Interview: Ross Edgley on National Geographic’s “Shark vs. Ross Edgley,” Befriending a Shark, Challenging Himself, and More

Ross Edgley is an ultra-marathon swimmer and shark advocate. He also happens to be the star of the new Shark Fest special Shark Vs. Ross Edgley, which is now streaming on Disney+. In this special, Edgley takes on a series of challenges inspired by impressive shark facts and feats. This includes attempting a Hammerhead-style g-force turn, a speedy Mako shark swim, and even trying to gain 24 pounds in a day like Tiger Sharks can. The result is an entertaining and educational event.

Recently, we had a chance to chat with Edgley about the special, what makes sharks so fascinating, and more.

Laughing Place: Well, nice to meet you, Ross. I saw the show [last week] and it’s a lot of fun.

Ross Edgley: Thank you. Honestly, that means a lot because we've been sitting on this for two years, so you are one of the first to actually see it.

LP: For those uninitiated, you have quite the list of physical accomplishments — mental as well. Can you give us a little rundown of your backstory?

RE: Yeah, so I come from an athletic background, used to be a swimmer. I used to play water polo as well, internationally. And then I just kind of got into this strange career of athletic adventures. So I ended up running a marathon pulling a car. I did a triathlon carrying a hundred pound tree for charity. I climbed a 20 meter rope repeatedly until I climbed the height of Everest. And then it was on this particular adventure where I decided to swim around Great Britain, which was 1,780 miles, 157 days. And it was then just around the coast of Scotland where nothing swims around the top of Scotland, but we got caught in an arctic storm coming from Iceland. And I was basically just befriended by a Basking Shark. And we looked at each other. It was wondering what I was, it was kind like, “You're not a seal, you're not a shark. I dunno what you are.” And we just hung out for two days.

LP: So the shark befriended you — did that inspire you to compare yourself to a shark?

RE:  It was exactly that because I think what was so interesting, when I was swimming, the shark was almost looking at me going, “Why are you making such hard work of this?” I was taking 20 strokes to its one tail flip, and it was kind of just going like, “You're making really hard work at this. Are you struggling?” And it was a form of communication. I've said this before, it was primitive. There was an intellect that is beyond vocabulary, I can't really explain it. And ever since that just kind of inspired this idea to follow in their footsteps — to try and biomimic sharks. Which I knew would be an impossible task, but by trying to get as close as possible, hopefully it's this idea of using sports science and swimming as a Trojan horse to investigate sharks and show it to a completely new audience. So that's basically how the idea came around.

LP: And you've accomplished things that I would consider impossible and, quite frankly, have no desire to do — pushing your strength to the human limits. But then see, no, you're not a shark, you can't swim like a shark. I don't think that would surprise anybody. Was it humbling to see that, despite all the effort and years of training and accomplishments you've had that have put you on the map, there's many things that you can't even touch?

RE: Do you know what, Benji, I'm so glad you asked that because it was humbling, but also quite rightly, put the sharks up on the pedestal that they deserved. They've survived mass extinctions, they exist in oceans all over the world. And it's not until you've actually swum with them when you studied them that you understand why. And I think it's, yeah, we humans, we can sometimes be quite arrogant as to think, oh yeah, we could maybe hang out there — no! It is a completely different ball game. It's not an amateur and a pro, it's more than that.

One of them, for instance, the Ampullae of Lorenzini, where it picks up electrical impulses. If we were diving right now, it would pick up your heartbeat, your muscle contractions. It would understand, okay, is he prey or is he a friend? Is he flinching? And it's that beyond our five senses, it's so hard to understand. But like I said, they have this level of intellect that  is beyond our comprehension. It's amazing.

LP: And you came into it with some sort of understanding of sharks, but did you still learn things through this process?

RE: Yeah, so much because I think you can learn so much on paper and you can research, but until you've actually dived with them, that's a whole other lesson. And like I said, I touched upon there the Ampullae of Lorenzini. I think the best way I can describe this is, when we were down and there was food and there were feeding, it was amazing how they came over, but they essentially smelt it first. And then as they got closer to the food, it was really interesting how they could sense if the food had a heartbeat or not. So was it just kind of like dead meat? But then they looked at me and was like, “Oh, but you have a heartbeat. Okay, hang on. But you are not flinching, so you are not prey.” It was analyzing everything! It was scanning like the entire seabed and knew in an instant what was going on, the safety team, everything.

So yeah, I'm glad you asked that because it's all very well studying, which I had done. But you'll learn more in a single dive than 10 years of research.

LP: And despite the fact you've done things that would frighten me, were you ever just caught in a moment of fear? I know sometimes people have a fear of sharks and they weren't threatening to you in this process, but they are intimidating creatures.

RE:  Yeah. Again, I'm so glad you asked that just because I think it was really interesting that on social media when we swum around Great Britain, there were so many people who were like, “Oh my God, how are you swimming at night? Are you not scared of sharks?” But it's always understanding that there are so many different species of sharks. So yeah, granted, I was swimming with Basking Sharks, possibly Greenland Sharks. There were many, but we're not on their menu — we're their friends. And I think that was so interesting because it's almost like saying, me coming up to you and then going, “Oh my God, I'm scared there's a dog outside.” And you're going, “Whoa, hang on. What sort of dog? Are we talking a Rottweiler?” And then I go, “No, it's a chihuahua or it's a poodle.” And you'd go, “Ross, what are you doing?”

So it is the same, and hopefully this show really sort of educates people that when you hear “shark,” the answer is so much more intricate. What sort of shark was it? Was it male? Was it female? Was it juvenile? What species? It's so much more intricate and complex rather than just this blanket approach going, “Oh my God, I've just seen a shark.” And then that instilling fear in some people. Like I said, it could have been a Greenland shark, the oldest living shark lived to 400 years old. These incredible species, they move so slowly around the Arctic circle, certainly one of them, if you saw one of them, it would be a privilege and it shouldn't be feared.

LP: And speaking of education, the show's great in that it has an entertainment value but also you learn a lot about obstruction in the process. What do you hope an audience takes away from the educational component of it? I

RE: Think the biggest thing is an understanding of and a respect and admiration. If it moves from fear to respect to admiration, then, honestly, putting myself through all of that will be worth it. I think to quote the great sir David Attenborough, he said, looking at conservation, it's a communication issue as much as it is a scientific one. And I think that's exactly what we are trying to do.

In certain parts of the world, a lot of people will just publicly just call for the killing and the culling of sharks. It's like, no, no, no. That's not the answer. You don't understand. You do that, entire marine ecosystems collapse.

And so hopefully that's what we're trying to do — it is just spreading awareness and also, like I said, respect, hopefully admiration for all of the different species of sharks. If that is the case, then I'd do it again. I'd go up in RAF fighter pilot plane and be sick all over again.

LP: Is there another adventure that you hope to take? Obviously swimming around Great Britain inspired this adventure. Did this inspire any other challenges that you want to put yourself through?

RE: Loads. I think when you go through the catalog and library of difference of sharks and all of their capabilities, it is just, yeah, it's infinite. It's incredible. So no, absolutely. Me and National Geographic, we're already talking because there's just, there's tons of ideas. There's tons of different sharks. So yeah, obviously we want to talk about this one first and foremost, but in my head, I've already got show 3, 4, 5, and 6.

LP: And that's great. To wrap up, Shark Fest has been around for years and a whole month of programming on National Geographic, Disney+, and Hulu — it obviously resonates with audiences. What do you think is so appealing to the public about getting all of this information about sharks, yet still, there's always seems to be more to discover?

RE:  Yeah, I think what it is is they're still so mysterious, so scientists are still uncovering things. Just recently, I said, with white sharks and Basking Sharks, they're finding out that they're regionally endothermic, meaning that they're able to actually survive different temperatures far more than we thought they were able to. Looking at Greenland Sharks, they essentially have deicer in their veins, and that's how they're able to just cruise around the Arctic. We're only just discovering things like this. Narwals as well, were discovered in the stomachs of some Greenland Sharks. So just at the point where we thought that we had it all figured out and their diet was all sorted, we started finding different things in their stomachs and we're like, “Wait, hang on. That changes everything!” So I think it's just a fascination with an apex predator that has survived mass extinctions 400 million years, and it's like, what are they doing and how do they keep surviving? Not only surviving, but thriving in oceans all across the world.

So I think it's this fascination, but also the fact that we really don't understand them. Even looking at migrations, it's amazing that between Australia and New Zealand, when the white sharks migrate, just when you think that we've got it figured out and we start tagging them, you go, “Oh, okay, hang on. There's a pattern and it moves up. Here it goes.” It just does something to completely throw you off, and you go, “Well, that's not what we thought.” So it's this constant fascination that, yeah, sharks, like I said, have a level of intellect that we are still trying to understand, but in a good way. It is this infinite kind of exploration of their intellect. It's amazing.

LP: Well, congratulations. The show's a lot of fun, and you learn a lot in it too. Congratulations on everything you've accomplished.

Shark Vs. Ross Edgley is now streaming on Disney+.