When he was 8 years old, Rocky Strong brought home a dead baby shark a fisherman had given him on a beach near his Charlotte, N.C., home and promptly stuffed it in the refrigerator. "That was part of his life," says his unflappable mother, Katie, 62. "Rocky was born with gills, not lungs." Now 38, Strong grew up to be a marine biologist and underwater cinematographer whose collaboration on 20 documentaries on sharks has made him a darling of the Discovery Channel. "To know sharks is to love them," insists the 5'9" Strong. "If someone is not passionate about sharks, they don't have much experience with them."
Ever the apologist, he says last summer's spike in attacks—which he explains as a mix of fluky migration patterns and crowded beaches—"was unfortunate for everyone, including the sharks." Wesley Strong Jr. (his grandmother nicknamed him Rocky because he rocked from side to side while he talked) has trekked from South Africa, where he straddled a whale carcass to film the sharks feeding on it, to Santa Barbara, Calif., where he lives with his grad student girlfriend, Cristine McConnell, 32. "His drive is the best thing about him," she says. "Rocky is someone who takes a big bite out of life."