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William Winram: Freediving with great whites

William Winram is a professional free diver featured in the new IMAX film Great White Shark 3D and he talks about his first encounter with these misunderstood creatures.

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Life as William Winram must be breathlessly exciting. One day you're ocean diving (without an oxygen tank) to a world record (145 metres down in three minutes, eight seconds); the next you're swimming with great white sharks and living to tell the tale. There used to be some big-wave surfing too, but he's given that up; a man can't be too careful, you know.

What would people think if I took a helicopter and got deposited in the savannah to smack some golf balls around, and I got eaten? They'd think I was an idiot. 

Winram – 50-something, frighteningly fit, but with a fondness for cigars and a fine single-malt – is one of three daredevils captured in a remarkable sequence in the IMAX film Great White Sharks.

Mindful: William Winram says sharks are mistakenly maligned.

Mindful: William Winram says sharks are mistakenly maligned. Photo: Fred Buyle

This 3D underwater extravaganza tries to shift our view of the fish in question from the sheer terror inspired by Jaws towards something like cautious admiration. And it works, more or less. Though you're unlikely to rush out and place an order at Pets 'R' Us, you might think twice before backing the call for a manhunt the next time a shark takes a surfer off the coast.

''I don't get that idea that you go out and cull them, thinking you're going to find the animal that did this and punish it,'' Winram says. ''Within 24 hours, the shark that was involved is long gone.''

He says most attacks are about curiosity or mistaken identity, and that the onus for avoiding them lies with us. He's mindful of the recent fatality at Coffs Harbour and says it, like any attack, was tragic. ''But it's one of the risks that comes with surfing or swimming or diving in the sea: you're in the shark's environment.''

People need to research an area of ocean before venturing in, he says. ''What would people think if I took a helicopter and got deposited in the savannah to smack some golf balls around, and I got eaten? They'd think I was an idiot. No offence to anyone who's been eaten by a shark, but that's the reality … If it's a place where sharks are actively hunting, you're taking a huge risk.''

Winram wasn't always so sanguine about the whole swimming-with-sharks thing. His father, a surf and rescue worker on Vancouver Island, taught him to free dive when he was a kid, and the young William was fascinated with sharks, but it took him until 2008 to put the two together.

His first encounter came in his early 20s. ''I was spearfishing alone, because I was young and stupid,'' he recalls. ''I had just killed a fish and I felt something big, turned, and there was a four-and-a-half metre tiger shark.''

In his panic, he dropped his spear, which in turn panicked the shark. She swam off but soon came back. ''And as I started the 800 metre swim to shore she stayed beside me, a few metres away; if I swam towards her she swam away, if I swam away she followed.''

Not once did she threaten him.

In the years since, he has swum with many tiger sharks and never once been ''aggressed''. Whites, though, are different. ''Young males are the worst to deal with,'' he says. ''Exactly like humans.''

When confronted with one of those, Winram will deliver a punch to the shark's lateral line, which runs from the eye socket to the tail. ''It's like a funny bone for them.''

What about that old punch to the nose trick; does that work? ''Yes, that will affect them,'' he says. ''But it's kind of a last resort.''

Why? ''What if you miss the nose? 'Oh well, I lost the arm'.''

His advice to surfers who spot a shark is to watch it. ''Is it just passing by or is it circling? Does it now have a curiosity? If yes, the best thing you can do is lay on the board ready to move, and if it swims close, paddle up and punch it. Because it won't come back.''

He pauses. ''Typically.''

Hmm. There’s the rub. They may not be the evil demons of popular mythology but nor are they completely predictable. But vigilance and eye contact, he insists, are the greatest defences available.

In 2011, he spent six hours straight in the water with great whites, diving, coming up for air, diving again. “We didn’t even stop to eat,” he says, still slightly amazed.

The key to it all is breathing.

In the free diving classes he teaches, he asks people what breath they think is the most important. Invariably, they say the last one.''But it's not; it's the breathing you do in the six to eight minutes leading up to the dive that's oxygenating your blood and your tissues … You need to be able to go into that kind of Zen place where you're completely relaxed, but with a wide open focus.''

In case you're wondering, the longest he's held his breath (it was in a pool) was ''somewhere between eight and nine minutes''. And yes, he's had some narrow escapes, including a couple of blackouts.

He survived because he never dives alone.

He tags sharks these days for research, utilising his unique skill set to ''give back for what we've received through our lives from the sea''. He doesn't need us to get all warm and fuzzy about great whites but he wants us to understand that ''besides being an incredibly efficient predator they're also a very shy and curious animal and they're extremely important to the health of our oceans''.'

It's all very admirable but undeniably dangerous. ''I think there are far more dangerous things,'' he says.

Such as? ''Driving a car. Trains. In 2007, I think, there were 760-something fatalities from toasters.'' In Australia there have been a little over 200 fatal attacks since 1791.

The main reason we have been so able to demonise sharks, he says, is because ''most people are just not comfortable in the sea''. Jaws tapped into that, but he doesn't blame it.

It's the so-called nature channels and their ''shark week'' voyeurism that do the real harm. "If you throw enough blood in the water of course a shark will become overstimulated and crazy, but that’s not how they really are," he says.

"If it were, how is it possible that I can get in the water and swim beside them? Are we feeding them tranquilisers? Come on."

Great White Sharks is at IMAX cinemas from January 9

Twitter: @karlkwin