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On campus

Q&A: Dan Huber

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published May 4, 2004

Few people move to Florida for the sharks. But that's what Dan Huber did a few years ago when he enrolled at the University of South Florida.

Since childhood, the 25-year-old graduate student has been fascinated by sharks, traveling from his native Long Island to USF for the chance to study the mechanics of how a shark feeds.

Huber's work brought him national attention when the producers of Animal Face-Off, a Discovery Channel series that pits fierce predators against each other in a virtual showdown, called him last fall.

Within a week, Huber was in New Zealand sizing up battles between a great white shark and a saltwater crocodile, and a hippopotamus and a bull shark.

The series has taken off since then, and Huber, who has two years left on his biology doctorate degree, has found his picture alongside Uma Thurman's in Entertainment Weekly.

Standing recently among the white-spotted bamboo sharks in USF's research aquarium, Huber talked sharks and stardom with Times staff writer Jay Cridlin.

Here are excerpts.

Shark Week is totally awesome. Your thoughts?

Oh, absolutely. I've been faithfully watching Shark Week since I was a kid. The whole thing with Discovery was, they found my research Web site, called me in the beginning of October, and said: "We're filming this new series. We're very interested in your research, and we think you'd be good for the part. Can you be in New Zealand in five days?' I said, "If you're paying the bill, I'll be wherever you want me to be.' They sent me a plane ticket, and five days later, I was in New Zealand.

So who would win a fight between a shark and a hippo?

Well, according to Discovery, the hippo won. Hippos, despite the fact that they're vegetarians, are probably one of the most dangerous animals on the planet. They're so massive and powerful. The shark definitely has an advantage, because it's in its native environment, water, whereas the hippos are meant to be terrestrial animals. But I still think the hippo would win that one.

What about a croc and great white?

Oh, the shark, hands down. A white shark is never going to be in a crocodile's habitat. If a crocodile was to get into a white shark's habitat, it would be no contest.

Give me two animals you'd like to see match up on the show.

Hmm. This series is meant to be the best predators that are around today. I think they should do the best predators of all time. You could get something like a megalodon, an ancestor of a white shark that was 40 or 50 feet long and had a mouth that was 6 feet wide. Put something like that up against ... geez, I don't know. I never thought about that.

Was there a moment when you first thought, "Sharks - that's the career for me?'

Absolutely. I've known since I was a kid that this was what I wanted to do. When I was about 8 or 10 years old, a relative of mine was bitten by a shark while surfing off the east coast of Florida. It absolutely intrigued me. I grew up on the beach, and my family got paranoid and didn't want to go in the water anymore. But they couldn't keep me out of the water. When my family got over the initial scare and started accepting my interest in it, my parents became very, very supportive. When I got into graduate school here and started doing this work, my father and I said that when I finished my doctorate, we're going to go to South Africa to dive with white sharks.

Can you separate yourself from your research enough to contemplate why the general public is so fascinated by sharks?

They don't understand them. We're very intrigued by what we don't know. And what the public knows is what Peter Benchley gave them in Jaws. Maybe 60 percent of the species of sharks in existence today are 3 feet or less. They pose absolutely no threat to you. People see the Hollywood version of these animals and get terrified without realizing that most of what are considered shark attacks are just shark bites. They bite you once, realize you're not what they want, and go away.

What scares you?

What scares me ... Being burned alive? (Laughs.)

No need to worry about that in the ocean.

I've been scuba diving for about 11 years. If I was in waters where I knew there were sharks around, it would scare me to be snorkeling at the surface, because you have no idea what's going on below you. Sharks understand the front of your head and the back of your head. They will maintain a distance from you if you maintain eye contact with them. If you're at the surface, you can't do that, and then you're fair game.

Shark season is coming up. Is there anything swimmers in Florida need to keep an eye out for?

No. Don't think about how many sharks are out there, because if you've been in the water down here, a shark has swum close to you. There's no doubt about it. The fact of the matter is, they're not interested in you. The less paranoid you are, the better chance you have of being relaxed in the water.

Do you foresee yourself appearing on television again any time soon?

There's nothing in the works right now.

Maybe you'll become like the Crocodile Hunter, but with sharks. The Shark Hunter.

No, my intention is to always maintain an academic approach to what I do, as opposed to a naturalist or a Hollywood approach to it.

But I've definitely made sure that Discovery still has my name on their list.

[Last modified May 4, 2004, 08:49:31]


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