Enter a cage and observe a Great White Shark feeding
(Divers observing a Great White Shark from the "safety" of a protective cage)
Meet Eli Martinez.... Professional Adventure Guide and one of the most amazing “fear experts” we have encountered so far in our investigation of "Fearless" individuals while filming for the Fearless Documentary.
Eli is considered by most extreme diving enthusiasts to be the worlds leading expert of direct-contact techniques with Tiger Sharks, Great Hammerhead Sharks and other potentially ultra hazardous Apex Predators of the ocean.
He has been called the “Shark Whisperer” for his uncanny ability to “dance” with sharks in the open ocean, flipping thousand-pound Tiger sharks over on their backs like puppy dogs or standing them “up on end” vertically and balancing them on their nose with a single hand.
He has been featured on Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, NatGeo Wild, Animal Planet, Ripleys believe it or not, the Outdoor Channel and other major main stream television networks.
Not only did Eli pioneer the “Tiger Roll” and other mind blowing moves, he has successfully owned and operated one of the most prestigious adventure diving operations on the planet, safely guiding and leading expeditions all over the world where clients can encounter anything from Killer Whales to Great White Sharks.
Eli is also the founder of Shark Diver Magazine, world famous the guide that inspired a generation of new shark divers to deeper levels of interaction and appreciation for these magnificent creatures of the deep.
But most people do not know how Eli got his start. It wasn’t in the water, it was on the rough dirt roads and hard packed soil of south Texas ....riding Bulls. Not Bull Sharks, but actual Bulls, with sharp horns and dangerous hooves.
As we drove down an old Texas dirt road Eli suddenly said “pull over here” and showed me the house he grew up in.
He said “I used to walk up and down this exact road for hours and hours as a kid searching for lizards, snakes and reptiles imagining I was a hero in Star Wars or Indiana Jones.”
I asked him if he ever thought he would swim with sharks in the ocean. He laughed loudly and said “not in a million years”
Then we drove by the baseball field he played (and fought) on, canals he swam in and he recalled how he got his start in the bizarre and fascinating world of shark diving.
He confessed to me that his youth was plagued with many of the same fears we all have. He said “I was a late bloomer, smaller than many of the other kids, so I got picked on quite a bit.”
He said “I chose riding bulls as a way to conquer my insecurities and become a man.”
But there was one problem; he was terrified of bulls!! He said he even read dozens of books and biographies of what he thought were “fearless” men searching for answers on how to conquer his fear.
Unfortunately he didn’t find any answers and came to the conclusion that all he could do was just learn to deal with the terrible feeling and take action anyways.
Eli says “What I learned is that you can’t control fear, but what you can control is how you respond to it”
(Eli "rolling" a giant Tiger Shark attracted by a "bait box" on the ocean floor)
Eli was well on his way to becoming a world class bull rider in the early to mid 90s, but fate had other plans for him.
It was a freak bull riding accident that threw him to the ground so hard it cracked his hip bone. Anyone who has had a hip injury knows they are debilitatingly painful and slow to heal.
So he had no choice but to take some time off to recover. During this time he decided to go scuba diving with a friend in the Caribbean.
It was there that he saw a shark for the first time. He said he was so scared he felt sick and all he could think about was getting out of the water as quickly as possible.
But then he noticed something strange, when the shark saw him, it began to swim away. And then he noticed something else, he had a completely conflicting emotion: a “desire” to follow the shark and observe it.
He said the more he tried to pursue the shark the more it swam away and this experience caused him to come out of the water really scratching his head in confusion about fear in general.
He began thinking hard about this irrational, illogical fear of sharks that he had silently experienced his entire life.
He said when he got back and was healed up he was standing behind a gate getting ready to ride a bull, but all he could think about was... “white sand, crystal clear water, sharks and Caribbean music playing in my mind...”
That was 20 years ago and the rest has become something legends are made of.
There is so much I could say about this amazing man. But probably one of the most striking characteristics I observed in him (which is rare in someone who has such a high level of skill and fearlessness) is his humility and love of sharing his knowledge.
I met Eli before dawn in the parking lot of a Whataburger in McAllen Texas and he had his 12-year-old daughter Sophia with him. Eli and his wife are homeschooling Sophia and she is in the process of becoming a wildlife photographer just like her father.
I didn’t want to interrupt their daily school schedule but I wanted to learn more about Eli and how he teaches. So I asked permission to follow them to the “classroom” (a nature sanctuary) where we would observe all sorts of amazing birds and hopefully see a locally infamous bobcat who apparently lies in wait to ambush birds from time to time at a specific spot.
The Southern Rio Grande valley is one of the top birding and butterfly sanctuaries in the world. People come from all over the globe to witness the amazing variety and number of birds and butterflies here.
The morning curriculum included: taxonomy of birds, (correctly identifying different species and calling them by their proper name) observation of their behaviors, and attempts at predicting the predatory behavior of the unseen bobcat lurking in the undergrowth based on the changes in the bird calls.
We listened for the distinctions between the pleasant social chirping of the brightly colored Green Jays and loud obnoxious warning calls of the giant Chachalacas.
We waited quietly for hours as the sunrise illuminated the landscape and the symphony of songbirds reached a crescendo of incredible sounds...then suddenly, silence.
Unfortunately we did not see the bobcat, but what I did see was the amazing love and gentle, quiet, whispering teachings of a father to his daughter.
Observing them observing the wildlife made me realize how important having powerful core values facilitates being in a “fearless” state of mind.
I’ve seen this again and again as we have traveled all over the country interviewing fearless people. They all have this one characteristic in common: They are deeply passionate. They have an incredible love and appreciation for what they do and they love to share that passion.
They look at every day as a gift, a treasure waiting to be discovered. They dont have “jobs” they have missions, causes, passions, purposes and important messages to share.
They are deeply concerned with the environment and creating meaningful lasting relationships with other human beings who share their passions.
Eli says “die with memories not dreams”
This unifying Vision and Passion is what creates “behavioral flexibility” which is necessary to bend and flex with the unexpected changes and pressures of life without breaking.
Eli wanted to be one of the best bull riders in the world but life had other plans.
Because of his passion and flexibility, the skills that he learned in Bull-riding were naturally translated into another unexpected discipline which gave him almost immediate world class ability to work with dangerous wildlife in the ocean.
It may sound cliché but it’s like the old saying goes “When life gives you lemons you can become bitter or you can make lemonade.”
What is also significant to me is the incredible driving force of his inclusive family mission and vision.
His son who is now 22 years old is currently in Mexico leading his own shark diving expeditions, honing his skills, preparing to come back and take charge of the family business. Eli taught him everything he could about shark diving but knew he had to go off and become his own man.
I witnessed him mentoring and teaching his daughter everything he knows about wildlife photography, requiring her to learn how to shoot still images manually, adjusting the iso, shutter speed and f-stop and not relying on “smart” technology.
And Eli is this way with everyone. Aspiring divers contact Eli all the time asking him for advice and he gladly shares what he has learned along the way. You can really feel that he wants to see the next generation of shark divers go to an entirely new level.
He is not competitive, he is creative and compassionate. He shares his passion and knowledge willingly with others.
I also asked him about the sudden explosion of “social media eco-warriors” (individuals who pretend to be concerned with the environment and sharks, when all they really want to do is build a huge ego driven social media following)
Eli said he not concerned with how many likes he has on social media because that is not his purpose. He said if that’s what they want to do, more power to them.
But he did say it bothers him when people “parrot” false information, citing incredibly inflated numbers with no scientific proof about how many sharks are being killed a year for their fins.
He said “people may not like that I am saying this, but the truth is far from what some people would have you believe, and if we are going to make the necessary changes we need to make we need to use science not emotion.”
He also said he felt in some cases the “research” some scientists are doing is actually doing more harm than good.
He talked about sharks who have been tagged and re-tagged so many times their bodies look like they have been repeatedly shot with bullets.
Imagine how traumatizing is this to the sharks. Being captured, drugged, dragged onto a boat, prodded, probed and tested again and again.
For what purpose I asked? “I don’t know.” He said “They can’t even say. But clearly they need to keep doing their research so they can keep getting their funding”
This made me feel sad and angry at the same time. But listening to Eli made me think about how fear is a double edged sword.
The Fearless Documentary will delve more deeply into how some people use fear as a manipulative tool to gain momentum for their self serving causes.
For now, I can tell you it was incredibly refreshing to hear a man talk about truth rather than pound the war-drums of imminent, irreversible, man-made environmental disaster.
Eli is incredibly knowledgeable, humble, authentic, genuine and experienced beyond anyone we have met so far. All of this makes me respect and trust him.
And Eli is a man with a vision and a mission to educate the next generation.
Starting with children. His goal is to reach one million minds with his message.
He and his family regularly conduct educational presentations to young children in schools with the purpose of expanding their knowledge and appreciation of the world as it relates to ocean wildlife.
Eli delivers a talk at a local school
We hear all the time how the ocean doesn’t need us, but we need the ocean.
With Eli you feel a very powerful sense of balance and respect for all life, on land, in the air and in the water. He is a true ambassador for a better world for all of us.
I left McAllen Texas yesterday deeply satisfied with more knowledge, more passion, more purpose and more importantly; a new friend.
We’re already planning to go back again soon to spend more time with Eli and his family observing the local wildlife, sampling the tasty southwestern cuisine and having meaningful conversations about life, love passion, purpose and of course everybody’s bad guy...FEAR.
Enjoy these clips and pics from my visit with Eli and some highlights from some of Eli’s past ocean expeditions.
For more information on the Fearless Project, Book and Documentary please visit www.FearlessDocumentary.com
Article by Scott Goodknight
Scott Goodknight interviews Eli Martinez in South Texas