KEY WEST, Fla. — Quiznos Madfin Shark Series host Mehgan Heaney-Grier, 30, said the closest she's come to being beheaded by a shark was while stunt doubling for Jessica Alba in the movie "Into the Blue." It was an underwater scene — to which she added, "it's always underwater" — and she was supposed to be pulling a cannon off of a friend who was stuck beneath it on the ocean's floor. "I was saving lives," she said with a smirk.
"Right before they'd roll the cameras, they'd dump chum all over us, because it was supposed to be a heated scene with the sharks," she said. "They did it a bunch of different times, because they wanted to get two different angles with one camera."
"My head was down, because we were trying to dig the cannon out, and the shark kept coming in and hitting me in the back of the head. Luckily, my costume for that scene was a hooded, long-sleeve wetsuit top. Had I not had the hood on, the chum would have gotten in my hair — and the shark would have bitten my head."
And would she have blamed the shark? Of course not.
"They're just sensing with their snout and they would have sensed the chum in my hair and bit," she said. "That was a time where I was glad the wardrobe for the scene was what it was."
Heaney-Grier talks about sharks, and everything else that calls water home, as if they are her immediate family.
Growing up in Minnesota, Heaney-Grier said she was afraid of the water until she learned how to swim when she was 4 years old.
"And I've just never gotten out," she said while sitting on a dock in Key West, waiting for the Madfin anglers to gather on Day One. "I moved to the Keys when I was 10, and it opened a whole new world for me — an underwater world."
Heaney-Grier had trouble describing what it is like for her underwater. She hesitated, so as to not undermine the profound effect being submerged has had on her life.
"I don't want to add the fluffy element to it, but it's kind of spiritual in a way," she said. "Being underwater in general for me is like that. Just to be able to go and escape the world like that, and dream about being able to stay down there forever — to be able to breathe underwater. That would definitely be my super-power … if I could have one."
Heaney-Grier spent her teenage years hanging out with spear fishermen, which meant a lot of freediving and a lot of time spent underwater. She learned the techniques and eventually decided to see just how deep she could go.
On her first official try, she went 87 feet deep before deciding to come back up. (She was freediving, which means she was working only with snorkeling gear and the capacity of her lungs.)
With that kind of early success, she decided to start training formally. A year later, at age 18, she set the first freedive record for men or women in the United States by diving 155 feet on one breath. She was competing in the Constant Weight Category which means Mehgan could wear weights to help her go deeper, but whatever she took down, she had to bring back up.
Not completely satisfied with that, she broke her own record in 1997, less than a year after her first record, by going 165 feet.
"Back then, there really wasn't a whole lot of information available on freediving," she said. "It was very much underground. It's a lot more prevalent now. It's still a fringe sport, but back then it was really obscure."
With freediving for depth officially conquered, she and some friends decided to start filming some of their interaction with exotic marine animals.
They called their company Extreme Encounters, and they spent most of their time swimming with sharks, alligators and other predators.
"We were just exploring and investigating how we could interact with these animals — finding out what their thresholds were," she said. "We found out what the thresholds were so we could commingle in the same area without freaking them out — and without getting eaten."
Their underwater footage led to a show on Animal Planet called "Extreme Contact," showcasing their crazy shark and alligator encounters. From there, they did a one-hour special for the USA Network called "Deep Diver: Tiger Shark Odyssey."
And those are just a couple of the highlights. Heaney-Grier said they had quite a few smaller TV gigs, and she also paid the bills by modeling, hosting television shows, commercial work and endorsements from some heavy-hitters like OMEGA Watches and VO5 hair products.
The group went their separate ways in 2002 and Heaney-Grier started focusing more on her diving and TV work. Her photos started showing up in Maxim and FHM. She continued doing commercials and began working as an underwater stunt double for Hollywood, when they needed an attractive woman that was not afraid to dive and mingle with sharks.
She is clear to state that she does not plan on taking the stunt work to dry land however, "There's a lot less impact underwater," she said. "I like being underwater. It's just my world."
A slow, calm rush
Swimming with sharks, holding alligators, riding a hammerhead — all these sound like the fix for a junkie in need of adrenaline, but Heaney-Grier said it's not like that at all.
"In freediving, you have to be calm and relaxed to maintain your oxygen, so it's kind of counterproductive to have an adrenaline rush," she said. "It's the same thing with the shark. They get all wigged out when you're amped up. Everything is better underwater when you're making calm, premeditated movements."
It's that attitude and respect for the animal, she said, that has allowed her to keep all her fingers and toes.
"These animals are so finely tuned and so fast, you don't have time to react," she said. "There's never that moment where you know you've screwed up. At that point, it would already be too late."
So, then why do it? According to Mehgan, there is no better place on this earth than underwater with these toothy predators, and she is concerned by the declining numbers of sharks around the world.
As a conservationist of sorts, she is a supporter of catch and release fishing and stresses that there needs to be a change of attitude towards these animals.
"There is a lot of misunderstanding that surrounds these animals and that can breed fear and a 'kill the beast' mentality," she said. "I am an advocate for sharks; by encountering them with, with no weapons — just my bare hands — perhaps people can begin to understand that they are not the evil, eating machines that they so often made out to be."
And she's not just talking to hear herself. The water in her eyes and the care she takes while choosing her words is an example of the genuine love she has for marine life.
"It's just a surreal experience, being underwater with the animals," she said. "The hammerhead and tiger shark are my favorite.
"The hammerhead — there is no creature like the hammerhead on this planet. You get in the water with one and they just command respect. They are so bizarre looking and so finely tuned … it just renders me speechless; it's so amazing and awesome to be underwater with a hammerhead."