Air Jaws: Walking with Great Whites

Celebrating Air Jaws – Walking with Great Whites

Building on our observations of the interesting social dynamics seen at Stewart Island in 2014, we once again headed back to Stewart Island in New Zealand. This time the WASP had been modified to be a little safer but unfortunately the modifications had inadvertently made it more difficult to manouevre and a lot more difficult to right when knocked over.  We look back at Air Jaws Walking with Great Whites.

shark breaching

Our goal was to look at what it was the white sharks were actually doing in the depths surrounding Edwards island and what they were feeding on.

This really was a show that had challenges. The weather did not play ball, we had a lot of swell and currents and we had a lot of moving parts creating many stressful situations. Also new regulations had made it almost impossible to get any filming done and all combined, made for a trying shoot.

I was lowered to the seafloor on the west side of the island which is the deeper side where the water rapidly gets deeper closer to shore. What I was surprised by was the fact that unlike the colorful and seaweed rich Eastern side, the west was a veritable desert that reminded me of scenes from the moon with little craters and a pretty much lifeless zone.

When we started to attract the sharks, things rapidly changed and most notably was the fact that I suddenly started to see lots of small dogfish (small shark species). We know from our work in South Africa just how vital these smaller sharks are in the diet of the great whites and this along with the many seven gill sharks that occur close to Stewart Island may be another reason the great whites are there. We know from South Africa that seals are not enough to keep great whites around for extended periods and it is in fact the smaller shark species to which they seem more partial.

I did not however at any stage see the great whites go for these small sharks and the only inclination as to what the sharks were feeding on came in the form of seeing one of the great whites trailing the monofilament trace of a blue cod fishermen’s terminal tackle. Clearly the sharks were competing with fishermen for the cod as well.

Having not seen the sharks hunting by day we decide to up the ante and try again at night. Cue more balls in the air and more things that can go wrong. We now had me being lowered to the sea floor in 65ft of water, my friend, the world renowned marine cameraman Andy Cassagrande in another cage, cables with our comms to the surface and banks of lights to illuminate whatever it was going on down there. Throw in 10-15knots of wind and a good lick of current and it is a recipe for a paella of poop.

water activities cape town

Not long after we hit the sea floor did the first great whites arrive. I have to say it was amazing. They would emerge from and disappear back into the darkness like phantoms. Their predatory prowess and masters of camouflage and ambush was amplified by this cloak of darkness. You would be looking one way and a shadow would go over head, you would look up and nothing but darkness, it was eerie, exciting and stressful all at once. The small sharks started to arrive as well but like in the daylight, the great whites paid little attention to them.

Then it started to go wrong, the current had picked up, sand was being whipped into an underwater dust storm made worse by the sudden intrusion of our lights when we wanted to see what was going on and the fact that both Andy and I were now capsizing at regular intervals in our cages.

After 30 very long minutes, we both signaled reluctantly that it was just too difficult to work under these conditions and the process of getting us to the surface began. I was light in the WASP and was lifted first but by the time Andy got to the surface he had 10 bar of air left. I have to say Peter, Kina and Ross who were our surface team did amazingly well under the conditions and circumstances and I was grateful for their combined experience up there as the whole dive could have gone horribly wrong.

We managed to get a couple of shots and a few glimpses into the overall picture of what the sharks were feeding on. We also saw that by night the sharks were equally comfortable in each other’s presence. Unfortunately, we had nowhere nearly enough visuals or entertaining imagery to warrant a full hour-long documentary befitting the Air Jaws title. I must say for Jeff, as a producer and director he is to be admired for always staying cool under pressure and always finding a way to make things work.

So, we headed back to South Africa to compare how the sharks behaved subsurface as opposed to their kiwi counterparts. I had made a lightweight version of the Wasp which was more bluff than real protection and Dickie had conjured up an impressive craft called the Hornet to try and film a breach from underwater, no easy task!!

Celebrating False Bay in Cape Town, South Africa

Our issues were similar to New Zealand in that Dyer Island where we were working off the Cape South coast is often hit by huge seas and lots of current. It is also an area where there is a lot of commercial cage diving for great whites and as such we were competing with these boats to get a shark’s attention. We thus often had long periods of inactivity and during the periods of activity, both Andy and I spent a lot of time being rolled around the seafloor in urchin strewn patches, a painful experience. Unlike the close proximity white sharks in NZ keep with each other, the South African great whites kept their distance with a very clear noticeable hierarchy. It was fantastic to see great whites swimming close to and through kelp forests, pretty much like watching an underwater Avatar. For all the shortcomings for those few moments when it all came together it was brilliant.

Then it was Dickies turn. Dicky was to be towed behind our boat, in his craft dubbed the Hornet. The Hornet was for very lack of a better description, a very lightweight cage suspended under two pontoons of air. It allowed Dickie to film backwards but he had to deal with huge water pressure while being towed and limited visibility with no warning as to where and when a shark may be coming from.

We had towed Dickie for a long time, probably over 2 hours. The water was 13 C and he was frozen, but persevered. Then suddenly out of the green a huge shark breached. It went up like a rocket, hung there and then crashed back down into the sea. We had two High def high speed cameras, a drone, my stills and hopefully Dickies underwater angle, but did he get it.

My Time with Fred at Edwards Island

We pulled the Hornet back to the boat and a wild eyed shivering Dickie emerged, Dude did you see that !!! were his excited words. We quickly reviewed what he had shot and amazing Dickie as well as all on board had nailed the spectacular breach from every conceivable angle. Amazing. If nothing else this had been a documentary about perseverance under trying conditions. As the sharks get less and less and the demands and limited attention spans of audiences become harder and harder to match we find ourselves pushing to achieve more and more. This was a case in point where everyone did their bit to make it work. We finally had got the shot that set up the finale for this show.

Air Jaws Night Stalker 2016

Although all the Air Jaws shows have rated very highly, often at the very top of shark week ratings and are usually chosen as the lead show for this celebrated week of programming sometimes audiences don’t quite appreciate just what they are seeing. Air Jaws Night Stalkers was a case in point. As the name suggests, the show was to look at the after dark predatory activities of the great whites at Seal Island and Mossel Bay in South Africa.

The Apex team and I had collected data on over 10 000 predatory events over more than 20 years at Seal Island. We thus had a good idea of daytime activities and wanted to put a few theories to test when it came to what happened after dark.

For this show I teamed up with friend and one of the world’s preeminent shark scientists Dr Neil Hammerschlag. In Jeff’s absence Tony Sacco, Jeff’s normal right-hand man had taken the role as producer. Tony is an excellent cameraman, he is creative, plans a shot to a tee and is the reason all the “other” shots besides the flying sharks look as good as they do.

What we were trying to do had never been attempted before with great whites. That was to film them hunting and breaching at night from a boat. Shark cage diving mossel bay have managed to get some great shots shot from a local hotel and it was really the only work of any consequence that had attempted such a difficult task.

This time we however had the advantage of incredibly low light cameras that made night time look like daytime and ironically this was our shortcoming. People compared all the shots we got with those that were shot during the day and comments such as “that wasn’t such a big breach or I’ve seen higher breaches were common place. The fact that was missed was that everything you were seeing was shot at night. It is hard to know where a great white is in the day and often difficult to spot their prey the seals but I can tell you at night it is nigh on impossible. The fact that Tony was able to get one breach or hunting sequence on film in my opinion deserves an Emmy. Add to this fantastic beauty shots of galaxies of stars above the hosts whilst doing interviews, strong science and other captivating anecdotes and facts and for me this was one of the very best Air Jaws. It was a show cram packed with the very thing people were criticizing Discovery Channel for not having, and that was keeping it real.

shark cage diving

What we found was that certain individual sharks stayed after dark whilst all the others left only returning just before day break. We saw the same pattern on many nights. It is tempting and highly likely that these sharks are night time specialists. We put tags on a handful of sharks that stayed affixed for a period not exceeding 24hrs and then fell off with nothing left on the shark. What we saw was that these individual night time sharks patrolled set areas often in the exact transit routes of the seals as their nightly exodus began.

We then used ultra-high definition sonar that not only allowed us to detect regular features like shoals of fish, the sea floor etc. etc. but rather tremendous detail in a 60-degree sweep that could be orientated both vertically or horizontally. The detail was so good that we could not only see the outline of the shark but could actually make out anatomical features such as a lunate tail or caudal keel that identified the shark as a great white. We could also clearly see how the seals used the sea floor for their initial burst when leaving Seal Island and how the shark cued in on them and followed. Whilst we did not actually record a hunt with this piece of equipment we did see a tremendous amount of fascinating behavior.

Neil and I had postulated for a long time on the significance of the lunar phase for great whites when hunting the seals. What we learnt by analyzing the data and by many nights at sea was that the sharks were far more likely to hunt in the early morning on New Moon conditions as in all likelihood on full moon conditions, they would supplement their diurnal and crepuscular feeding with a night time nibble or two.

During this documentary Neil and I collected seal scat on Seal Island that Neil then did stable isotope analysis on where he and other scientists were able to determine when used in conjunction with Apex’s predation data base the stress levels seals were under on high predation days. Not surprisingly the seals at Seal Island False Bay are the most stressed of any seal colony known anywhere. I would be as well if I had to swim through a cordon of super charged piscine missiles each day!

Although the ratings didn’t top the charts, for me this was a great show, packed with discovery, science and intellectual content, maybe next time we shouldn’t use such illuminating cameras.

We are also celebrating Air Jaws: Back From The Dead and Air Jaws: Apocalypse.

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27 June 2023

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