I love big, mean squids

SINGAPORE - If you've seen close-up footage of sharks on National Geographic Channel and BBC, there is a high chance that Luminox brand ambassador and ocean conservationist Scott Cassell, 51, was involved.

The underwater explorer has made dozens of programmes on marine life, with several featuring fearsome predators like the great white shark.

The combat diver, who is in Asia to explore Malaysian and Brunei waters with his submersible, The Great White, talked to My Paper about close encounters with giant squids, his love affair with a great white shark, and the dire state of the ocean.

Tell us about your special connection with sharks.

Some people love cats, some people love dogs, I love sharks that way. I have played with sharks many times.

In the Bahamas, I played fetch with a 1,000-pound tiger shark. She has a licence plate that she uses like a chew toy. When you throw it, she gets excited, and swims after it.

Almost every shark I've met has this ability, you just have to find what they like. They are playful and extremely curious. They're just like great puppies.

How are they important to the environment?

Last year I was diving off Sipadan in Malaysia, and I saw that only the marine reserve resembled a healthy ecosystem. All of the ecosystems that were not protected were destroyed.

The reason the fish population was low is that you don't have any sharks there. People think that sharks would eat all the fishes, but what happened there was that the coral was being destroyed, because the fish population exploded as there was a lack of sharks. If you stop fishing the sharks for about 20 years, the fishes will come back.

Why did you start the Undersea Voyager Project?

Now, more than ever, we need people to look at the ocean and watch it personally as it changes. I hope enough people will learn about the sea so that we can reverse the damage, and people will see it grow and become even more beautiful than it already is.

Out of this generation of kids, we will see heroes stand up, who are going to save our world. That's why we have the Undersea Voyager Project, to inspire them and help bring kids and scientists into the light.

Tell us about your submersible.

I named my sub The Great White for two reasons. One is that the great white shark is my favourite animal.

I had a love affair with a great white named Spots for almost 20 years, and she had appeared in documentaries with me riding on her fin. But she was murdered by a poacher for her fins and teeth.

Also, it's in honour of a friend, Ralph White, who got me into submarines 25 years ago.

You have your own watch?

When the founder of Luminox, Mr Barry Cohen, asked me what he could put into my watch (the Scott Cassell Deep Dive Automatic), I said I love giant squid, I was the first in the world to film one. So, we put suction cups on the watch, which also help to enhance your grip on the bezel.

Proceeds that my organisation receives from the sales of the watch go into exploration, because my volunteers and I work for free.

Tell us about your close encounters with squids.

I've wanted to see a giant squid since I was six years old, and I wanted to be the first to film them.

The fisherman I found in Mexico to take me told me, if I went into the water with these squids, I was going to die. I thought: "I've ridden on the backs of great white sharks, I'm a combat diver, I can take it."

So I jumped into the water and it was gorgeous.

It was so hypnotising to watch the squids that I didn't realise I was surrounded. One grabbed on to my camera and my hand, and yanked back so hard that it dislocated my arm. Two more grabbed my legs and pulled me down, another one hit me on my head. As they pulled me down, I didn't clear my ears in time and my right ear drum imploded.

That was my first time. I've since dived with them 2,000 more times. Now I wear body armour and am attached to the boat by a cable. I've been attacked over a thousand times by the squids and had my wrist broken five times. Nobody wants to dive with me, because they're so mean!

Why are you still in love with them?

These mega-squids are so beautiful and magical when you see them. They are addictive.

They are problem solvers, highly evolved and scary smart. They look for weaknesses and then they focus on attacking those. They have eyes that look at you like people do.

It really is an amazing animal - It has blue blood, three hearts, and 1.2 million chromatophores on its skin that change colour in the blink of an eye.

But they are invading many parts of the ocean?

They are extending all across the Pacific because of us. They've shown up in the Philippines - it is an infestation of sea monsters. Their population is expanding because we've killed all the sharks, their principal predators.

When you take away the sharks, the Humboldt squid population explodes. They leave from Central and South America and go all the way up to Alaska, eating everything in their path like locusts.

How can we help to save marine life?

The oceans are dying. They used to call tuna "the chicken of the sea", but it's now on the endangered-species list. One of the best choices people can make right now is to eat farm-raised fish.

There are 7.1 billion of us, and if each of us takes small steps to protect the environment - cycling instead of driving, eating less beef or not using plastic - it can add up.

The Great White submersible is on display as part of the Luminox Save the Seas exhibition at Raffles City Shopping Centre from today till Wednesday.

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