On Board With: Mark Rackley

Mark Rackley goes to extreme lengths to capture the perfect shot.

On Board With: Mark Rackley

Mark Rackley has been filming for more than 25 years, specializing in aggressive underwater wildlife and dangerous weather. His work has appeared on Animal Planet, Discovery, History, National Geographic and MTV, with particular highlights including Discovery’s acclaimed Shark Week, National Geographic’s Cameramen Who Dare and the reality show Gator Boys. We caught up with Mark about his relaxing work.

When did you realize that underwater camera work was going to be a lifelong passion?
I was working as a spearfisherman, and the sharks would come in close. I grew intrigued by them, so my brother and I got an underwater housing to document the encounters. We started creating stock footage. I was 19.

Why is free diving important for you as a cameraman? And is it true that you can hold your breath for more than five minutes?
With free diving, or breath-hold diving, you can get really close to the animals, because there are no bubbles. I can hold my breath for about 5½ minutes, going down to 150 feet. I've filmed fish at 130 feet or so. But it's really not a special ability. It just takes practice, training and being in the water a lot.

You're well known for your underwater work with sharks, diving and filming without a cage. Why do you think you've had such success working with these animals?
I'm a behavioral specialist. Each shark has a unique personality, and if you know that — if you know how to work with the individual animals — it makes it easier to film them. People use cages because they don't understand the sharks. But there are no guarantees. I've had a lot of close calls out there.

You're also an extreme weather cameraman — what is it like chasing hurricanes?
You've got 140-plus-mile-per-hour winds, objects flying through the air. … You have no control. In the ocean, you don't have control either, but at least there's understanding.

You also do a lot of camera work for the marine industry. Does that still excite and challenge you?
It's very competitive, and I like that. I'm always trying to get better. It's a challenging industry, for sure, and there are no guarantees here either. But when you have a solid team, and everyone's creative and pushing hard to do their best work, real magic can happen.

What have you been working on recently?
We were just with Gator Boys, working on underwater alligator pickups, and we ran into these big black bears. We're also working on a new Shark Week program.

What is it about these big apex predators that continues to inspire you?
Sharks, alligators, bears, all these giant animals … it's how I make my living, but I also really enjoy it, staying in tune with them. You're in their world, in a foreign world, and it's so exciting. It just gives you a really good feeling.