Saturday, August 16, 2008

Another Angel Saving Sharks

I just finished filming my latest segment for the Underwater Channel with my new favorite filmmaker who I dragged to South Africa all the way from Malaysia after working with him in Sodwana, Paul Wildman and the amazing shark whisperer (and filmmaker) Morne Hardenburg. This time, I found myself in False Bay, South Africa, the largest bay in this country – a place notorious for its Great White Sharks.

(Paul at sea filming.)

While great white sharks are the sharks our collective nightmares are made of, the truth about these sharks is quite startling. While they are considered the most dangerous sharks to humans, in reality they desperately need protection from us – instead of the other way around. White Sharks around the world are severely endangered and are at risk of extinction.

But they are thriving here in Capetown, in many parts thanks to a very special researcher who is helping the world to better understand white sharks – and hopefully, through increased understanding, determine better ways to conserve them.

So, I spent a few days heading out with Alison Kock, my fellow Shark Angel and great white researcher on her boat to learn more about her research and the white sharks she has been studying for years. I was hoping to get up close and personal, tag some animals, and maybe, just maybe if I was lucky, see a white shark hunting for seals. The time of the year is right, so I kept my fingers crossed.

I was so excited to do this piece for two reasons: first, I love white sharks, and second, I was quite excited to see Alison in action. A skipper, a scientist, a shark lover and an angel. She truly is my hero.

We left the harbor with much anticipation, hoping to see not only a shark tagged, but also the infamous breaching seal island is famous for.

The sharks breach around Seal Island primarily in July and August. This is when they rocket out of the water to catch the unsuspecting seals, who leave the safety of the island to fish. Typically breaches happen in the morning, and it is rare to catch a glimpse of one.

You can see the seals darting back and forth when they travel to the island, constantly scanning the water below for sharks. They stay in groups to increase their protection.

When we arrived, we saw some seals very close to the boat, so Alison told us to watch the water. That is when two seals rocketed out with a white shark following closely behind. It was such an amazing site to see a four meter shark fly out of the water and somersault down on top of two seals. I think I stopped breathing. The shark missed, but we were able to witness the cat and mouse chase with the injured seals for quite some time. Later we saw the injured seal on the shore.

(Catching the end of the breach.)

Alison has spent over 2000 hours at sea studying the creature she is desperate to protect. She has tagged over 75 animals at Seal Island and has radio transmitters throughout False Bay to track their movements. She has ID-ed over 500 unique animals by their dorsal fins, and has gotten to know some sharks quite well over the years. Undoubtedly, what she has learned has saved countless sharks.

While South Africa leads the world protecting its white sharks and was the first country to do so, many are still killed each year by fisherman as unintentional bycatch, by shark nets installed on other parts of the coasts whose sole purpose is to kill the sharks that come too close to the beaches, and by poachers greed as white shark jaws and fins are so valuable. And even more are injured every year by fisherman, boaters, spear fishermen, and even some cage diving operators.

The population of sharks around the world is plummeting, with some species nearly extinct. Over 100 million sharks were killed last year, primarily for their fins. And unfortunately, white shark fins are some of the most sought after.

But Alison’s work helps people realize the importance of sharks to the ecosystem, protects the sharks from their biggest predator – man, and also debunks so many common myths that inevitably lead to the death of sharks.

(Alison ready for action.)

After the breaching, we got into position to begin attracting sharks to the boat.

The tagging process starts first with attracting the sharks by chumming the water with mashed sardines and anchovy oil – which creates a scent trail similar to the natural chum slicks created by Seal island. A floating piece of foam is also placed in the water, as the sharks, who are naturally curious, are attracted to the float. It wasn’t long before the sharks started coming in.

Then, the bait is thrown into the water – in this case a tuna head. Throwing the bait is a tough job, as the goal is to get the sharks interest, without allowing them to eat the bait. Often the sharks were not even attracted to it.

I found the behavior of the sharks unique and surprising. Not only did they respond in a cool, collected and unthreatening way that is very different to what you would expect from movies like Jaws, but they each had their own personality. In fact, we saw a shark that Alison instantly recognized as one that she had known for over five years, merely by the way it approached the boat.

Not only does Alison spends many days every year at sea, tagging and tracking sharks, she also takes genetic samples. She sends the samples to a lab in Europe so they can analyze the DNA and determine the heritage of white sharks throughout the world.

Finally, we had a shark take great interest in the bait. So, when a shark does show interest, the next step is to ID the shark by taking photos of its dorsal fin. Alison then determines if this is a shark she wishes to tag. If she decides to tag the shark, it is a long process of working the shark into an exact position that allows Alison to tag the shark right below its dorsal fin, ensuring the shark is not injured.

(Art-y dorsal ID picture - I added a new flair to the job.)

On our best day out, we caught the attention of a 3.5 meter male shark who we later called “Motor Mouth” since he was so interested in chomping… After bringing him past the boat several times, Alison was able to tag him which was such an incredible experience. To have a shark so close yet show no signs of aggression was amazing.

(Motor Mouth after the tagging.)

After tagging Motor Mouth, he slowly swam away – hardly bothered – with a new piece of jewelry. But this jewelry contained a radio transmitter that can stay active for up to two years, so Alison can track him for years to come.

Seeing the sharks interact with us, the seals and each other at Seal Island was definitely an opportunity of a lifetime, and one I will not easily forget. Not only did I learn so much about white sharks in a single day, I gained a new appreciation for the important work Alison is doing to ensure white sharks will continue to thrive not just in Seal Island, but around the world.

White shark research is significantly under-funded though we are learning new things about them every day. The work Alison is doing is critical to their conservation and the species survival.

(Alison in action taking a genetic sample.)

In my experience many scientists do not get heavily involved in conservation. Alison is a new breed of scientist who has bridged the gap – realizing she needs to protect what she is studying.

What we don’t understand, we fear. We know so little about these amazing creatures. In fact, birthing and mating has never even been witnessed before. Our ignorance, I think, leads to our irrational fear of white sharks. I truly believe the more we can learn about these sharks, the more we can, and will want to, protect them.

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andy said...

Julie, this is super cool!! Although being a surfer means that the sight of a great white out in the water is not a pleasant one, I have a huge respect for them and are glad that there are people out there like yourself helping and supporting them. They are truly one of the most fascinating creatures to ever inhabit the planet.

Wolf Leander said...


I am very disappointed!! You did not jump into the water to freedive with Motor Mouth and the other beauties???

From what I can see, the viz was good - much better than the one when I did my memorable 45 sec dive with a white..... Hehehehe ------ :-)