We are Celebrating Air Jaws Apocalypse
Air Jaws Apocalypse, filmed in 2012, had a few novel scenes and the show was based around an attempt to track down and get to know one of Seal Islands’ famous big great white sharks, Colossus.
Personally, the absolute highlight of this show was my chance to paddle board with some very large female great whites in the shallows off Franskraals beaches near Gansbaai. Whilst I am very comfortable in or on the water having spent my childhood and teens surfing diving fishing and steering boats I had never paddle boarded before, although this really was not a big deal. What was funny was that I used the paddle the wrong way around, much to the humor and chagrin of anyone who knew which way it should be used.
One female in particular was very large, roughly 15 ft. or so long and super relaxed. Gosh, I can still feel while I type, the emotion and privilege I felt as she effortlessly zigzagged behind me and under me as she humored my exploration of her world. She must have stayed with me for 20 wonderful minutes before going her way. Of all the great whites I paddle boarded with, she was the only one who in any way investigated me, the others actually seemed intimidated, especially if I paddled towards them rather than letting them come to me. It really pushed home the fact of just how unlucky you have to be to be attacked, it really is a case of wrong place with the wrong shark at the wrong time.
Another highlight was seeing Jeff’s latest contraption, the Shark Spy, take shape. The shark spy was a camera we lowered to the sea floor and allowed us to see what the sharks were doing without any cages, boats or bait……..for the most part.
We could sit high and dry on the boat and be virtual witnesses to the underwater cloak and dagger lifestyle of these ambush hunters. We instantly observed dozens of smaller sharks which we had long suspected the great whites were feeding on. We saw smooth hound sharks, soupfins and plenty of shy sharks. It reinforced how important these smaller shark’s habitat and numbers are to preserve if we are to look after the great whites. You can’t simply manage one species and hope the rest will be ok, you need to manage eco systems and this footage gave us a prime example of this. For Air Jaws Apocalypse, my host for the first time was Alison Towner. Alison is Gansbaai’s longest standing shark biologist and is truly dedicated and passionate about the sharks. For Ali, it was a great eye opener to see her sharks foraging in the inshore areas. Ali’s work has amongst many other things highlighted how large females use the inshore areas at certain times of the year as opposed to the males which use nearby reef systems. She has also observed how individual sharks use preferred hunting areas and with some sharks even using the kelp as cover, an area where a lot of divers always thought great whites didn’t venture.
A funny sequence of this show was where Jeff had created and had built a robotic seal with cameras. It worked off gas and its flippers would move up and down. It was not cheap, let’s say that much.
It worked great out of water and with great excitement we placed it into the water, foosh , foosh foosh , I think we got three fooshes out of it and then nothing. We stared at our seal waiting…. Was it nervous, playing dead, or was it the biggest Air Jaws waste of money to date, definitely the latter. Our local great whites turned up for a closer look and then finally a huge male known as Ike swam in, ripped the robotic seal to pieces and so ended a very expensive flopped experiment.
The Grand Finale of Air Jaws Apocalypse was however spectacular. This time Jeff Kurr at my insistence was sent out on the Seal Sled, time for him to be on the receiving end. Unlike when I was on the sled, Jeff had to wait 40 odd minutes for action. I can close my eyes and see the scene.
A flat calm Seal Island day, soft golden pink light kissing the Hottentots Holland mountains as the last rays of sun said goodbye. It was literally seconds before calling it a day and going home and then WHOOSH! a huge great white launched vertically behind Jeff, it was Colossus, mouth agape and in full hunting mode, what an incredible end to the day and the shoot and a shot that was Jawsome.
Air Jaws Fins of Fury
This was to be a show that featured some very special moments and a couple of truly crazy ones as well.
After Jeff Kurr’s seal sled breach with Colossus had proved such a big hit in 2012, we once again set out in search of tracking down this now famous shark.
Initially we searched for him at Seal Island, False Bay where he was most regularly seen. Without any luck, we then headed to Gansbaai and teamed up with Dickie Chivell. Dickie is a very good waterman and very experienced with working with white sharks and although many people criticize Dickie for his on-screen folly, I can vouch for his credentials in terms of his backround, he is also a great guy.
I also remember doing some pretty crazy things when I was in my early twenties that included amongst many others, swimming out from shore to retrieve a bleeding seal carcass only to discover the reason for the bleeding was a crescent shaped white shark bite!
I guess Darwin doesn’t always take care of all the stupid things we do!
Anyhow in Air Jaws Fins of Fury, Dickie and Jeff designed a manned floatation device called Parthenope that from below resembled a large 15ft long female white shark and came complete with moving parts that could be steered and moved by Dickie whilst lying on it. The idea was to attract a huge male white shark to come and have a look at the girl….anyhow for lack of any better ideas we proceeded.
We managed to get Dickie in the water on the Parthenope and sure enough we started getting the attention of several sharks we knew were in the area.
Seeing Dickie floating out there on nothing more than a glorified surfboard was nerve racking BUT I also know from a huge amount of time with these sharks that by watching body language and behavior that these sharks were actually not that interested in attacking the strange object in their territory.
In fact, quite the opposite, the sharks were super aware of the silhouette and whilst they approached close to it, whenever Dickie was on it or made it move, they steered clear. It was incredible that somehow, they were able to perceive the fact that there was something that didn’t add up. The remarkable part was that the moment Dickie got off the shape it was suddenly investigated and finally bitten by another big female.
What it was that those sharks were picking up on is a mystery but they were definitely very aware of any changes and if it didn’t seem right, they erred on the side of caution.
So with no luck of finding Colossus in South Africa, we headed for New Zealand. We had heard that Peter Scott had been seeing some huge male great whites and the fact that New Zealand was a new location, made it an attractive proposition to try our luck.
New Zealand is incredible from a scenery and marine mega fauna point of view and their white sharks are spectacular as well.
We headed down to the very tip of the South island, a place called Stewart Island and sailed from the tiny port of Oban out to Edwards island. This small forested island is the seasonal home of a significant proportion of the countries great whites. What the exact reason for the sharks favoring this island is was for the most part unknown. Yes, there are lots of seals there but there are lots of seals along many stretches of the New Zealand coast line.
So, my quest was twofold. Go down and find Colossus, who was last seen 10,500km away and then also find out what the sharks were doing at Edwards island.
To do so required me being as non-invasive as possible and spending as much time with the white sharks in area where they naturally would occur. What we noticed is that the sharks spent a lot of their time cruising just above the sea floor, generally between 25-65ft depending on which side of the island we were working on.
So, enter Jeff and his crazy contraptions designed to entertain audiences, discover new behavior and terrify me. This time Jeff had designed a one-man cage which was to be sunk to the sea floor and through which I could poke my legs and walk around much in the same way Fred Flintstone walked around with a tortoise shell on his back.
This craft, known as the WASP was actually engineered extremely well.
We did a few shallow water tests and then we were off to Great White central. I remember being lowered down for the first time and being struck by the beauty of the seafloor with all the fish and luxuriant seaweeds in a multitude of colors and there cruising amongst this vibrant flush of life were the magnificent great white sharks. It is these moments we cherish when so much around us is disappearing. Being alone and watching these huge sharks cruising in this silent multi colored seascape is one of the most wonderful I can recollect from all my time with the sharks. In no time at all I had 5 different great whites orbiting me at often no more than an arm’s length, with some less confident than others to see what this strange object was in their private world. I watched in awe as they displayed different body language to me and to each other. I saw the same sharks interacting with each other and noted with fascination how unlike seal Island where the sharks give each other a wide berth here the sharks seemed to be very comfortable with each other in extremely close proximity.
What I also noticed was that nothing escaped their attention and whilst you could often be forgiven for thinking they may not have seen something or were not aware of changes, if a small piece of bait fell from the boat above they were onto it. If something in the familiar scene around them changed they were cautious rather than aggressive. It was like being a voyeur in the white shark’s world.
Needless to say, I emerged from my first dive chomping at the bit to do another and as soon as I had warmed up and it was safe to dive again, I was on my way down to the Davy Jones’s locker. At first everything was the same. I had the lid of the cage unhinged with my head and arms out so that I could take photos, the sharks were coming close but everything was very relaxed and controlled. Enter Fred, a 16ft long male known for his, let’s call it bold behavior. Rather than circle me or slowly get closer like all the other sharks had down until they had satisfied their curiosity, Fred just came barreling in, straight towards me no questions asked. When he was little more than 6feet away I knew he wasn’t going to stop. I grabbed the cage lid in the nick of time and pulled it over my head forsaking my camera in the process. BANG! Fred connected with the WASP and I reeled backwards. Scrambling I retrieved my camera while Fred lined up his next onslaught. Suddenly it wasn’t just Fred, his pals had seen what he was doing and wanted to get a part of the action. It went from a very controlled interaction into a super charged one in less than a minute. Suddenly there were relays of two, three and even four great whites taking turns to bump, mouth and push over the WASP. I knew I was safe inside the cage because even though the sharks were biting and bumping it, they were not doing so in the same manner when they are trying to kill something. This for all intents and purposes was a game for them, I was their punch bag. For 20 minutes, I was knocked flat time and again, righting myself one way only to be knocked flat another. I know this sounds completely crazy but it was amazing! Who gets to be a great white shark play mate? My only real concern came in when I realized that the boat had swung on anchor with the change of wind and had moved away. I now needed to walk to where I thought it was and due to the exertion of me having to right the WASP each time I was knocked over I had rapidly burnt through my air. I knew I would be shortly faced with the decision of having to abandon the WASP and do an emergency ascent through a large number of very excited, very large great whites. Fortunately, I managed to walk to where the boat had swung to, recoupled myself and was unceremoniously hauled feet first towards the surface where with almost no air left I could recount my experience.
It was yet another amazing education in white shark behavior, how it takes just one dominant animal to lead the way and like a gang the rest follow. In so many ways there are recognizable traits in wildlife we can relate to in our inter human social dynamics.
Ironically on this very day we were in New Zealand, we received confirmation from our Apex crew back in False Bay that Colossus had been seen back at Seal Island. Well at the end of the day we might not have found him in New Zealand but we did find an amazing location with some special sharks, what exactly they were doing there still remained a mystery save to say the sharks all seemed pretty healthy and comfortable in each other’s company. It was simply an amazing experience.