An ultra-athlete goes head-to-head with the world’s most formidable sharks

Man in scuba gear on ocean floor standing next to giant hammerhead shark
Enlarge / Extreme sportsman Ross Edgley comes face to face with a great hammerhead shark in the waters of Bimini in the Bahamas.

National Geographic/Nathalie Miles

Ultra-athlete Ross Edgley is no stranger to pushing his body to extremes. He once ran a marathon while pulling a 1-ton car; ran a triathlon while carrying a 100-pound tree; and climbed a 65-foot rope over and over again until he’d climbed the equivalent of Mt. Everest—all for charity. In 2016, he set the world record for the world’s longest staged sea swim around the coastline of Great Britain: 1,780 miles over 157 days.

At one point during that swim, a basking shark appeared and swam alongside Edgley for a day and a half. That experience ignited his curiosity about sharks and eventually led to his new National Geographic documentary, Shark vs. Ross Edgley—part of four full weeks of 2024 SHARKFEST programming. Edgley matches his athletic prowess against four different species of shark. He tries to jump out of the water (polaris) like a great white shark; withstand the G forces produced by a hammerhead shark’s fast, rapid turns; mimic the extreme fasting and feasting regimen of a migrating tiger shark; and match the swimming speed of a mako shark.

“I love this idea of having a goal and then reverse-engineering and deconstructing it,” Edgley told Ars. “[Sharks are] the ultimate ocean athletes. We just had this idea: what if you’re crazy enough to try and follow in the footsteps of four amazing sharks? It’s an impossible task. You’re going to fail, you’re going to be humbled. But in the process, we could use it as a sports/shark science experiment, almost like a Trojan horse to bring science and ocean conservation to a new audience.”

And who better than Edgley to take on that impossible challenge? “The enthusiasm he brings to everything is really infectious,” marine biologist and shark expert Mike Heithaus of Florida International University told Ars. “He’s game to try anything. He’d never been in the water with sharks, and we’re throwing him straight in with big tiger sharks and hammerheads. He’s loving the whole thing and just devoured all the information.”

That Edgley physique doesn’t maintain itself, so the athlete was up at 4 am swimming laps and working out every morning before the rest of the crew had their coffee. “I’m doing bicep curls with my coffee cup and he’s doing bicep curls with the 60-pound underwater camera,” Heithaus recalled. “For the record, I got one rep in and I’m very proud of that.” Score one for the shark expert.

(Spoilers below for the various shark challenges.)

Edgley vs. the great white shark

For the first challenge, Edgley took on the great white shark, a creature he describes as a “submarine with teeth.” These sharks are ambush hunters, capable of propelling their massive bodies fully out of the water in an arching leap. That maneuver is called a polaris, and it’s essential to the great white shark’s survival. It helps that the shark has 65 percent muscle mass, particularly concentrated in the tail, as well as a light skeleton and a large liver that serves as a buoyancy device.

Edgley, by comparison, is roughly 45 percent muscle mass—much higher than the average human but falling short of the great white shark. To help him try to match the great white’s powerful polaris maneuver, Edgley sought tips on biomechanics from the Aquabatix synchronized swim team, since synchronized swimmers must frequently launch their bodies fully out of the water during routines. They typically get a boost from their teammates to do so.

The team did manage to boost Edgley out of the water, but sharks don’t need a boost. Edgley opted to work with a monofin, frequently used in underwater sports like free diving or finswimming, to see what he could achieve on his own power. After a bit of practice, he succeeded in launching 75 percent of his body (compared to the shark’s 100 percent) out of the water. Verdict: Edgley is 75 percent great white shark.

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