Mike Rowe, the longtime host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, did some nasty and risky shit on camera while performing often brutal, gross, and dangerous tasks people do every day to earn a paycheck. At times, it also seemed like the show just wanted to put Rowe in as much danger as possible for the enjoyment of so many watching from the safety of their living rooms.
The show ran for eight seasons before an extended halt in 2011, but it came back strong with a ninth season early this year. Recently, on an episode of the Black Rifle Coffee Podcast, Evan Hafer asked Rowe to call out the scariest situation in which he ever found himself while working on the series.
Without hesitating, he launched into the story about the time he put on a shark suit he helped build, covered himself in chum, and let himself get bitten over and over by a bunch of sharks that he says shook him like a chew toy. But it’s what the cameras didn’t catch that was the most terrifying part of the experience for Rowe — and it could have killed him, but the sharks weren’t involved.
“I was invited to help build a shark suit, whatever the hell that is, so I went down to the Bahamas, and I meet this guy, Jeremiah Sullivan. He invented the shark suit, this stainless steel suit — this was way back in like, 2004,” Rowe said.
Sullivan is still making his shark-proof suits for divers, which look like high-tech full-body chain mail with really tiny holes, under his SharkArmor brand. In these early days, it was still a sketchy sort of tech that wasn’t 100% proven.
The suit allows divers to swim in shark-infested waters and get chomped on by the powerful apex predators while preventing the teeth from actually biting into the flesh. However, the diver still gets the considerable pressure of every shark bite, which doesn’t feel too great either.
“I made one with him (Sullivan), with lots of TIG welding, and you basically look like Lancelot. After we made the shark suit, we agreed to test the thing the next morning,” Rowe says. The problem was that, in order to capture the necessary footage, the Dirty Jobs film crew had to be outfitted with shark suits, too, and they needed to know exactly how communications would work in the water and test the audio — basically, they needed a “dry” run before filming in the morning.
“I just want to make sure everybody is just not completely going to shit the bed, right? I mean, this is a crazy thing we’re going to do the next morning. And there’s a reporter there from TV Guide, a guy named Leon. He comes into this momentarily,” Rowe says as he describes the dry run the evening before filming.
“I’m breathing compressed air through this thing that looks like a welder’s shield, so I can talk. I also have a bicycle helmet screwed onto the shark suit because a couple of weeks earlier, a friend of Jeremiah’s got bit in the back of the head, and that wasn’t cool. So, he didn’t want that to happen. And I’m just like, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’
“Meanwhile, my camera guys are super experienced divers. They’re about 30 feet down waiting for me, and Jeremiah is all the way at the bottom, kneeling on the ocean floor where we’re going to shoot the scene the next morning.
“Anyway, I get down there, and we test the comms, and everything is great. Now, it’s really starting to get dark and, ‘This is enough. We’re good. Let’s get out of here,” he says. And that’s when everything went bad.
“I get this weird, tightening feeling in my chest I’d never experienced before. It can’t be my air because I’ve got 45 minutes of air, and I’ve only been down there 15 minutes,” Rowe says. “But it was my air.”
“I tore through 45 minutes of air in 15 minutes because I was so jacked up. So, I clear my throat, exhale, and go to breathe in — and there’s nothing there. My last breath at 60 feet was an exhale.”
Rowe was in a bad spot wearing a heavy steel shark suit with no air — and with no way of readily getting the attention of his diving partners with only seconds of consciousness remaining. Luckily, the journalist who was along for the ride was paying attention.
“Leon, from TV Guide, is kneeling next to me, and he immediately sees something’s wrong, and he grabs my gauge. He looks at it, and he just shakes his head, he’s like, ‘No dude, you are O-U-T out,” Rowe says. “So he immediately takes out his respirator and tries to get my mask off, but it won’t come off because the goddamn bicycle helmet is screwed onto the top of it.
“Now, when your heart’s going that fast, and you’re 60 feet down, and your last breath is an exhale, all you want is O-2, and all you can see when you look up is the bottom of your boat — six stories up,” Rowe says. “I am an anvil at the bottom of the ocean with zero air, and some dude from TV Guide is the only one who realizes what’s going on. This guy grabs me with his right hand, floods his BC, and the two of us start to rise. I’m kicking as hard as I can because I know I’m not going to make it — this is how it ends for me. I can’t get my mask off. I can’t get any air…”
Well, Mike Rowe obviously survived this particular dirty job because he’s around to do this interview, but that’s a hairy ordeal to go through for what amounted to just a few minutes of footage in an episode about a lot of other stuff.
His description of the next morning’s filming when they chum the water and rub some on their shark suits to encourage bites after signing a waiver saying that nobody should ever do that — that seems pretty damn scary, too, even without a near drowning/asphyxiation.
Here’s to you, Mike Rowe — thanks for doing this crap and filming it so we don’t have to.