CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT the polychaete worm. It’s a simple creature, but it has played a significant part in Mark Addison’s life.
Not in a direct way perhaps, like the sharks in Sardine Run footage on the BBC’s Blue Planet, but because it is the primary food for the ornate sleeper ray, which is known to science as Electrolux addisoni. It is no coincidence that Addison appears in the Latin name of the ray.
He was instrumental in its discovery.
First seen in 1984, the rays were thought to inhabit the deep waters off East Africa, only occasionally coming into the shallows, where divers encountered them.
“We all thought it would be impossible to get a sample and prove that it exists,” says Mark, “so it became known as the Yeti-fish.
“Then one day I was diving in 5m of water with my father and found a gathering of them, which totally confounded the scientists’ thinking.”
Mark was asked to collect a sample. From this, not only was a new species discovered, but also
a new genus. It was a big deal in the ichthyology world and became the biggest discovery of a new species in 2007. It was given the name addisoni in tribute to Mark. “They just ran out of ideas and named it after me,” he says, chuckling.
This is Mark’s jovial personality shining through. Like many South Africans, he has a sense of humour to match his rugby-player stature. The work of this jolly giant of the global diving industry is familiar to anyone who watches marine natural history programmes, although he is often the unseen element that brings the programmes together.
Mark’s company Blue Wilderness, which he runs with his wife Gail, provides the logistics for a vast number of BBC, Discovery and National Geographic programmes. And it was a programme he made recently for Nat Geo that prompted my visit to his east African base.
Shark Attack Experiment Live was aired in the USA last November and is due for broadcast in Europe this year. Its premise is easy to understand, but for Mark, who has worked on so many big documentary series, it was both a challenge and a step back in time.
“The idea was to take a couple of shark species, unpick about 10 of the most common misconceptions the public has and try them out,” he explains.
the programme includes elements as basic as having a woman swimming in a bikini or wearing jewellery to show how sharks react.
These are questions to which most divers with shark experience know the answers, or could hazard a decent guess. But divers sometimes forget that we are a minority, even among water-users. Surfers, swimmers and the holidaying public far outnumber us in the water, so the programme was aimed at them. But its provocative title was a bit of an issue.
“Shark Attack Experiment Live started with the title Human Shark Bait,” Mark tells me. “But they [Nat Geo] looked at me and said: ‘Well, he’s more of a full meal, so you can’t call it bait!’” He laughs.
“They came up with Shark Attack Experiment, which we initially fought against. Mind you, I’d have called it something flowery and probably no one would have watched.”
He says this with a glint in his eye, but that could have been the setting sun. His scepticism about the title was well-founded.
“Going into the broadcast, we picked up a lot of flak from people asking ‘how could you call it that’ Plus Nat Geo put out a lot of provocative statements and material.
“Thankfully, when people saw it they actually thought it was informative, and the name made sense. And without all the provocativeness we wouldn’t have got the viewing figures of a Superbowl game. Nat Geo was ecstatic at the response, and so were we.”
Initially pitched as an hour-long programme, it soon developed into a live show. That’s a logistical juggling act for a crew of 70 people plus the unpredictable oceanic weather and current systems off South Africa’s east coast. Mark admits that it was a huge challenge.
the premise for the programme was to put three attractive women – Olivia Simcox, Clare Daly and Gail Addison – plus Mark and several scientists into scenarios with the sharks calculated to confound public preconceptions.
Gail Addison runs Blue Wilderness but also travels to local schools to teach children about sharks and their importance.
Clare is founder of 3 Fathoms, a non-profit organisation dedicated to non-invasive shark research, while Olivia is a surfer who came to the project following an encounter with a hammerhead shark. She approached
Mark with a simple objective – to get the Jaws music out of her head between sets.
The three women put their fears and beliefs on the line to prove to a world full of doubters that sharks are not indiscriminate killing machines. The programme is both a piece of entertainment and a myth-busting exercise.
if it did phenomenally well in the States, Mark is understandably concerned about how Britain will perceive it. “The British market is much more educated and shark-aware,” he says.
“I’m not sure how the programme will sit, but I hope it finds the same reception for people who are not well aware of sharks.”
To a degree the programme reflects the Steve Irwin approach, where the human is the main player. However, the idea is not to get a defensive or predatory response from the sharks, but to blur the wilderness/human boundary and show how humans interact with animals for real.
Mark has worked with sharks and campaigned for their preservation for many years. “We’re always looking to try to get more interesting images,” he says. “This was going back to basics, to things we’d forgotten regarding people’s reasonable fears of sharks.”
The programme is not the big-budget wildlife documentary way of doing things that the British do so well, and to which Mark is accustomed.
“The blue-chip natural history programmes we’ve worked on for the Beeb [Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Nature’s Great Events] are really understated, but they achieve impact,” he says. “With British crews, the image speaks louder than the words, and it’s always done that.
“I find it more difficult to work where you are looking more for human interaction. I’m used to babysitting and defaulting to the back of the frame rather than being there jangling stuff in the water. But it gets the message across.”
Getting the shark conservation message to the world is the key element in everything Mark does.
“Shark Attack Experiment Live addressed the ‘reasonable’ fears people have,” he says. “I don’t see them as reasonable, but I’m 20-30 years on from them. We as divers don’t need to be convinced to protect sharks, but divers are a small percentage of water-users. Everyone else is scared of sharks.”
The programme also addresses,in a roundabout way, a recent problem in wildlife documentary-making – believability.
A polar bear cub being born has called the believability of all wildlife documentaries into question. The sight of film-makers squirming after the press learned that it was filmed in a zoo is still fresh in the public’s mind.
A “live” show gets around that element. There is no trash-can full of footage on the editor’s desktop; no time for special effects or computer trickery. There is no question of Olivia paddling a surfboard through 60 sharks while a crew throws sardines at her. The film was shot in front of a live audience, even though the UK audience will not see it in real time.
Shark Attack Experiment Live starts a conversation, which is how attitudes eventually get changed. But Mark is not leaving the blue-chip documentaries behind in favour of this more confrontational approach.
mark is currently working on a new BBC production that will use new technologies to look at South Africa’s Sardine Run in a fresh way. But he and Gail and many other South African conservationists will continue to try to get the shark-nets removed and the overfishing to stop.
If Mark and Gail are passionate about what they do, and the environment in which they live and work, their daughter Ella is also becoming something of a celebrity. She has appeared on NBC and the National Geographic Kids channel, swimming with the blacktip sharks that dominate the top of the food chain of Aliwal Shoal at the moment.
Mark is keen to build a future for the next generation of working shark-divers, and sees South Africa as providing that opportunity through its diverse eastern coastline, which is home to a huge number of shark species.
If Shark Attack Experiment Live has a legacy, it’s to be hoped that it will be a better understanding of sharks and a queue of people wanting to get into the water to see them.

Mark, Gail and Ella Addison are at Dive 2012 at the NEC on 27/28 October, talking about Shark Attack Experiment Live and other shark-related work. Win a shark-diving trip to South Africa with Mark by attending the Show .