Having vanquished his opponents in the pool, swimmer Michael Phelps sought a new one in the ocean. He raced a great white shark.
Who won? Although it’s safe to say this was a gold medal the 23-time Olympic champion had no chance of bringing home, viewers will have to tune in Sunday at 8 p.m. to see the speed contest when “Phelps vs. Shark: The Battle for Ocean Supremacy” kicks off the Discovery Channel’s 29th annual “jawsome” Shark Week.
Producers are mum on the details in order to build suspense, but Phelps did not swim side by side with a shark because nobody wants to watch the greatest swimmer of all time turned into chum, and because sharks have no interest in swimming a straight path to a finish line.
“I’ve always been infatuated with sharks and the way they move,” Phelps said. “To be with them in their environment and to see their speed and size up close was incredible.”
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Phelps’ tutor for the show was Neil Hammerschlag, the renowned shark scientist from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. They traveled to Mossel Bay, South Africa, where Hammerschlag has been diving for 15 years and studying the hunting strategies of great white sharks, who feed on a seal colony there.
He accompanied Phelps into the shark cage, which got rattled and banged and chewed by the curious natives.
“One clamped her teeth around a bar and stuck her nose right in my face,” Phelps said. “You understand why they are at the top of the food chain.”
Hammerschlag said Phelps was more excited than scared.
“The adolescent and teen sharks in Mossel Bay are really amped up,” Hammerschlag said. “When they passed by he was just fascinated.”
Phelps vs. shark was more like a 100-meter time trial than a competition.
“This is a show about shark speed,” Hammerschlag said. “We used innovative technology to measure how fast they go and for how long, and we took Michael on that journey so he could learn about sharks and test himself against them.”
Great whites can reach maximum speeds of 25 mph. Mako sharks have been clocked as the fastest, at 45 mph. Phelps’ top freestyle race speed in his record-setting prime was 6 mph.
Phelps wore a monofin and a wet suit made out of material that mimics sharkskin to increase his power, but estimated that he only got up to 10-12 mph. Swimming in open, 53-degree water gave the shark a home field advantage over Phelps, who is accustomed to flat, 80-degree pool water.
If any human can give sharks a run, it’s Phelps, 32, whose body is ideal for swimming. At six-foot-four, 195 pounds, he has a wingspan of 80 inches, a long torso, size 14 feet and short, double-jointed legs.
Sharks’ morphology also makes them fast. Great whites, which average 10-12 feet in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds, are shaped like a torpedo.
“Their tail shape helps increase thrust and reduce drag and they have a caudal keel that buttresses the rigidity of the fin,” Hammerschlag said. “Their dermal denticles are like little grooved teeth that funnel water over their skin.”
Phelps had a dozen safety divers stationed around him when he did his speed swim but did not see any sharks when he was outside the cage.
“Michael has a real appreciation for science,” Hammerschlag said. “In his training he’s very analytical with numbers and stats and figuring out how to be most efficient. He likes discussing form and function.”
Phelps filmed another show in the Bahamas called “Shark School with Michael Phelps” that will close out Shark Week on July 30 at 8 p.m. He worked with Tristan Guttridge, a senior scientist at the Bimini Shark Lab, and during his dives had a nurse shark rest on his leg and a 13-foot hammerhead “swim within a foot of my head.” He nicknamed a tiger shark after his son, Boomer.
“They are majestic creatures,” said Phelps, who by the way insists he will not come out of retirement for a sixth Olympics in 2020. “They are not out to eat us or swallow us whole.”
Hammerschlag, who starred in two Shark Week hits last year — “Tiger Beach” and “Air Jaws: Night Stalker” — said Phelps can help dispel misconceptions about sharks, which are threatened in some parts of the world by overfishing.
“He can be an ambassador for sharks and engage a larger audience on shark conservation in the United States, where we have a serious nature deficit because too many people are plugged in and not going outside,” said Hammerschlag, director of UM’s shark research and conservation program. “Great whites are not mindless killing machines. In fact, they are highly social and communicate with each other. They are smart, and they refine their stealth hunting techniques as they age. And they are quite tolerant of people.”