Caymanian filmmaker Michael Ridley recounts his recent
exciting adventure in South Africa getting up close and personal with that most
feared and most misunderstood of all fish, the great white shark and finds that
its bark is much louder than its bite.
For the past three weeks I have been working with a
company called White Shark Projects based out of a small town outside of Cape
Town, South Africa, called Gansbaai. It is a little fishing town that is now
considered the Great White Capital of the World due to its proximity to Dyer
Island and Geyser Rock, which is home to nearly 50,000 Cape Fur Seal the sharks
love to eat.
The company has a programme that allows people to become
part of their “crew” as a volunteer and learn about the sharks and eco-tourism.
I was invited to join this programme. Every day I arose around 6am to prepare
the boat to launch by 7.30am. It was spectacular to head out into the ocean at
this time in the morning and I was fortunate enough to see what is called
predation when the shark ambushes a seal by breach from below. These battles of
life and death can last up to four minutes or so. To watch an animal as large
as a Great White come fully out of the water was something special and when the
inevitable happened the sea turned an almost vampire red. Strangely, the shark
would then disappear as it would leave the animal to bleed to death before
returning to eat is prize.
The journey out to Dyer Island is only about 20 minutes,
which is so much closer than other Great White viewing spots such as Guadaloupe
Island (21 hours by boat). There is a strange magnetism to Dyer Island and
Geyser Rock as these places have stood the test of some of the fiercest storms
that man couldn’t tame and yet the islands and part-time residents beneath the
ocean have. I say part-time because I learned through the research part of the
programme that the Great Whites are a nomadic species and sharks that have been
tagged in Gansbaai area and been seen in Australia a few months later.
The company takes tourists out to see the animals but it
takes place in a very careful manner. Upon arrival at the island, the captains
would study the currents and wind direction, which is ever changing before
dropping anchor. The next step was to begin to chum the water with a mix of
fish oils and fish meat. Some companies use shark liver, which is banned and a
big no no (how can you promote shark conservation while using them for chum?)
The company tries to be as un-invasive as possible while giving the clients the
best experience and gaining important scientific data.
It was impossible to tell when the sharks would turn up
but without fail they always did. I got involved in all aspects including
chumming. On many occasions I would act as spotter on top of the boat looking
for sharks. I would mark down the arrival time of the sharks and through
various other crew members we would mark down the size and sex of the shark —
and take photos of its fin for ID purposes. In addition, we would make notes of
fresh bite mark wounds on the sharks. It was incredible to learn about their
dorsal fins and how each one is individual to the shark and the equivalent of a
In addition, this experience allowed me to make a
documentary examining peoples’ fear of sharks and hopefully show the reality.
The statistics proving sharks don’t desire people is overwhelming but
ironically in a society obsessed with numbers we ignore the truth. Five to 15
people are killed annually by sharks whereas 3 million were killed by
mosquitoes or 700 people were killed by kites last year.
I also had the opportunity to spend some time in the
water with the sharks while inside a cage — cages are a necessity not because
the shark is aggressive and will kill you but they are extremely curious and
investigate everything including bits of kelp floating by. For example, the
sharks would often spy-hop where they would stick their head out of the water
to have a look at what was above/on the surface of the water.
Being in the water with a great white shark is an
experience hard to put into words. And every day is a unique experience as the
sharks’ individual character comes out. One of the most remarkable things about
the shark is not the rows of razor sharp teeth or length but the girth of the
animal. In addition, the most striking moment is when you look at this perfect
creature in the eye. It is a deep, deep blue. When you lock eyes with one you
understand there is a depth and intelligence to these creatures and when they
pass by you they look right at you in the eyes. It is humbling but strangely
calming as you take in their graceful aura.
Sadly though the sharks are in serious trouble and in the
next 10 years could be gone and the ramifications for the oceans and ourselves
should we wipe out sharks is going to result in an ecological catastrophe.
Public perception of these animals needs to change. They are not man-eating
machines but apex predators that are so evolved that through a sixth sense
called Later Line they can actually sense a person or animal in the water long
before people might see the shark. If sharks wanted to kill people they would,
they have all the tools to do so. Through this programme at White Sharks
Projects I have studied the animals and have come to appreciate them, while
also realising how little we know about them.
If you need any further convincing, look at saving sharks
from a purely selfish point of view: they are basically responsible for oxygen
in the environment. The sharks are the apex predators of the ocean and control
the rest of the food chain, which helps to protect the tiny phytoplankton,
which is in turn responsible for reversing global warming, creating a
tremendous amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. They need to be protected.