GREAT WHITE SHARKS: NEW ZEALAND
Posted on Thursday, 10 May 2018
In early April Chris & I were privileged to be part of Discovery Channel’s “Air Jaws Team” that was to gather in New Zealand to film a new show for this year’s Shark Week 30th Anniversary that will be coming out in July.
Our base was to be the green emerald island that is Stewart Island which is located south of The South Island. Although it is the size Oahu it is home to just 334 residents with the rest of the Island habitated by incredible lush green forest both inland and along its spectacular coastline.
After a long international flight the final part of our journey to Stewart Island entailed an infamous ferry crossing over the Foveaux Strait where en route we were able to view the cluster of islands known as the Titi Islands. This is where the famous New Zealand Great white sharks awaited us!
The Titi Islands are named after the thousands of Sooty shearwaters (or Titi birds) that nest on these islands. The Islands are also home to a healthy population of New Zealand Fur Seals and perhaps this is the reason for Great white sharks being found here in good numbers.
Once inside the chain of islands it’s like being dropped directly into Jurassic Park. The small to medium sized islands are all volcanic and rise up from the ocean floor jutting out in spectacular angles. They are covered in the same thick green forest as Stewart Island and hundreds of black Sooty Shearwaters frequent the skies as they fly overhead. All the while the constant wail of the seals can be heard and thrown in the mix is the distinctive harsh call of the Weka bird as he patrols his territory.
Added to this, scores of White-capped, Salvins and the exquisite Buller’s Albatross glide magnificently alongside the vessel showing off their massive wingspans and flying skills.
It was quite a lead up to seeing our first Great white shark!
Edwards Island would be our working area and in general this spot is becoming well known for having reliable numbers of great white sharks with fantastic diving conditions. Water visibility can be as good as 20 meters plus and although not blue it is a beautiful clean and clear green which is perfect for underwater filming and photography, complete with a spectacular back drop.
As we were visiting over the early autumn period we were unfortunately hit by a number of the first big low pressure systems. Being 46 degrees south the area is more vulnerable to feeling the effects of these and we did have to contend with some rather nasty wet and windy conditions. However, it just meant we had to make the most of when we could get out there, and that we did!
The great white shark population here is known for having a pretty definite sexual segregation. Up until April/May Edwards Island is mostly frequented by male great white sharks. Closer to winter the large females start to arrive and the males depart.
Over the 2 week period we did not see a high turnover of different individuals. In fact only 10 different sharks were recorded during our stay but they were all extremely interactive and we had a constant shark presence for most of the time whilst anchored and shooting Air Jaws Returns.
9 out of the 10 sharks were males with the tenth shark being a very impressive female. This massive female that we were extremely fortunate to see and spend time with was one of the first females seen this year. She was an incredibly spectacular 5 meters (16 feet) in length with an impressive girth to go along with it. Our introduction to her was of her coming directly up to the boat, sticking her head out of the water and then gently rubbing herself along the entire starboard side of the vessel as she headed up towards the bow. This little combination was something she did on multiple occasions. It doesn’t matter how often you have seen a great white shark, this kind of gentle, slow and curious behaviour always sends excitement levels to fever pitch. I just couldn’t get enough of her and know that I let out a number of very excited girly screams!
Over the years at Seal Island, False Bay, we have only had a handful of sharks that behaved in this fashion. The legendry Rasta, Cuz and Marshmallow immediately come to mind. That’s not many in 20 years so when we do get to see a shark like this we know it’s very rare and very special. To be that slow in movement and curious enough to keep putting her head out of the water is something very few sharks do, so when this giant of a shark started doing this I made the most of this incredible interaction. I, along with everyone else, was in complete awe of her and I drank in every moment of this privileged encounter.
I have tried to describe how rare this kind of shark behaviour is so that you can understand how exceptional the very next shark to the boat was. At the same time the 5 meter female was doing her thing another huge 4.5 meter (15 foot) male arrived on the scene and proceeded to behave in exactly the same fashion! We now had 2 sharks at the same time doing the same incredible things… it was just too much and definitely a day that ranks right up there as one of our best shark interactions ever.
It turns out that the male is a well-known shark that has been sighted for many years now at Edwards Island and his name is Marble Tail. We had the grace of his presence for two days and I never tired of him slowly swimming up to the swim step, sticking his head out of the water without rolling his eyes back and just looking at everyone.
I wish everyone could get to see a great white shark like this.
We were also extremely fortunate that we were filming a key scene and Marble Tail was the perfect shark to be able to film an unforgettable sequence. You’ll have to wait to see it in “Air Jaws Returns”!
Apart from these 2 extraordinary individuals there were a couple of other memorable shark characters. “Ricky Baker” was a 3.8 meter (12 foot) male that had been at Edwards Island since December and was seen at the boat every day. He was a highly interactive shark and had a number of techniques that he would employ in trying to get the bait. “Eyebrows” was a frisky 3.5 meter (11 foot) male that kept the Discovery Channels crew on their toes with his bold mannerisms and he made for an exciting shark to see and film at night.
I think because the sharks here seem to spend so much time around the boat one can really get to know them well. I always say that getting to understand that great white sharks all have their own unique characters and personalities, and then getting to know an individual shark, is for me the highlight of working with these animals.
Besides the sheer enjoyment of just being able to spend time with New Zealand Great white sharks in a spectacular area, we were also there to make a shark show. As with all Air Jaws shows we somehow manage to break new frontiers and this time was no different. I can’t tell you what happened now, you’ll have to wait, but I know you guys will love it!
The shark crew from Shark Dive New Zealand were fantastic and we all really enjoyed their enthusiasm and appreciated their hard work. We will be back for sure…!