This Fearless Free Diver Befriends Sharks in the South Pacific

April 11, 2022

Four thousand miles west of Los Angeles and 200 miles north of Tahiti in the South Pacific, a ring of white coral atolls surface out of warm turquoise waters. Here, in Tikehau, French Polynesia, looking out his thatch house, shark swimmer and free diver Denis Grosmaire watches over migrating whales and, by his estimation, 30 black-tipped sharks.

“I like to dive barefoot with tiger sharks,” says the 44-year-old Grosmaire, describing the day this photo was captured in Tikehau in November 2021. Thirty feet down at the edge of a coral reef that drops thousands of feet into the Pacific, he was swimming with two other tiger sharks when an unfamiliar 1,100-pound tiger shark appeared out of the blue.

“She is a female, young, less than nine feet and pregnant. I will have some nephews soon,” the Frenchman says with a grin.

Grosmaire grew up spearfishing and making four-hour open ocean swims in French Polynesia—he’s lived here since age 2—and he knows the dangers of swimming with sharks, which kill 10 people each year worldwide. Tiger sharks, his favorite, can grow up to 15 feet and 1,400 pounds, and they’re the second- or third-most predatory fish behind bull sharks and great whites.

Shark swimmer Denis Grosmaire.
Chris Van Leuven

“There’s a common misconception from movies that sharks are the most dangerous creature in the world, but they’re not,” he says. “We can co-exist with sharks.” He hugs and kisses them. And he studies their personalities and moods.

Things don’t always go as planned. During a guided tour with Grosmaire earlier this year, he sat down next to me on a boat and shared a video showing himself meeting a massive tiger shark face to face. As he went in for a kiss, the shark opened its mouth around Denis’ mask and snorkel before Denis pulled away. “That was last week,” he said. “I fucked up. Had I not reacted so quickly, I wouldn’t be here today.” Once his head was clear of the shark’s teeth, he gently pushed its face back with one hand. “This was the shark I swim the most with,” he said. “She didn’t mean to almost bite me.”

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