Air Jaws Returns
The Air Jaws franchise has been Discovery channel’s most successful Shark Week franchise in its existence to date. As such it came as no surprise that for 2018 and the 30th Anniversary of this week celebrating sharks with over 30 million viewers the network commissioned a “Best of Air Jaws” show.
In itself this was an easy enough proposition however like with all the Air Jaws shows we needed to do something special, something unique that sets Air Jaws above the other shows.
In today’s day and age this is not easy as there are many other film crews out there and sharks have been extensively studied, filmed and almost all shark hot spots have been discovered.
Air Jaws teams have made a career out of pioneering discoveries, science and simply breathtaking cinematography so it wasn’t going to be easy. One aspect of the shows that always keeps audiences entertained and showcases the shark’s athletic capabilities are the breaches.
In 1996 a colleague and I captured the first ever breaches in South Africa on film, in 2002 Jeff Kurr along with his Californian team filmed the first ever breach off the US Mainland. In 2002, I got lucky and shot imagery of the first recorded breach in Australia.
There really were not many options left, save one, New Zealand. Nobody had ever filmed or photographed a breach here before, they are rare to say the least.
We were however positive that under the right conditions, in the right area it could be done.
Jeff as per usual had a trick up his sleeve and once again I was to be towed behind the boat to be close to any breach we might see. As much as I make it sound like I am a Guinea pig to be honest I am a willing one as it is both an incredible experience few people will ever have and it is exciting to do these things at close quarters with a magnificent animal.
I think the most important aspect however is the fact that it shows people in no uncertain way that despite my often-naked vulnerability the sharks choose to not attack me and are very capable in discerning between regular and foreign prey.
I have spent more than 25 years working on an almost daily basis with hunting great whites and have seen them in predatory situations as often as anyone. In a way, I guess that would by simple logic place me in a good position to know what their likely behavioral response to most situations will be. When I do all of these “crazy” things I have thought them through very carefully and it must be said that at no time does Jeff or anyone else have a gun to my head, apart from the submarine, that I will always fear, I have thrived when given the opportunity to put myself out there and show people what the sharks are really about.
So, the plan was I was to be towed behind the boat and we tow a decoy, as we had done before but would the sharks here be keen, as Peter who has worked in NZ with sharks longer than anyone had hardly ever seen breaches and never one on a decoy. First a test, there are always tests …..and more tests. We put the decoy out behind Peters boat and waited to see if any sharks would come whilst we were on anchor. It was a passive way of seeing if they were interested in the sled. Well we didn’t wait long. The very first shark that came along was a magnificent male known to Peter and local scientists as Marble Tail. At 15 ft. he was a very big shark, especially for a male. What was even bigger was his personality. He was the giant teddy bear of great whites, curious, gentle and a little goofy. He instantly swam up to the sled and proceed to gently nudge, mouth and push the small craft I was on. From above Andy Casagrande filmed me with a drone and you can certainly see how big he is. What some people may think is that he was attacking the sled. He certainly wasn’t, he was just curious and he was being as gentle as 2500ls shark equipped with 250 razor sharp teeth can be. I was in 7th heaven. I was inches away from him in calm conditions and I think if the size of a person’s smile is a yardstick of momentary happiness for those few fleeting moments I was as happy as anyone on earth. So clearly the sharks, especially goofy Marble Tail was keen on the sled but would they breach behind it?
So, New Zealand is undeniably beautiful BUT down in the South it is cold. There are not too many countries called “land of the long white cloud” and the reason for this is big powerful cold fronts that blast this island on a regular basis.
As such at 6am in the morning, it is dark, cold and often wet. Not ideal conditions when you have to lie on 6 inches above the water and being pulled almost completely underwater when the sled dives into wind chop.
Add to this that on several mornings I was being towed in the same prone position for over an hour at a stretch and you will appreciate it was not cocktails in the Caribbean.
The flip side was that I was being towed, on my own, on an intimate little 6ft long craft in an amazingly beautiful area. Add to this all around me I had some of the oceans greatest birds swirling at close quarters. I was eye level on the water with diving sooty shearwaters, Buller’s, White capped and Southern Royal Albatross and a melee of gulls and terns. Picture all of that with epic pre-frontal sunrises and then you will see how lucky I was. I was in fact so taken with all the birds that I had to often check and remind myself that I was there to watch Air Jaws not Air Albatross!
We towed the sled for 5 days without a breach but on the 5th day a shark followed the decoy. We knew we had interest but was that worth pursuing. On the 6th day after more than an hour we finally got action, a solid ¾ lunge from a big 12 ft. shark.
I had seen my breach from the sled but was it good enough to qualify as the first New Zealand breach ever filmed, not really. These sharks are capable of so much more.
We decided to try to get a breach without the sled. We picked what Peter said was the best area, we had a great decoy and a super back drop that nobody could refute as being from the area. For 25 minutes, nothing and then in a split second the water erupted, the gulls scattered and Air Jaws New Zealand went Airborne. We had it, a breach worthy of saying we had truly seen one that did the great shark’s athletic capabilities justice.
Looking back since the first Air Jaws in 2000 it has been an epic journey. For my it has been a chronicle of a significant portion of my life spent in the company of a simply magnificent personality rich super predator. I have been lucky enough to share this journey with so many special people.
Jeff Kurr, friend, cameraman, producer and director (and very rare stuntman…) Discovery Channel are certainly lucky to have you as few will ever know how often you pulled the plane out of what often seemed to be an irreversible nose dive and the efforts you go to in order to make these shows the success they are.
Tony Sacco, Andy Brandy Casagrande, Johan Horjus, Charles Maxwell, Mark Rackley and other great cameramen whose capabilities, patience and endurance are put to an extreme test on so many occasions. Your creative acumen, dedication and commitment to what often took hundreds of hours to achieve is amazing. The amount of times all of you have helped me or watched my back is greatly valued. Heanu Marais (Goldilocks), soundman, the unsung hero who is also always good for a laugh, professional and a big part of a great team.
Co-hosts, Rocky Strong (an amazing talent, scientist and waterman), the late Aidan Martin (walking encyclopedia), Sean van Sommeran & Callaghan Fritzcope (devoted conservationists and hardcore watermen), Dr Neil Hammerschlag & Alison Towner ( Super dedicated innovative and above all conservation minded shark scientists), Dickie Chivell ( brave and multi disciplined waterman who wore many hats). Thank you all for sharing your amazing knowledge and experiences with me and the world. I learnt so much from all of you.
All of the various boat captains and crew we worked with, nobody ever realizes how important you are all to these shoots, in a way you are the most important as your knowledge and experience as well as willingness to help is what makes these shows so successful. Thank you to all the amazing crew over the years who I consider as family at Apex Shark Expeditions, Marine Dynamics, Shark Dive NZ, White Shark Africa.
The two most special thank you’s, one to my wife Monique who never stopped me chasing my dreams or allowing me to engage with the animals I love so much, your support, love and mutual passion for nature is so appreciated.
Finally, Carcharodon carcharias , The GREAT white shark, a million thank you’s would never have been enough, you gave me so many of the greatest memories of my life, have allowed me to see the world and above all get an understanding of how far we have as a species to go in order to begin to understand the fragility of our planet and its creatures.
Breach for the stars.