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Shark filmmaker now takes a bite out of crime as a SLO County sheriff's deputy

John McKenney films a great white shark while shooting an underwater documentary in 2004 at Guadalupe Island, west of Mexico. He formerly owned the documentary company Jack McKenney Produtions Inc. He's now a SLO County sheriff's deputy.

Courtesy photo
John McKenney films a great white shark while shooting an underwater documentary in 2004 at Guadalupe Island, west of Mexico. He formerly owned the documentary company Jack McKenney Produtions Inc. He's now a SLO County sheriff's deputy. Courtesy photo

John McKenney isn’t afraid to take on a dangerous job.

For several years, he was an underwater filmmaker capturing video of sharks, including great whites, inches from their menacing jaws.

And for the past five years, the 53-year-old sheriff’s deputy has fought crime.

Years ago, McKenney worked on two films that made “Shark Week’s 25 Best Bites” list.

The “Best Bites” program was shown on the Discovery Channel last week.

McKenney worked on the documentary “In Search of the Golden Hammerhead,” ranked 14th, and “Sharks on the Brink of Extinction,” ranked 12th.

Long before he became a deputy in 2007 for family reasons and for a life of less travel, McKenney worked for his father, Jack McKenney, as a diver, production assistant, cameraman and director.

He eventually took over the company, Jack McKenney Productions Inc., which he ran for 18 years, selling many of his shows for domestic and international television.

Despite the many differences between his underwater career and his post as a deputy, McKenney says similarities exist between the two: handling dodgy situations, as well as investigating and documenting events and behaviors.

“In both jobs, you’re putting yourself in danger,” McKenney said. “It can be an adrenaline rush.”

One of his programs involved diving and filming great white sharks in the waters near Guadalupe Island west of Baja California.

The 2004 documentary — “Great White Shark: Uncaged” — has appeared as part of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” programming in past years. The film depicts McKenney and cast members swimming and photographing great whites without the protection of cages.

McKenney said most of the time, sharks bite people by mistake. But some human remains have been found in certain sharks, indicating that not all bite for just a taste.

McKenney said he has bumped sharks with his camera, which they don’t like, to keep them away. His crew also once fled the water when a group of 20 silky sharks in Costa Rica began nudging them with their noses, an indication they were gearing up to feed.

The experience of staring a 15-foot great white in the eye is exhilarating, McKenney said.

“And as much or even more so, looking at a whale that weighs 40,000 pounds in the eye is just incredible,” he said. Whales that hefty can be more than 60 feet long.

Other programs McKenney worked on included a feature on the golden hammerhead, which gets its color from a diet rich in carotene. He also shot footage using a specialized “gutcam” device, attached to a pole, that can film the inside of a shark’s stomach.

Raised in Canada, the Bahamas and Los Angeles, McKenney grew up diving, starting at age 7. His father was a diver and editor of Skin Diver magazine.

McKenney’s duties as a deputy have included a stint as a bailiff, patrolling the North Coast beat and serving on the sheriff’s dive team.

“I do miss being in the water (filming),” McKenney said. Though he’s part of the dive team and still surfs, “mostly, my activities in the ocean are now hobbies.”

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