Anderson Cooper dives in for shark story

'Planet in Peril' takes anchor into dangerous waters

NEW YORK -- TV journalism is sometimes likened to swimming with the sharks. CNN's Anderson Cooper can say that he's been there, done that.

The erstwhile anchor of "AC 360º" and the second installment of "Planet in Peril" added that to his resume a few months ago, while he was doing a segment for "Planet" about the decimation of the great white shark population for Asia's increasing demand for shark fin soup. The great white's dorsal fin is a delicacy in some cultures.

"There's not a lot of outcry about that," Cooper said Tuesday. "If it were another animal species, there probably would be."

The second two-hour documentary of "Planet in Peril," following up on 2007's award-winning series, will air on CNN on Thursday night. "Planet in Peril" looks at the front lines of conflicts that center on the environment, either land or water or food. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Lisa Ling and Cooper traveled the world for stories on how bushmeat in central Africa is helping to jump deadly viruses from animals to humans; how oil is a battleground in Niger; how a Peruvian company is accused of poisoning a country.

For his portion of the new "Planet in Peril," Cooper did a story about shark tourism, where tourists and guides will dive with safety cages as blood and chum is spread around the water to draw the sharks. After talking to a diver about it in Cape Town, South Africa, the diver asked one afternoon in the early fall if Cooper wanted to see the great white sharks up close -- without the cage.

It's a no-brainer that being so close to a great white shark without a cage is somewhat dangerous. There are several shark attacks in and around the Cape Town waters every year. But Cooper was intrigued by the idea of being up close to a shark in its natural habitat, without the cages that make for an artificial experience. He thought about it overnight.

"I was comfortable diving, and the guy we were with has done it many times. He's one of the few people who does," Cooper said. "I thought it was a risk worth taking."

But before he could agree, Cooper had to make sure it was OK with headquarters. After all, the network should have a say whether one of its anchors is offering to be at the very least shark bait.

"I'm not sure there's a shark clause in my contract," Cooper said. "I don't think the attorneys thought of that."

Cooper e-mailed CNN U.S. president Jon Klein to ask if it was OK.

"He (Klein) wrote back, 'Look, it's up to you, you've got to use your judgment,'" Cooper recalled. "I went over the pros and cons and risks. It seemed interesting.

So that's what Cooper did, though he acknowledges that it's something that shouldn't be done at home. He calls it risky but likens it to the same way a jackal can be present at a lion kill and not be eaten.

Cooper was lowered into bloody water with three sharks swimming around, and with the experienced diver and the diver's photographer who filmed it for CNN. Cooper didn't feel comfortable asking another CNN employee to take a risk with him. Before diving, the expert gave him several tips for survival. (Stay calm. Don't make sudden moves.)

"They say to project confidence," Cooper said. "I'm not sure how one does that through SCUBA gear."

Cooper was told to do whatever he could to avoid making bubbles, something that's hard to do in SCUBA gear.

"They actually tell you to hold your breath when a shark comes toward you," Cooper said. "But my heart was beating so fast I couldn't actually hold my breath."

The experience -- and the video that will appear in "Planet in Peril" -- was exhilarating and eye-opening, Cooper said. And, of course, there are the requisite warnings.

"It's pretty clear for people that they should not try this at home," Cooper said. "It's made very clear in the piece that this is something that the man has done hundreds of times before."

Cooper, whose nightly "AC 360º" this year has won in the ratings at 10 p.m., said that even though "Planet in Peril" hasn't aired yet, there's already another one in the works.

"We certainly want to continue with them," Cooper said. "We're already talking about what we'll be doing this coming year. It's a big commitment of resources."
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