Posted on Tuesday, 14 July 2020
Shark Week 2020
A personal account by Chris Fallows of what it means to him and 20 highlights for 20 years for Shark Week 2020.
The extent of the fascination of the world for the flying Great white sharks after the team’s discovery of this unique behaviour at Seal Island in False Bay, South Africa during the mid- 1990’s, has gone far beyond my wildest dreams.
If up until that point Great white sharks had been super cool, flying Great whites were completely sub-zero awesome.
Before going any further that whilst I have been the co-host of the Air Jaws shows, it is the sharks themselves that are first and foremost the true superstars. Without these superstars, I would never have had the incredible and unique experiences over the last 20 years whilst working together with the Air Jaws Team for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.
Now twenty years after friend and film maker, Jeff Kurr, created the first Air Jaws show we have gone on to film a further 11 Air Jaws shows. This makes it, according to ratings, the world’s most successful shark documentary franchise and the mainstay of Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week. That is huge!
The final product has always been a team effort comprised of some very talented and committed people including Jeff Kurr, Tony Sacco, Andy Brandy Casagrande & Henau Marais.
My co-hosts have included many of the world’s most knowledgeable and experienced Great white scientists and naturalists including and in no particular order, Dr Neil Hammerschlag, Dickie Chivell, Alison Towner, Rocky Strong, Dr Enrico Gennari, the late Aidan Martin and Sean Van Sommeran amongst others.
I believe some of the most important people, and who are often unsung heroes, are the captains and crews of the boats we use. The crew of Apex Shark Expeditions at Seal Island whose knowledge of natural predation and breaching behaviour has been a key ingredient in our success; the local knowledge of Peter Scott in New Zealand; and the kindness and experience of the Marine Dynamics team in Gansbaai have all stood out. I would undoubtedly never have had the same degree of success in these shoots or working with the animals had it not been for my wife, Monique, whose quiet effort behind the scenes and incredible field skills with wildlife have added tremendously.
The most important stars are the sharks! At Seal Island in False Bay, where most of the Air Jaws were filmed and where it all began, had so many incredible Air Jaws memories. One of Air Jaws’ greatest strengths has been the ability to capture many “firsts” both in terms of particular shark behaviour and just some unexpected moments.
I have chosen 20 highlights to celebrate 20 years of Air Jaws.
Air Jaws at Seal Island
#1: The first Air Jaws- the Whale Carcass feeding event.
This is probably my greatest wildlife experience ever. Seeing a minimum of 28, but possibly over 40 sub adult and adult Great whites eat 70% of an 11m long Brydes whale in 18 hours was quite simply unbelievable. Watching eight 4- 5.5m long sharks simultaneously feeding belly up with pectoral fins overlapping was ridiculous. The bellow-like sounds of sharks gouging out 50 pound chunks of flesh, fat and spray flying everywhere, followed by the horrific smell of a ravaged carcass is one I will never forget.
#2: The first time we ever saw Great white’s feeding at night was way back in 2002 at Seal Island. The shark swam into our underwater torch lights and it eyes lit up and went a prehistoric green colour. Simply amazing!
#3: Seeing Great whites breach at night for the first time in 2004 at Seal Island. It was from these observations that we learnt the sharks were using sound and vibration as the primary means to locate their prey. In the complete darkness, water visibility coupled with no moon meant that light coming through was zero.
#4: The Colossus breach 15ft away from where Jeff Kurr lay filming on the 6ft long “Seal Sled”.
It was a really big shark known as Colossus, a beautiful evening sky and the culmination to an epic shoot.
#5: Watching the dynamics of a breach from underwater for the first time via a camera contraption Jeff dreamed up called the “Seal Eye”.
To finally see a full blooded cork screwing vertical attack was simply awesome.
#6: Dr Hammerschlag and I watching Great white shark behaviour at night during the filming of “Night Stalker” using highly specialised sonar. This allowed us to see the shape of a Great white underwater, whilst at the same time watching seals leaving the Island under the cloak of darkness. We observed in awe as the Great white followed closely behind the seals, downright incredible…
Air Jaws at other locations in South Africa
#7: Paddle boarding with several large Great whites in the shallows near Dyer Island in Gansbaai with one female shark of around 14ft who for about 5 minutes circled and interacted with me.
#8: Watching a huge Great white breach behind Dickie Chivell whilst he was in “The Hornet” at Dyer Island. It was an incredibly difficult shot to get and also extremely difficult for Dickie to be in the Hornet whilst being towed backwards underwater.
#9: Along with Alison Towner we watched Great whites live on the “Shark Spy” swimming amongst many other smaller shark species, visually highlighting how these large sharks are often found in areas where we believe they prey on these smaller shark species.
#10: Watching three Great whites circle Dickie while he lay on the 16ft long cut out called “Parthenope”. I was not a great fan of this idea but it was very interesting to see how the sharks were cautious when he was on Parthenope but the moment he was off it, they would nudge and bite it. Clearly they picked something up. It also made for great TV J.
#11: Kayaking with over 25 different Great whites over a two week period in Mossel Bay for the filming of Ultimate Air Jaws. During this time not one animal was openly aggressive towards me. I did get the odd nudge though just to let me know who was boss.
#12: The drone breach in Mossel Bay.
Using a different towing technique, we used a drone (rather than a boat) to pull the decoy and got a spectacular breach with beautiful evening light.
#13: Breach watching from the cliffs. A very big highlight for me based on 30 years of observing and recording Great white predatory behaviour on Cape fur seals in False Bay, was seeing this same hunting behaviour in Plettenberg Bay. Unique to this situation was that observations took place from a cliff, the height giving us an opportunity to watch the entire preamble of a hunt. To do this with Dr Neil Hammerschlag and Alison Towner was especially good as they appreciated what we were seeing as much as anyone could.
#14: Watching groups of seals mob sharks and successful drive them away from the seal colony at Robberg, once again from the cliffs in Plettenberg Bay.
Air Jaws In other parts of the world.
#15: Filming and photographing the first ever breach on film in Australia in 2002.
#16: Filming and photographing the first ever breach in New Zealand in 2018.
#17: Walking along the seafloor in the one man cage called “Wasp” in New Zealand and having the massive 16ft long male great white shark called “Phred” along with 5 other large Great whites try to get me out of my tin can of a cage. They knocked me over in Wasp repetitively for nearly 20 minutes!
#18: Using Wasp at night in New Zealand in 70ft of water with several Great whites in almost complete darkness, crazy!!
#19: Simply diving on the sea floor in New Zealand and seeing Great whites swimming within touching distance of each other over what is a magnificent tapestry of different coloured seaweeds and marine flora.
#20: Lying on the “Seal Sled” in New Zealand and having a 14ft male, called Marble Tai, gently and curiously investigate me by pushing me and the 6ft long sled around for about 10 minutes.
#20+1 just in…..The unbelievable breach and image I was lucky enough to capture for Air Jaws: Ultimate Breach Off, from a small water level sled I designed. This allowed me to get an ultra-low angle image of a truly, incredibly athletic breach from just a few feet away. Super high risk for my gear but the reward could not have been better!
The truth is I could go on and one and having arrived at #20 I realise I have only scratched the surface. It truly makes me realise what a privilege I have had to have been a part of the Air Jaws franchise with these unbelievable sharks and cast of marine wildlife that the sharks are found with. I am also indebted to all of the teams on all of the Air Jaws shows, including many people who have not been mentioned, it has been one unbelievable ride. The only downside is seeing how the sharks keep looking better and better but we have got older over the past 20 years!