot of it wasn’t even caused by us, but I obviously got out of that line of work.

SA: So what specifically is so gruesome about commercial fishing?

JR: I think, primarily, it’s an archaic method to try to farm something that they [the fisheries] have no control over…The thing they’re most sensitive to is a loss of profit. When you’re dealing with something that’s food-related, all the sudden big corporations get involved, and international laws are involved because this is a migrating animal.

SA: And where were you fishing? Off the coast of Rhode Island?

JR: Yeah, in New England. And I worked on little charter boats and eventually started doing these dives with Blue Sharks, taking professional photographers and videographers out to see them, but that’s not really for money. My main thing is making films.

SA: So, what came first—the filmmaking or the diving?

JR: The diving came first. My dad couldn’t swim, so we’d just go fishing off the pier. He never saw the fish in the water. So I had a little tiny Reefmaster camera, and I’d go in the water, crack a clam open and try to attract some of the fish we used to catch and film them just so he could see what they look like.

Joe filming a white shark outside of the cage

SA: How did you go from the Reefmaster videos to professional shoots?

JR: Well, eventually I wanted to see the fish I’d always loved, like sharks. And there were White Sharks trips, and Blue Shark trips off our coast. After I finally saw the Great White and talked to other people around me I was pushed to get into filming more, so I got a medium-sized camera, and eventually I was talking to a close friend of mine on a Manta trip and he told me, “Man, you really gotta get into filming.” I took my life savings and bought a camera—a big system.

SA: That’s bold. And how old were you when you made this decision?

JR: I was 29, I think, when I bought my first big system. I’m 35 now, and I ended up selling that first system—actually one system I lost, but I’d rather not get into that—but eventually I ended up using a Sony EX1 through a Gates housing, and I shoot at BBC standards for video quality. My secondary system is a Canon 7D through a Nauticam housing, but I’m still just sort of playing with that system.

SA: You live in Exeter, Rhode Island and regularly take people out to see Blue Sharks in New England waters. One of your films, “A Lateral Line,” focuses on Blue Sharks and pelagic species in general…can you tell us a little about it?

JR: Our film after “A Lateral Line,” “Shark Culture,” is the newest and getting more attention, but “Lateral” was something that was very personal to me. It concentrated on pelagic species that can’t be kept in captivity. Because they can’t be kept or bred, once they’re gone, that’s it. And no one can ever see them unless they go into the wild to see them. For most humans, it’s either chance encounter or what you see in an aquarium. Some of the species could just disappear and most people wouldn’t even notice.

SA: Blue Sharks, according to some guide books, (like Sharks of the World, by Leonard Compagno) have a reputation for being potentially dangerous to divers. What has your experience been swimming with and filming Blues?

JR: These are timid animals. We pretty much take out only professional videographers and photographers on our trips, and it’s in an effort to help build appreciation for the animals. Without proper interaction with the sharks, you can’t really tell or understand what that animal is doing, you only have what’s written in books. When we’re in the water, we can’t really tell what kinds of smells or other things the sharks may be picking up on. But to hear of a Blue Shark attacking someone…it must have been a series of events that were misconstrued. I’ve seen them get excited in a chum slick, and rightfully so—they’ve worked up this mile-and-a-half sweat trying to figure out where this smell is coming from and then at the end of their swim, they’ve got you sitting there. So their natural reaction is to investigate what that is….but these are really shy animals. They’re scared of you.

SA: Now when you go on your trips in Rhode Island, you’re snorkeling at the surface, swimming with the sharks, right? You’re not doing submerged dives with Scuba gear or a cage?

JR: No, I don’t have diving gear on—I mean, a lot of the days we’re out there we get really shy animals. They’ve been hooked—and as the season progresses, the sports fishermen get out and really hook them because they come in to the shore and they’re easy to access. Even if they release them, the sharks now have had this experience and they’re scared of you.

SA: So the sharks that have been caught and released are more timid?

JR: I think they’re all timid. It’s complicated, but I don’t think Blue Sharks are really an aggressive species of shark. They’re investigating the area. They’re smart. And if they don’t know what you are, they’re not going to trust you and they’re not going to come in close. You have to give them enough respect, enough leeway and distance, to see what the chum slick is without getting in the way. So to think that they would just come barreling up to you…maybe in certain shark diving places where sharks are used to cages   they might swim close more often, but primarily a wild shark that isn’t used to divers is a very terrified animal when it sees a diver.

We talked about a lot more with Joe, including what it’s like to film Oceanic Whitetips at night and his viral video of Cristina Zenato interacting with a Caribbean Reef Shark. Check back at Shark soon for Part 2 of the interview!

Joe Romeiro