Shark experts Alison Towner and Chris Fallows have recorded the highest shark jump at 15 feet in the air in Mossel Bay, South Africa. They talk about just how skilled the sharks are in that area, and how they caught this record-setting breach for Shark Week.
Shark experts Alison Towner and Chris Fallows have recorded the highest shark jump at 15 feet in the air in Mossel Bay, South Africa. They talk about just how skilled the sharks are in that area, and how they caught this record-setting breach.
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Find episode transcript here: https://shark-weeks-daily-bite.simplecast.com/episodes/how-high-can-a-shark-jump-these-shark-experts-know
[MUSIC PLAYING] LUKE TIPPLE: Good day. I'm Luke Tipple. Happy Shark Week and welcome to the Daily Bite, the show where we go behind the scenes with the stars of Shark Week and talk about one of our favorite subjects-- sharks. Today, we're joined by Chris Fallows and Alison Towner to dive into the latest installment of the Air Jaws franchise, Air Jaws, Going for Gold. Let's have a listen.
SPEAKER 1: The highest flying great white ever recorded.
CHRIS FALLOWS: It was the shot seen around the world, 15 feet in the air. Wow.
SPEAKER 1: Now--
CHRIS FALLOWS: Incredible!
SPEAKER 1: --one year later, a new group of sharks has come to Mossel Bay to try to break that record.
CHRIS FALLOWS: Whoa! That is flipping amazing!
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, it seems like it's game on for white sharks in Mossel Bay this year. Welcome to the Daily Bite, Chris and Alison. Chris, good to have you back, mate.
CHRIS FALLOWS: Well, it's great to be back, Luke, and really looking forward to chatting about some amazing shows and incredible shark action we had this year.
LUKE TIPPLE: Awesome. And Alison, you first time on the Daily Bite. Thank you so much for your time.
ALISON TOWNER: Hi. Thanks so much, Luke. It's a pleasure to be here. And yeah, thanks for having me on the show.
LUKE TIPPLE: Good deal. Well, Chris, let's start with you. You're kind of like the godfather of Air Jaws and the activity down there in South Africa. We've heard rumors of white sharks kind of moving around and disappearing and stuff like that. Could you give us just a general update about what's going on down there with the whites?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Sure. So we've seen the white sharks practically disappear from both False Bay and Gansbaai. On occasion, we've had a few white sharks come back. But by and far, the bulk of the sharks are now in Mossel Bay and that's why we're spending most of our time there these days. There are also regular sightings a little bit further East up the coast at Plettenberg Bay and then also at a place called Algoa Bay. But for the time being, the population seems to have the highest density around Mossel Bay.
LUKE TIPPLE: What's your opinion of that like over so many years of watching the activity there? Is it kind of new stuff or are we just seeing cycles of presence and activity, migration perhaps?
CHRIS FALLOWS: There are lots of different opinions I feel that the overfishing of the smaller prey species of the white sharks. So specifically, smaller sharks has had a huge amount to do with it. We know that white sharks move inshore for substantial portions of every year. They have the seal colony for a portion of the year, and then they move inshore to feed on these smaller sharks. And certainly in the case of False Bay, we have been privileged to work for 30 years.
In all the areas where we used to see these smaller sharks, they are no longer there. So we've seen white sharks over probably a decade or so slowly altering their behavior. And then in around about 2014, we saw a massive decline begin and that's continued to the present. So it's a very worrying long term trend. And we certainly hope that things will rectify themselves, and I guess better fisheries management will start looking after those smaller prey species.
LUKE TIPPLE: So there's actually a lot to unpack there. Let's dive into kind of like the more conservation side of things a little later. There's some things I really want to know from both yourself and Alison. But let's turn to this year's installment of Air Jaws. You guys have been doing this forever.
I watched the show and I really enjoyed it. It was like so simple, the premise is really simple, but there's some really solid science in there and it's just a lot of fun. So tell everyone what the premise this year is.
CHRIS FALLOWS: Well, following on from last year's incredible breach that we got of that young rocket shark that leapt 15 feet into the air and I think captured the world's attention, I think pretty much every newspaper and billboard around the world had a flying great white shark on it. And it was an obvious choice to go back to Mossel Bay and see if we could find this little Olympian and see if a couple of his friends and buddies could do the same thing.
And that was essentially the premise of the show, just to see what these amazing sharks are really capable of, just to see if different individuals use different techniques. And along with renowned scientist Alison Towner and Dr. Enrico Gennari, we really saw some truly amazing breaches, some incredible behavior, and learnt a few new insights into these remarkable animals that we've all come to love so much over the years.
LUKE TIPPLE: It was definitely a visually stunning show to watch. And if you haven't seen it at home, the show is essentially almost like an Olympics of sharks. And we're looking at the different heights and speeds and achievements of the sharks during this breach activity. And it's really fun to watch, and it's pitched as a competition. But what we're really doing is learning about science. So Alison, perhaps you can dive into the science of what the show is about.
ALISON TOWNER: Yeah. I mean, Luke, you hit the nail on the head there with the Olympic theme and the entertainment value. That's the nice thing about Shark Week is. It really uses that platform of blending in really fun cinematography, really interesting facts, but not making it too much either way. So we actually have fun filming it. And of course, South Africa is world renowned for its white sharks jumping out of the water. It's not seen quite like that anywhere else.
So for us, yeah, really it was just an opportunity to show America primarily just what these Olympic white sharks are capable of and unpack a little bit more detail about each breach. So as Chris said, we touched on speed, we touch on heights. Obviously, the breach that was captured by Air Jaws last year, that shark went super high and it really highlight the fact that these animals don't just launch themselves out of the water, but they seriously clear some air. And so yeah, for a change, without it being so heavy on all the conservation angle, it was just a real nice opportunity for us all to sit back, enjoy, and let the shark show us what they're capable of naturally.
LUKE TIPPLE: And you guys, I mean, certainly, the crew looked like they were having a bunch of fun. The whole premise is go out, have fun, see white sharks jump out of the water. Hell yeah, right? One of the things that I hear about particularly South Africa that people expect that when they go there, they're going to see sharks just jumping out of the water left, right, and center because we watch a 45 minute show, we see constant breaches, and we look at boats that are just getting hit all the time. How long did that take to film and how infrequent are the breaches when you guys are around towing the decoys?
ALISON TOWNER: Yeah. I mean, Chris will testify this as well. White sharks don't just breach all the time. Of course, there are many days we spend out there where absolutely nothing happens. And then all of a sudden, usually towards end day of the film shoot, then all of a sudden, they all will just go off. And of course, this is a natural predatory behavior white sharks have.
Cape fur seals are super agile as a prey species, they're fast. So white sharks have learned to hit them at full speed is actually the way to make a successful kill. And as winter months progressed, the cape fur seals are really smart animal too and it learns how to evade shark predation throughout the course of the month.
So if we were to film Shark Week or these breaches throughout the whole course of winter, what we'd start to find is towards the end of the season, the breaching activity would actually drop right off. So yeah, as much as it always looks on Shark Week like we get a ton of breaches and it's always firing off here, there are many days that it takes a lot of patience. And not only that, the conditions need to be right and it obviously costs them a lot of energy to launch at the surface like that. So yeah, I think Chris can obviously also touch on the fact that we don't get that lucky every day.
LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. Well, Chris, I mean, you spent so much time out there. Working with sharks is quite a difficult thing. Logistically, what do you plan for when you go to make one of these shows? Are you out there for a week, are you out there pre filming, are you using footage that you might have captured before? What is the predictability out there?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Well, Luke, in every show, we're hoping to get original and new footage. Sometimes, before the main body of the crew arrives, we'll go and try and get a little bit of footage ourselves if we get a really great weather gap. But it really is a case of trying to predict based on a lot of experience when we foresee the best time of the year actually being for the activity.
And then there's a huge degree of luck that comes into this. Weather can be a real killer to these documentaries. We are down at the Southern tip of Africa. And as such, we have a lot of volatile weather coming past our coastline. So it's at the hands of the gods really whether the sharks are going to be interacting, whether the weather is going to allow us to do what we need to do. You can really get a cold patch of water coming in. There are so many variables that come into this.
And then the technical challenges-- we're using a lot of new technology, all the time. We work with some of the most amazing cinematographers out there. And then legendary producer and director Jeff Kerr-- he's always bringing amazing ideas that we test out with every new show we do. So there are a lot of moving parts out there. And I can tell you, you don't get to see a lot of the days where we all sit there looking at each other and half of us are seasick, the other half are wondering what the hell is going on. And there are many days spent in frustration for those few memorable fleeting moments that you see on camera.
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, we have to give you a hat tip for being the guy who gets out there and gets all this footage. And we've all seen great whites breaching throughout Shark Week. But this show has some of the most spectacular breaches we've ever seen. Let's check out a few of the best ones.
CHRIS FALLOWS: Looks like tackle. She missed the decoy at first. But then watched this. In midair, she does a full somersault, mouth is still open, probably trying to feel for the decoy with her jaws. She's more or less blind at this point and using all her other senses to find the prey. Got some decent air as you can see on shark vision and then smacks down with the tail. She could potentially disable or kill a seal with a smack down like that.
LUKE TIPPLE: So that was genuinely surprising to me, seeing some of the just beautiful shots. And the way you guys lined it up specifically. Just as a cinematographer, I'm looking at it. You guys are toying with the sun in the background and the phantom is going and the sharks are just breaching in front of it. It's absolutely beautiful. Chris, I'm curious, over the years filming out there, are you seeing any changes in the behavior or the sizes of the breaches, like any learning or modification?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Well, we have learned over the years specifically working at Seal Island and False Bay, that certain individual sharks seem to prefer certain areas. So you get certain sharks that, just like humans, use their own tactics and own strategies. I wouldn't say we've specifically noticed sharks jumping higher or faster or doing anything like that. But what we have certainly learnt is the individual individuality of each creature we are seeing out there. And that for me has been fascinating. And it's only something you really learn by spending a lot of time on the water is to firstly identify these individual sharks and then see how they got their own specific area they preferred to hunt in and their own specific techniques.
And we saw over the years that certain sharks are more successful than others. And I think that was one of the premises behind Jeff Kerr's show this year was really to look and see if these individual sharks were using different techniques and those different techniques resulted in these unbelievably high trajectory breaches. And that was fascinating just to see how some sharks really do put 100% into every single attack. And then there are others that kind of bide their time seem to really only use the energy where they feel that they've got a 100% chance of catching their prey.
So yeah, it's a combination of a lot of fieldwork that results and the ideas behind trying to capture the specific images. And you're quite right in terms of what you said about the cinematography. It's not just by chance that there's a beautiful sunrise or sunset or fantastic background there. We choose our weather very carefully, and we pay a huge amount of attention to getting these beautiful backgrounds because if the truth be told, Mossel Bay, let's say, has got a couple of backgrounds that are not the prettiest in the world. So we generally focus on the really sexy ones and really trying to showcase the shark in as magnificent a way as possible.
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, Chris, definitely nailed it this year, that's for sure. One of the comments in the show that I found really fascinating was breaching is perhaps a learned behavior, something that the sharks are picking up from a juvenile through to subadult. Alison, could you maybe elaborate on that? What is the evidence for it being learned?
ALISON TOWNER: Yeah. I mean, that's basic predator ecology, right? I mean, even as humans, we're not born efficient in eating everything. We have to learn our ability to eat. So yeah, I mean, this is general predator ecology. We've spent over 500 hours acoustically tracking white sharks in the Gansbaai region where I'm based, which is different to False Bay where Chris has done most of his work.
We have a lot of kelp around the island there. And what's really fascinating is we found juvenile young white sharks occupying completely different activity spaces to the larger animals. It's almost like a pecking order for school dinners. So the smaller younger sharks have less optimal hunting spots that they're patrolling basically because they're pushed out by the more experienced sharks. And I know Neil and Chris have actually found something similar around Seal Island as well.
So certainly the youngsters have to learn the strategies. Obviously, they get more refined at it over time. And I guess I suppose over the decades that we've all been working on different areas, Mossel Bay is kind of known as more juvenile site. So yeah, I guess these individuals are at that point now where they're also just learning how to get it right and sometimes they do get it wrong.
And likewise, if you get the mature animals or the larger animals pulling in, they might also just decide it's not worth it today whereas the youngsters will still give it a go. So yeah, as much as it's all about getting these shots, we do often learn quite a lot just from seeing all these different size demographics naturally hunting or trying to predate.
LUKE TIPPLE: So yeah, speaking of natural predation and-- I promise this isn't a loaded question. I'm going somewhere with this. But I do have to ask, if you're out there filming in a fairly predictable place, you're towing decoys around that it's a learned behavior, is it possible that doing this in itself is accelerating the learning process of the juvenile sharks or perhaps modifying their hunting strategies?
ALISON TOWNER: The thing is it's done for such an infrequent time period. It's usually the golden hour, a couple of hours of a morning, and then they're left to their own devices. And as I said, over time throughout winter, they actually learn. The seals, they learn to evade the shark.
So I mean, there's not really been any rigorous research done into whether towing decoys has specifically trained the sharks into hunting better. That's not something we can certainly say has been validated. I think if it was a daily process and it was happening every single day and they were getting some kind of reward for it, maybe. But remember, at the end of the day, when they go for that decoy, they're not getting any reward. It's soft foam. And plus, there's a bunch of seals on that rock that they're going to get natural food from when they go back to their normal behavior anyway.
So yeah, I don't think that there's any-- I don't see that as a loaded question. It's a logical question. But certainly, we don't see anything like that.
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, I guess the loaded side of that might be some critics saying, if you're out there enticing sharks with anything-- and this goes for anywhere where we work. When I work at Tiger Beach or Guadeloupe or any of these places, there's always that contingent of people who are saying, if you're baiting or attracting these sharks in one way or another, you run the risk-- and all they really are thinking about is how does this affect the swimmers in the water.
So kind of where I was going with this is speaking of breaching specifically, it's a fairly prey specific behavior, right? There just going after the seal. So how does that differ from the great white's other hunting strategies which somebody actually might encounter when they're sitting on a surfboard for example.
ALISON TOWNER: Yeah. I mean, it's a really complex dynamic. Obviously, sharks in shore are going to behave completely differently to those hunting surface at a seal colony. So there's a lot to unpack there. And obviously, you say you've been working in Tiger Beach and all these different areas with different species of sharks. So we've got different types of baiting, different types of predatory behavior, different types of residency periods of sharks.
So there's loads to look at. Is that animal, for example, is patrolling a beach that may encounter a surfer, is it a juvenile or is it an adult, is it passing through or is he hanging out for a few weeks, is it resting and digesting its prey, is it actively hunting? So I mean, from a scientific angle, it is really difficult to try and even begin to attempt to explain what scientifically could be at stake there. I don't know, Chris, if you have any thoughts.
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, Chris, actually, let me give you some more material here to work with because you're out there so much. I'm curious seeing the natural predation, as I'm sure you do, versus the decoys. How successful are the sharks usually on perhaps hitting the decoys versus hitting the live predations and how much work do they have to put into to each meal that they might actually successfully get?
CHRIS FALLOWS: OK, so let's start with the decoys and predations. From recording just over 10,400 predator events over the last 30 years, we recorded the white sharks being successful on 49.6% of all occasions. So let's call it 50%. In terms of the success on decoys, it's very hard to quantify because you don't really know when they're unsuccessful. And that decoy is not moving in an erratic sort of way. It's following a regular track on the surface unlike a seal that's doing exactly the opposite.
So I think if a white shark commits to the decoy, it kind of never misses. But what was really, really interesting was that we did a study, I don't know, maybe about 10 or 15 years ago where we towed decoys at night. So there was no visual way that the sharks were actually seeing the decoy. It was on moonless nights, in very bad visibility where if you are underwater, you almost couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
And these sharks hit those decoys with unerring accuracy. It was quite incredible. So what we surmised from that was that sound and vibration play a huge part in the white sharks initially locating and honing in on their prey. And that makes a lot of sense because what we also noticed at Seal Island is that one of the favored times for the white shark to hunt was in that half an hour to 45 minutes before sunrise. So you have very, very low light levels. And I guess that really pays testimony to the white shark's incredible sensory ability of picking up minute vibration and sound in the water.
LUKE TIPPLE: You've got two pieces that are very, very active in the water, right? You've got the boat and then you've got the decoy behind you. You're saying that the sound and vibration of the decoy is uniquely causing them to breach on that or do you think that they're investigating the entire thing and then hitting what seems like the obvious target for them?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Well, that's a great question. And I think they probably investigate both. But I think they also cues that resonate with them as to be in a specific sized animal. A specific sized object is going to probably make a specific size frequency of noise and vibration through the water. So my guess would be that they are able to discern what fits within the size parameters of their natural prey and probably hone in on that.
We also, about 25 years ago, did a shape discrimination study with a prominent shark scientist from Santa Barbara, Dr. Rocky Strong, where we utilized all different sizes and shapes to ascertain what the specific size range was of the prey. And it was quite interesting. When the decoys got below a certain size-- that was roughly around about a foot and a half in length. So pretty small. The sharks showed no interest whatsoever. And by the converse, when they got over around about 6 foot in length, the amount of attacks on those decoys dropped off dramatically.
And that fits in with virtually the exact size parameters we see of them feeding on the seals naturally. So there was a very specific range and size that dictated how regularly those sharks would attack those specific size decoys. What was also interesting is we towed decoys that looked exactly like seals, and then we towed inanimate shapes, so triangle and a square. And it was done on the throw of the dice. So there was absolutely no bias. You'd either square on one side and the seal shape on the other or triangle and we determined that by the throw of the dice.
And what we found is no matter what the shape was, provided it fell within a specific size range, that was the cue for the white sharks to attack it. When they were both stationary, so if you put a seal shaped decoy on the surface and you put a triangle on the surface, the sharks were far more likely to approach the more regular prey sort of shape, so the seal in other words. So really, movement and size where the keys to actually triggering those attacks.
LUKE TIPPLE: That's absolutely fascinating. During the show, you talk about the individual nature's characteristics and personalities of these sharks. And I wonder, as we discussed with these sharks sort of learning over time and being more prey specific as they get smaller to older to bigger, if that plays into it as well. Like if an older shark would hit something that's slightly larger in size on that same decoy. Does that make sense to you?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Yeah, absolutely. What we found at Seal Island was that the sharks were generally within a certain size range. You obviously got outliers. But in the years that we had large numbers of great whites at Seal Island, the average white shark we saw there was 3.6 meters. So around about 12 foot in length. And about 10% of all our sharks were over 4.2 meters.
So essentially, 90% of the sharks were 4.2 meters to just around 2.8 meters in length. And those sharks are typically animals that are feeding on agile fast moving prey. When the sharks got over that size, we stopped seeing them coming to the island on a frequent basis. And what we noticed was that for those really large animals, if they missed the seal on their initial strike, the agility of that seal made it very difficult for those huge sharks-- bearing in mind, these animals weigh 2, 3,000 pounds and are 14, 15 foot in length-- for them to turn and maneuver themselves in a way that they could line up those agile seals was very, very difficult.
So I think the effort for reward-- the larger those sharks actually got, the energy return probably wasn't worth their while to chase those smaller seals anymore. And obviously, you have different locations around the world where you see different behavior. The Farallon Islands being a very good example of that where the white sharks there to a lesser or greater degree are also targeting northern elephant seals.
So they use a different strategy. They typically go in and disable the movement of those seals by biting the hind flippers or biting towards the back and let them bleed out. And by doing that, they get this huge food reward. Those seals can weigh several thousand pounds themselves. So it's different strategies for different sized sharks feeding on different prey. And you see a lot of that in different locations.
And also, really of interest was that what we noticed whenever we had a dead whale-- and I was lucky enough to see five of those different events over the years. And that's truly the Holy Grail of watching great white [INAUDIBLE]. We noticed at the moment these dead whales were in an area, suddenly you started seeing huge great white sharks, white sharks we weren't seeing around Seal Island.
So these animals, to some extent, are probably cruising the ocean, waiting to pick up on the scent of a dead whale or a large food source like that and then will come in and literally gorge themselves to the point of almost looking like they would explode. I remember one individual was so fat by the second day of feeding on the carcass, the shark literally swam into the carcass, was so exhausted from eating so much, just like us when we eat like three hamburgers, barely couldn't open its mouth, and then just sunk away like a stricken 747 aircraft. And these mass feeding events certainly it seemed to attract a different class of animal.
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, that's a brilliant segue into the next thing I wanted to talk about, which is the lazy sharks. The character's characterization of different sharks and their behaviors that you guys saw on this show which I thought was really fun and also a good way to learn about the different personalities of sharks and their also behaviors. So Alison, perhaps you could tell us about these different sort of lazy versus super aggressive sharks that you guys found.
ALISON TOWNER: Yeah. I mean, it's always really interesting to me. Like you say, you've got personalities and completely in agreement with Chris prior talk there about the different locations. At Dyer Island, we had one animal that was around 12 foot that unfortunately didn't survive. But when we necropsied him, he had six full cape fur seals packed into his stomach. And they were all at the same level of decomposition. And we couldn't conclude what killed this animal.
So the consensus was was that death by gluttony, was that literally like a food coma because obviously, I mean there was no room left in his stomach. So yeah, I mean, you definitely get differences of demographics between different size categories and different personalities. And then you get the white sharks. For example, I've seen it many times in the past in Shark Alley at Dyer Island where it looks like it is a potentially fresh kill floating on the surface.
But then the dorsal fin kind of slices past it and completely ignores it. So maybe because the prey is so profitable in the area and maybe they seek fresher prey, some individuals. Like again, they probably all have their own preferences for what diet composition they prefer. So yeah, I mean, on this shoot in Mossel Bay, certainly Chris always seems to get these Olympic springers that definitely can't be quantified as lazy if we want to go scientific. But yeah, I mean, we all had different animals and on different days, some of them felt more active than others, I guess.
And with that breaching technology, obviously what you really want is the animal to be as high up in the air as possible to look spectacular. But the reality is sometimes they don't fully commit and it's what we call sort of not even a lunge. And on last year show, in Rico, Rico's disco seal elicited two pretty nice lunges, but they weren't your typical right up out of the water.
LUKE TIPPLE: It's kind of like, oh, give it-- don't worry about it, versus the, I have to have that right now type of activity. I mean, you guys got kind of a mixed bag between that sort of lazy and the super spectacular. And that is part of the nature of the competition, which I thought was really fun. So let's check out a couple of the examples from the breach that was described as lazy to one of the most spectacular shots I've ever seen of a white shark.
CHRIS FALLOWS: So not a huge breach, but a very pretty one. You could see the shark grabbing the tail end of the decoy. If this was a real seal, it most likely would have escaped. We were just talking about lazy breaches and this breach by [? Lwazi ?] is a very good example of that. Not a lot of speed, not a lot of air, and most likely not a kill for the shark.
Full polaris attack, probably originated in the deepwater. And then we just saw the decoy, no hesitation, just magnificent.
LUKE TIPPLE: So Chris, you've captured so many of these shots. What was special to you in this show about what you were able to film?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Luke, I'm really now focusing on finite wildlife photography, specifically looking at iconic species on the planet. And for me, to have a watch of breaching very close to the camera and getting 12, 15 foot into the air with a fantastic background, I guess it's a dream come true really. Last year's shot that we managed to get went globally viral. The world just couldn't get enough of it. And we thought how are we ever going to beat that.
And yeah, this year we got another one that, as you quite correctly said, is simply mind blowing. And I think from a photographic point of view, for me, it really finally did justice to the athleticism of these animals. And it's very fitting that we're in a year of the Olympics because ultimately, the great white shark and the cape fur seal, you couldn't get better examples of Olympians.
If you look at the prey, a cape fur seal will spend three to five days at sea. It's subjected to some of the roughest, worst sea conditions on the planet, diving repetitively to depths of hundreds and hundreds of feet, often in the dark. Then it has to make its way back home to exactly the same location it came from using its inbuilt GPS. And then just before it gets home, it has to dodge, duck, and dive the most formidable fish in the ocean. And that's basically a marathon swimming event, getting past Olympic sprinters every time you get there.
And then from the shark's point of view, you're looking at an animal that has to catch a prey item that's capable of detecting unbelievably small vibrations, is probably one of the most agile creatures on the planet. So you have this David and Goliath contest of perfectly matched strengths. And to me, it's like working at the Colosseum every day. You have these gladiators coming in there, giving it their all.
And just like it was in the old days, it's a life and death battle. And it's always very humbling to be part of it. And I'll never ever lose respect for both predator or prey. It's a monumental battle that you see being played out before your eyes and survival of the very fittest and very best just like the Olympics.
LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. We talk a lot about the white shark, but the prey is equally as impressive. I'm curious when the fur seals are aware of the presence of a white shark, when they know that it's around, whether it's a missed breach or they know that it's there, do they stay in the water and keep their eyes on it or do they just beeline it to get out as quick as I can? Because I say this because I've seen sea lions ghosting sharks behind and nipping at their fins. They're aware of them, they see them, they're not a threat. They can turn and swim faster. It's kind of like us. As long as you can see them, you're fine, right? Do they do the same thing, the fur seals?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Yeah. So it's different strategies for different areas. And I'm sure she can elaborate more on Dyer Island and in Gansbaai. But certainly at Seal Island and False Bay, the area that the white sharks were predating on the seals is free of any real area that the seals can hide. So the seals, if the shark fails in its initial attempt, rather than trying to rush back to the island, because they're not nearly as fast as the sharks, will try and get as close to the sharks as they possibly can, obviously behind the mouth and usually from the gills towards the tail.
And in that way, the shark has to use very tight turns to line those seal up. But the agility of the seal allows it to keep dodging and ducking and diving from the shark's jaw. And the shark has got the power and shark has certainly got the speed. But the seals have got both agility and endurance. And that's where this tremendous balance comes in.
And Mossel Bay is pretty similar. Once those seals leave the island, there's no kelp, there's no major reef structures, there's nowhere for them to hide. So if they encounter a white shark, the best defense is rather to keep an eye on the enemy you know than wonder where the enemy is that you don't know. So they try and stay as close to those sharks until the sharks eventually realize that the seals got the better of them, they dive down, and the seal will then track back to the island.
The problem for that seal is the commotion caused by that initial interaction is a cue for other white sharks to come into the area, much like when a lion is grabbing a kudu or wildebeest or something like that. The death bleat is a call to all other predators in the area. So for the seals, it really is a catch-22. You dodge the one shark, but you might still run into another.
LUKE TIPPLE: --on the guy who tried to hit him now, there's somebody else coming behind him.
CHRIS FALLOWS: Yeah, we saw that time and time again. Dodge the one, but there's another one knocking on the door. So beware.
LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. Alison, do you see the same behavior in your area?
ALISON TOWNER: Yeah. Well, I mean, the different areas all have different topography and structure. So Dyer Island is really interesting because it's actually the only seal colony in South Africa that's surrounded by thick, thick, dense kelp forests. So actually, we do see the seals use the kelp as a bit of refuge. We also see occasionally white sharks going into the kelp, not deep, deep in, but in enough that they can chase seals around. We've used fin cams in collaboration with universities in the US that have actually filmed that.
But I guess with Air Jaws, one thing I really enjoy about it is that as a scientist, I'm struck a lot with data, with GPSs, with looking at maps and looking from a very polarized angle. But if I can get out on a boat and I can actually look at it with, obviously, Shark Week allowing me to go out with all these cameras, drones in the air, you just learned so many things that you didn't quite anticipate. So going down to Plettenberg Bay for example a couple of years ago, again on an Air Jaw shoot, exactly as you were saying about the seal mobbing behavior, I never actually witnessed that to such a degree as we did on that film shoot where we were literally sat on top of a Peninsula, looking down, watching as white sharks are patrolling in really clear water.
I think the conditions definitely play a big part in this. The cape fur seal would physically mob the shark at its tail. So they would sort of all crowd it and physically chase it away if it's a small animal. So again, different areas, different behaviors.
But certainly, the cape fur seals are very agile. And what we would see as well at Dyer Island is porpoising quite a lot. So that would be indicative to knowing there's a shark around. So if we're looking around on the surface from the boat and we see an outward bound or an inward bound group of cape fur seals jumping in erratic directions away from one another, that's usually a signal there's a shark that they've locked onto.
And as you said, if they death bleed, then it is ringing the dinner bell. So as you say, if there's one shark around that's attempted and failed, most likely is that it's not the only shark around. But it's always fascinating to see all the differences in the different areas.
LUKE TIPPLE: I wanted to turn to kind of more your field, the data and the science of all this. Chris mentioned in the show that as amazing as these sharks are, there might only be a few 100 of them left in that area. What is the data that you're seeing show you in terms of population and what scarcity there is and whether it's on the increase or decline?
ALISON TOWNER: Well, population dynamics of white sharks is a really, really controversial area because it's such a complex thing to do. I mean, we're looking from anchored chum vessels mostly. So there's a big element called capture heterogeneity involved, which is baited environments, bringing in sharks. You're only counting the bold individuals that are there.
So at the moment, we've got eight white sharks swimming around in Gansbaai that have come back. They're all animals that left the area and came back. We've had them in our database for years and years. And we take a receiver out on the boat every day and we tagged a lot of them now. And it can be often actually those sharks are there, but they're just not showing at the boat because remember down in South Africa, the chumming, all the ways that the researchers used to get the sharks into either photo ID them or tag him-- they involve having a bait line or an incentive at the boat.
And so then we often look at that and think, right, well, those are the sharks that are in this area. And actually, no, many times they're completely ignoring that environment. So there's loads and loads of different things to take into account when you're counting white sharks. Now the limitation we have in South Africa is that unfortunately, there isn't government funding for tagging. So we have to privately raise all of our own funding for these tags, and they're expensive devices.
So we have a real lack of satellite tags on animals down here at the moment. So when we're looking at where they're going, we're actually only looking at coastal movement. So again, it's so difficult to give you a number, Luke, of whether we are seeing X amount declining. Certainly, what I can say from our estimate that we put out in 2012 in Gansbaai-- remember is just a regional estimate. It wasn't a national estimate. We counted, over a five year period, around between 800 to 1,000 that moved through the Bay.
And we said in that paper, we're concerned because South Africa was the first country in the world to protect them back in '91. We would like to see the number higher. But to be able to decipher whether there is an increase, a stabilization, or a decrease would take a lot more than what we've got available in terms of a data set right now. And there is a national estimate underway.
But certainly, what I can say is there's been some regional abandonment, particularly in Gansbaai, where we would see upwards of, say, 12, 15 sharks in a good day. Between 2017 and now really, it's gone dramatically down. In other areas East, we're seeing the complete opposite to that. Plettenberg Bay, Algoa, we're seeing reports of white sharks that are far higher from user groups than previously we knew of.
So again, unless you've got every shark like in America-- your federal funding is wonderful and your enforcement of law-- you have a lot of white sharks in the Pacific and on the Atlantic side that have satellite transmitters and acoustic networks as well. So I guess, yeah, it really needs to be a combination of scientific devices out and collaboration to get that robust estimate.
So for now, I'm not going to say whether I think it's increasing, decreasing. I'm just going to say there's areas where we've definitely seen regional abandonment. And certainly, what all plays into this is that everybody needs to work together. And particularly if you've got a government law, it needs to be enforced and resources need to be put in place now if the consensus is that we are seeing a decrease. And that could well be the case. But as I say--
CHRIS FALLOWS: And it's so hard to tell.
LUKE TIPPLE: I mean, that's an extremely prudent and cautious scientific response to an extremely complex question. I mean, the reality is it's a big ocean, we have limited resources, no matter what government is funding it, to actually go out and find the animals because sometimes they just don't want to be found. But I'm curious about the abandonment because that's something that we can very visually see. It's something that is publicly known, especially in areas that perhaps have come to rely on that tourism or areas that perhaps have had a historical, perhaps, desire for the sharks not to be around those areas. So what happens when an area becomes abandoned by sharks to the local culture, the local feeling towards the white sharks?
ALISON TOWNER: First of all, the predator ecology side of things, we have a whole ecosystem that has African penguins on a colony, we've got cape fur seals. And that whole system changes in the absence of white sharks. So even taking economics away from it or the effects on the coastal towns and the industries-- that's really worrying, OK? So obviously white sharks are one of the apex predators in this temperate water ecosystem that we have access to. Once they're gone, things do start to change. And that, again, is a major warning sign.
From the cage diving industry side of things and from the coastal towns economy, drastic impacts. Again, in False Bay with Cape Town, Chris can also probably comment there, these are our whole towns that rely on that tourism. And they've been going for decades now, having particularly international guests come in, not just go out and see a white shark for an experience, but stay in the local guesthouses, participate in nature trails, basically put back into the livelihood of that local town.
And once the white sharks are gone, then obviously there's a big pressure there, a big economic pressure. There's a lack of tourists, there's a lack of people coming through. We're very lucky in the Gansbaai region, another species of shark showed up and actually started to respond in the absence of white sharks for diving tourism-- the bronze whaler shark. We also call it the copper shark. So by, yeah, some magical miracle, I don't know, Gansbaai has managed to get through it. But it's had a drastic impact.
Now the white sharks have returned. But we don't know if that's going to be prolonged. We don't know-- what we haven't discussed though is that Gansbaai was heavily visited by two orcas repetitively over the last few years. And every time they came through, we would get disappearances of white sharks in correlation with that. So we do believe in the region I'm based from the data that we've collected from all of our observations.
Also from necropsying the dead sharks and tracking all the killer whales, that there's no denying that they had a major impact. But obviously the broader picture, you cannot say that this regional stock is representative of the entire South African population. So it's kind of picking apart all of that because obviously, if you sing a regional stock disappear, it has huge ramifications both economically and ecologically.
LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. And Chris, you're so well connected to the economy of what white sharks can generate in the area and also the local opinions of it. What do you see change in South Africa when you have that abandonment? Perhaps whatever reason the abandonment happens. But what do you see change in the local feeling about white sharks?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Well, I think over the years, people have come to realize that the great white sharks are not only a financial asset to our country, they also are very important ecologically. And bearing in mind, so many of the documentaries are filmed in our country. The amount of exposure and positive exposure having great white sharks along our coastline has given South Africa from a tourism point of view has been unprecedented.
Up until the crashes in Gansbaai and False Bay, we were seeing upwards of 100,000 foreign tourists coming to South Africa every single year who listed the primary reason for coming are being to see great white sharks. So that had a tremendous negative effect on our economy. South Africa is also a country that's trying incredibly hard to create new job opportunities through tourism. And as such, when one of essentially the golden goose has its head chopped off, it certainly has big spin off effects.
And Alison touched on a couple of the reasons for why the white sharks have disappeared in Gansbaai. We've got our own theories in False Bay as I alluded to a little while earlier. The smaller sharks, we know that they're used to the white sharks that feed inshore. And we would find them exactly where those smaller sharks are. And with the overfishing of those species in False Bay and elsewhere, specifically with shark long lining, that's had a huge effect.
And then I think another thing that cannot be ignored-- and there's no point about beating about the bush here because it's not going to help anybody-- but South Africa has got the world's largest regulated great white shark killing machine, and that is the Natal shark sport that puts out nets and drum lines to capture these animals. And they catch between 11 and 60 great white sharks a year. And as Ali said, there's a lot of conjecture about how many white sharks who out there. I very firmly believe the numbers are decreasing rapidly. But 11 to 60 great white sharks knowingly been taken out of a population every year. We have sport fishing, illegal recreational sport fishing off the beaches taking place. We've heard of many poaching incidents.
So Alison also touched on it when she said, no matter what the reasons are, no matter what we agree or disagree on, the fact is there's very little enforcement and there's very little compliance. And it's all very well having a protected species. But if you can't protect it and enforce those laws and punish those who contravene those laws, what's the point of calling the animal protected? And that's essentially where we are in South Africa, where the people like it or not.
LUKE TIPPLE: Explain to me if is it a regional thing that you've got an entire shark board that is able to capture them on long lines in a protected area? How's that working? Am I mixing up my areas of protection?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Essentially, the large sharks are moving along our entire coastline. So the Natal Sharks Board works for those who geographically aren't aware of where they operate. They work in the Northeastern corner of South Africa and over several 100 kilometers. And they've set drumlines to catch specifically great white sharks, tigers, and bull sharks.
LUKE TIPPLE: In a protected area though?
CHRIS FALLOWS: Yeah. Those are their three target species. But the white sharks that are in Cape Waters also move into those waters. So they undoubtedly are affected by that. It's not like each area-- Gansbaai, False Bay, or Mossel Bay-- has got a local population that doesn't go anywhere from those areas. They move extensively along our coastline and tagging studies have shown that they move intercontinentally.
And if there's a threat that's not taken care of, if your neighbor is doing something, ultimately it affects you as well. And we see that, Western cape sharks move into natal waters where the sharks board on and many get killed there. And then the recreational fishing of our beaches-- people think it's fine, you catch a white shark and you release it and it swims off. But all of us that are working with white sharks on a regular basis, we've all seen these animals with hooks in their mouths, trailing long amounts of line and trace. And many of these white sharks we know also die as a result of post traumatic physical injury from being hooked.
So there are huge amount of human induced threats. The biggest for me is the removal of these smaller sharks that are key to the white sharks for a large part of their life. And then as Alison said, orcas certainly haven't helped either, and they have a big effect on the white sharks for what I would say would be a short term to medium term. And all of these things combining together undoubtedly have hammered South Africa's great white sharks. And we can't control orcas, but we can certainly control stopping long lining of sharks in our country. We can stop the Natal Sharks Board killing sharks.
The days of thinking that white sharks are just out there wantonly killing people are long gone. It's an archaic practice that should have stopped decades ago. And any country that's promoting sharks from a tourism point of view shouldn't, on the flip side of that, be killing them. That's my feeling.
LUKE TIPPLE: Amen.
ALISON TOWNER: Certainly agree there with Chris. He's put it so well. And remember as well, Luke, that these are not South African white sharks we're dealing with actually. They're Southern African white sharks which is a whole different ballgame. Majority of them go past Durban that survived the gill nets and the drum lines there. And then they've got Mozambique. And one positive I can say from the satellite tracking data last year-- Mozambique finally have now declared white sharks as a protected species along their coastline.
So we also have to acknowledge, with the limited resources down here, whenever there is a win. And we need to support that. Likewise, with the long liners, as Chris said, there's so many fisheries now and there's so many methods. And whether we believe it's extraction of the smaller sharks or-- monitors are now being put on those long lining vessels, electronic monitors. So all these things with limited resources need to be supported as well. And I guess being inclusive of all the information.
These white sharks, they go offshore, they spend big amounts of time in the deep sea. And it's really complex to try and describe, I guess, what all these different impacts are having in these different areas. The killer whales, yes, short term meet impacts, let's say, a couple of months each time they come through. But when they repetitively return, repetitively return to an area like Gansbaai, that short to medium term can turn into years very quickly.
And especially because white sharks don't decipher which killer whales it is-- remember, white sharks evolved like 45 million years ago, orcas only came around 5 million years ago. So they've developed strategies to stay the hell away from them and to stay away from areas where they have encountered them before. That's been published in America as well off the Californian coast.
But all of these things are probably interconnected. Removal of prey, overfishing, orcas inshore more prevalent, overlapping with white sharks in areas they never used to. So absolutely. And all of this work we do with Shark Week, if anything, really brings exposure to that and gives us a platform to sort of bring awareness to it.
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, it feels like we should have a show where all we do is talk about the malpractice of people. On one hand, advertising sharks, and on the other hand, just shooting themselves in the foot by taking them out. But I don't want to end the show there. So perhaps I could ask both of you-- this was a really fun show to watch. We got to see great whites frankly in their majesty. And also got to have some fun with the whole competition of it. So I want to ask both of you, perhaps, Alison, you could start, what's your take home message or final thoughts or most fun thing about this shoot.
ALISON TOWNER: Ooh. OK, so this is always going to stand out in my mind because I'm actually 30 weeks pregnant. I'm due a child in a few weeks' time. So women in science. A lot of times Shark Week, we do have quite a male dominated lineup of hosts. And it's starting to change now. And I think I'm probably one of the first people that's been on Shark Week as a pregnant female out there in the field.
So I would particularly send a message to young women in America who are studying marine biology that would like to kind of feel a bit intimidated about the field or feel they're not going to make it through and they can't balance work and life and all the-- because it is hard. As women, we are expected to be moms as well if we want to make it in life. So I guess my point is if you're passionate about something, you believe in the cause, you work hard, you're capable of anything actually. And I'm seeing a lot more inclusivity and a lot more women on these shows now, which is fantastic.
And I guess so that for me, just reflecting back on this year will always stand out from that standpoint, how nice the crew were to me not making me go out in rough seas and all the conditions we have to go out in usually to get the shots. But yeah, I guess, as well coupled with that, a major point is conservation of sharks is undeniable now. I mean, if you're not in support of it, then you seriously need to wake up.
And of course, overfishing, all these topics that we touch on. We've showcase now wonderfully again and again the majesty of the great white shark. But it's an ambassador for all the other species. So all the other types that are suffering-- let's not keep the white sharks just as a separate. Let's be inclusive of the 536 species.
They need help, they need help urgently. Support shark conservation, support legitimate NGOs that are struggling to do research, particularly on the back end of a pandemic now like down in South Africa here. And your voice really can make a difference. So yeah, especially through social media, I think everybody has that ability now to speak up for sharks. So that's my reflection on this year.
LUKE TIPPLE: That's an excellent reflection. And I do want to mention, thank you for saying that about women in science. My four-year-old, almost five-year-old daughter now, is absolutely obsessed with science and scientists. I've probably had something to do with that. But she loves aquanauts and particularly sharks. But even in that, there's kind of a lack of females even just in the books that she reads. And I'm like, hey, women can get out there, and I'm teaching her to get out there.
I'm going to show her this video and say, look, here is a strong woman out there. She's actually pregnant and she's studying and playing with white sharks. I think that's absolutely amazing. So you're an inspiration to my daughter. And thank you for that.
ALISON TOWNER: It can be done. What's your daughter called? Sorry, Luke.
LUKE TIPPLE: Kailiana. Her name is Kailiana Blue. I got to pick her middle name.
ALISON TOWNER: That's a very ocean relative name. I love that. Well, she can go get it, Kailiana. She can do whatever she wants. And yeah, I would love to meet her one day if she's ever down in South Africa.
LUKE TIPPLE: Thank you for that. Chris, what are your thoughts on this latest installment of Air Jaws.
CHRIS FALLOWS: Well, I think Alison summed up so many things so succinctly. But for me, it was really a celebration of the sharks and what they're capable of. And I think really, Jeff Kerr has put together an incredible show that really will just showcase these animals as they should be seen-- unbelievable athletes, Olympic athletes, doing things that are truly remarkable, that entertain us, enlighten us, educate us, and hopefully install in us a desire to conserve them.
And sharks are in huge trouble. I'm not going to mince my words. Governments really need to step in and start doing things. There's just too much talk out there and too little action. For those who have spent our lives on the ocean, looking at sharks on a daily basis, we're seeing far, far fewer of them.
And if we don't take action now, we'll be telling the next generation what we used to see rather than the generation to come saying, hell, you know what, it's great seeing these sharks as well. So we need to celebrate them, conserve them, and really do our best to make sure they're there forever. And I hope the show helps do that in some other way.
LUKE TIPPLE: Well, thank you for making shows like this. Honestly, the fun ones are good to inspire people, the scientific ones are great to sort of educate them. But I think shows like this come along, and you're just like, yes, that's something I can show anybody, they'll have a great time on it. Well, hey, look, I want to thank you both for being here and spending this amount of time with us. These chats are something that it's really good to kind get behind the scenes of everything.
And you're both are so passionate and so dedicated to the area that you work in. I think that's something that everyone should be inspired by. So thank you both for being here. I really appreciate it.
CHRIS FALLOWS: Thank you for the opportunity.
LUKE TIPPLE: And that's your Daily Bite. Thanks so much for joining us. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And I'll see you on the next Daily Bite.