‘What I learned from freediving with great white sharks’

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Story highlights

Andre Hartman is a South African shark expert

Today he works with tours providing his shark knowledge to tourists

For decades he freedived with great white sharks until a stroke left him unable to swim

CNN  — 

Andre Hartman struggles to walk. But every day he dreams of going back to the ocean.

For decades, he made an impressive career out of freediving with great white sharks. The South African daredevil survived numerous encounters with these ocean predators. And when he needed to get closer to the animals, taking the cage out of cage diving was a risk the pioneering diver was willing to take.

But a debilitating stroke three years ago tragically left the ex-fisherman unable to get close to the sharks he came to love. Today, the closest he can get is through the tours of a local shark diving firm, Supreme Sharks, where he provides his expert knowledge for eager tourists.

“It’s been 11 years since I last swam with a shark, and I’ve love to get back into it again at a later stage,” Hartman says. “I’m not ready yet – but I’m sure once I can swim properly, I’ll be there again.”

This passionate pioneer of the oceans has spent years studying what many believe is one of the most dangerous predators in the world.

“I’m just mesmerized by how they move and what they do, and that fascinates me. They’re like an aeroplane – they fly in the water. Those wings flex with the weight of the body.”

Born in Bellville, Cape Town, Hartman has been a bit of thrillseeker ever since he was a child. By his teens, he could often be found with his friends trying to catch snakes with their bare hands.

Following graduation, the young risk-taker drifted from various jobs. Finally after serving his mandatory national service in the army, Hartman found spearfishing.

An accidental encounter

The ancient and rather arduous tradition of spearfishing has been used for millennia across the globe. It has also become a competitive sport and Hartman soon became one of the country’s top spearfishers.

Then one day in 1977 during a seemingly normal practice dive, Hartman would have a close encounter that would change his life forever.

He’d been diving for a few hours and was reeling in his line when a sharp movement flicked past him. Thinking it was a shoal of fish, he tried to move around it and was confronted with a big, black eye.

“It was a white shark, my first white shark and I thought ‘Wow, wait until I tell my friends,’” he recalls. “First white shark and it’s huge. (It) looks like a house next to me.”

Once the initial shock and awe of the situation wore off, Hartman started to tussle with the large predator, pushing back as the shark came in a little too close for comfort.

“When he bit down on the (spear) gun, I was paralyzed from shock. I didn’t expect it. And then it reopened its mouth and I saw my hands go in. I thought ‘uh oh’ and I jumped back to life and jerked it out of his mouth.

“I put my fist on his eye meaning to gorge his eye out and he just spat the gun out and dived down and swam away.”

After this dramatic confrontation, Hartman laid still for five minutes, recalling how he swore he would never dive again.

But the decision didn’t last too long. He adds: “The next morning a buddy calls ‘hey are we going to dive some cray fishes this afternoon?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea.’”

‘I became the guy’

In the late 80s, Hartman began to see business opportunities from the big, blue sea. Shark tourism was booming and cage diving was quickly becoming a popular way of getting up close with the great whites off the coast.

By 1997, the savvy entrepreneur had started his own company taking eager adventurers to sea and lowering them gently beneath the waves to meet the sharks at close range. Within months, the business began to take off and filmmakers came knocking at his door. The budding entrepreneur had found his niche.

“I became the guy – if you want to film sharks, go to Andre. Within two years they needed shots they couldn’t get so I said jump in the water and we’ll get it. Because when you’re in the cage with a camera it shakes so I started taking people out of the cage.”

Over the years, Hartman’s reputation as one of South Africa’s leading shark experts has brought big opportunities and even the chance to join a film shoot in Mexico. But then things took a turn for the worst.

“When I came back, I actually had a stroke on my right hand side which paralyzed me completely.”

Refusing to let his stroke become a setback, he began to fight back recovering quickly. But then three years ago, Hartman suffered another stroke, this time it was too much and left him unable to swim with the sea creatures he loves.

“At the moment I’m just really starting to walk. But I still fall down every now and then. But I mean that happens,” he says.

“I’ve just got to get stronger … I’m walking short steps and it’s going slowly.

“I mean the way I’ve lived my life, if I have to do it again, I’ll do it exactly the same.”

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Swimming with great white sharks
07:08 - Source: CNN

Watch the full show to find out more about Hartman’s exciting experiences of freediving with great white sharks.

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