Q&A: Ripley’s shark wrangler Andy Dehart on staring down a great white
You’re the director of husbandry at Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, which opens this summer at the foot of the CN Tower. What does a director of husbandry do?
I manage the animal team—acquisition, feeding, daily care. We’re bringing some cool species here, including 14 types of shark. We’ve also got lumpfish, which are shaped like footballs.
Are they a tribute to Rob Ford?
Ha. No. I’m from the Washington, D.C., area, so I know better than to get into politics. I’ve heard about Ford on the radio, but I usually change the station.
When did your interest in sharks begin?
When I was four. I was in Puerto Rico with my dad, and he put a mask and fins on me and heaved me off the end of a dock. I remember being astounded by the bright colours and fish everywhere. The next year, around the time that Jaws came out, we were snorkelling in Florida and a reef shark swam past us.
The standard human reaction to which is, of course, utter terror.
I guess so, but I was just like, “Oh, a shark. Awesome.” I was hooked.
You’ve been an advisor and host for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. I imagine you’ve done some crazy stuff.
Oh yeah. I was on a show called Shark Feeding Frenzy, and the producer told me to lie on a surfboard next to a fake sea turtle. There was a 14-foot tiger shark circling underneath, and he wanted to see which prey the shark would go for.
You were literally shark bait.
Exactly. I watched as she made a run at me, but luckily she retreated and then attacked the turtle instead.
What was going through your mind?
Mostly I was hoping everything would go as planned. In fact, I was expecting my first kid in a month, so I was really hoping. But I had worked with tiger sharks a lot and was confident I’d be okay.
What makes you less vulnerable to attack than the average swimmer?
Experience and little things I’ve picked up along the way. Eye contact, for instance. Sharks ambush their prey, so if you look them in the eye, they usually turn away.
Wait. You can stare down a shark?
Yes, but most of the time I’m trying to bring them closer. The best way to do that is to stay calm. They pick up vibrations from your heart, so they can tell when you’re nervous. Diving with sharks is like yoga for me, so I’m used to having them in my face.
Have you ever been bitten?
Once. A four-foot nurse shark gave me a nice hickey on my thigh. I was trying to move him, and he got away from me. No biggie, though.
Are you afraid of anything?
Spiders. When I was a kid, I built a fort out of boxes, and a brown recluse spider, which isn’t quite a black widow but close, was in there and bit my leg. It did serious damage—doctors had to draw the venom out of a big abscess.
Spider bites, shark bites—what else?
Venomated multiple times by a lionfish, stung once by a stingray and by jellyfish more times than I can count.
What do you think of city council’s failed attempt to ban shark fin soup?
I think it’s awesome that they tried.
Do you eat fish?
Isn’t that hypocritical?
It’s a question of conservation. A sandbar shark will have up to four pups every other year, while salmon will produce up to a million eggs at a time.
How’s the aquarium coming along?
Great. We’re working on the 2.8-million-litre shark tank, which will have a moving sidewalk running through a tunnel, and a glass jellyfish tank that’s built into the floor.
Aquariums have no shortage of critics. Do you ever feel conflicted about working for one?
Never. We aim to educate. If a kid has a thrilling, nose-to-nose encounter with a shark and tells his parents that they should eat only OceanWise fish, we did our job. These animals eat better than my staff and see the doctor more than I do, though maybe that’s just because I hate going to the doctor.
Any exotic pets at home?
Just cats and a hamster. My wife, Jessica, and I met as aquarists in Baltimore, and when we bought our first house, we had a rule: no home aquariums. We’ve just moved to Burlington, and the same rule applies. She stays at home to look after our kids—they’re six and three—which is a tougher job than mine. Fish don’t talk back.