Death of a Deity
When heading for the ocean, most people pack a bathing suit, a picnic lunch and a camera, then dive in when they get there (if it’s not too cold) to swim a couple of dozen yards out from shore.
For Joe Romeiro of Exeter, a day at the ocean involves a wet suit, a heavy high-definition video camera, floodlights and a 150-mile voyage to the canyons at the edge of the Georges Bank where a deep-water dive finds him swimming with sharks.
Born in 1975 in the Azores, the same year Jaws was released, Romeiro came to the United States as a child and remembers that Steven Spielberg’s film about the very hungry Great White Shark was “the first American movie I saw.”
Apparently, it was an inspirational moment for Romeiro, for he has made dozens of short underwater films about sharks and other sea creatures that can be seen on MySpace.com and YouTube.com.
In June he took his film Death of a Deity, about sharks that are in danger from humans, to the first Blue Ocean Film Festival in Savannah, Ga., which honors movies about the sea. He took home its Emerging Underwater Filmmaker award. Footage he has shot for his 333 Productions, which he formed with partner Bill Fisher, has already been seen on NBC and The Travel Channel. Currently he’s in discussions with The Discovery Channel, whose popular 22nd annual Shark Week begins Aug. 2, and National Geographic Films to provide them with footage.
Over lunch at a Federal Hill restaurant in Providence, the wiry Romeiro speaks passionately about his love of sharks and the many dives he has made to come in close contact with them. “People always take this as a daredevil thing,” he says between bites of a hamburger. “But sharks will not come near you unless it has something to do with food. They are so afraid of people.” He adds, however, that if a shark sees you approaching something in the water that it views as food, “it will see you as competition for the food” and will make a move to grab it away first.
In one of Romeiro’s films, one can see a hand holding up a piece of chum (bait) and a shark darting in to grab it out of the hand, which turns out to have been Romeiro’s. This, he took pains to point out, is not something he does normally. He did it to attract the fish in this case. Romeiro cautions that he does not want to make it look as though he was foolhardily grandstanding. “It’s a real touchy subject, but I wanted to show that the animal was not going to come rip my arm off. It’s a real testament to the animal.”
Yet what about all those movies that show sharks “attacking” divers who go down in protective heavy metal shark cages? Romeiro, who doesn’t go down in shark cages, says filmmakers use chum to attract sharks for those films, waving the food in front of them so the sharks will appear to be ferocious monsters. “I’ve never been bitten or felt in danger,” he says. “There are a lot more dangerous things you can do.”
Romeiro met his 333 Productions partner Fisher five years ago in Fiji when both were hoping to capture images of sharks on film. Romeiro was looking to photograph tiger sharks with a still camera for pictures for his walls at home, a place he says is filled with shark memorabilia and once held a 3,000-gallon fish tank. It wasn’t until two years ago, however, that he began to take what had been a hobby more seriously “buying a really nice camera system” and making his films available on YouTube.
Right now, he says, 333 Productions is still “a labor of love” that is just “breaking even.” To pay for his filmmaking endeavors and deep-sea dives, Romeiro operates the Black Lotus tattoo studios in North Kingstown and Providence and also speaks to members of scuba clubs. “I talk about sharks and help them understand the animal’s plight. It makes divers who are nervous about sharks feel better.”
But he hopes the recognition from the Blue Ocean festival and the interest from the cable TV channels will lead to bigger things. His longest film at the moment runs only 22 minutes, but he’s working on an hour-long film about local sharks off the New England coast. One of them is the blue shark which is offshore in summer, then swims off to the warm waters of Africa for the winter. They can grow up to 13 feet and weigh up to 350 pounds, but Romeiro says sadly that “90 percent of the population is gone,” fished out for food or sport. “Sometimes it takes eight or nine hours to find just one” on his dives, when “you should be seeing 50 in an hour.”
The eradication of sharks off New England is not just a local problem. He says that when he went to the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador a few years ago he saw 100 whale sharks in one week. The next year he went back “and I saw only one whale shark. And the hammerheads, there used to be hundreds, but I only saw 15.”
He grows animated when discussing the “horrible, horrible” things humans do to sharks, sometimes cutting off their fins to use in shark fin soup and then releasing the animal back into the water to die or cutting up the animal to use as chum for other fish or as souvenirs. “The animal is so tolerant of us and we’re so intolerant of it,” he says with disillusionment in his voice.
After feeling some kinship toward sharks, maybe it’s not so surprising when Romeiro says that he doesn’t eat fish … and especially not sharks. It’s not for the reason you might suspect, however, but because “big fish carry such heavy levels of mercury.” There’s a reason that fishermen who catch mahi mahi and swordfish for sport give them to homeless shelters and don’t eat them themselves, he says. Besides high levels of mercury, he says sharks have a lot of urea in their tissues “to keep their blood salty because they don’t drink water.” These are things that he says make sharks “the worst” thing to eat from the sea.
Romeiro hopes his films will provide people with a better understanding of the sharks and other sea creatures we share the planet with. “One day some little kid might say, ‘I saw a little video about sharks,’ and then one day may go on to save them.
“There’s something really satisfying about helping the unhelpable, loving the unlovable.”