When it comes to Great White sharks, there are few ambivalent opinions. Whether its the diver next to you or the guy from Oklahoma who has never seen the ocean, we are either repulsed or drawn magnetically towards these enigmatic predators. Since a minor percentage of people, even divers, ever encounter a shark in the wild; the media plays a pivotal role in our perception of the ocean’s apex predators. Shark films beginning with the infamous Jaws have made dramatic ripples across the public psyche, generally to the detriment of the sharks themselves. However, even documentaries on the much celebrated Shark Week frequently prey upon our instinctual, but predominantly illogical fear of these perfect predators. As a documentarian who loves to swim with sharks, I have to admit my bias towards Carcharodon carcharias, and after watching the premiere of RTSEA Productions’ film Island of the Great White Sharks at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach CA, I am also guilty of another emotion: absolute envy.
As a northern Californian diver, the seemingly limitless visibility and glorious sunshine of the Mexican Isle Guadalupe are of obvious appeal, but the ultra tight and highly detailed shots of the Great whites clinches the deal: either you climb in the cage or watch this film to experience, and hopefully appreciate Great White Sharks. Shot entirely in high definition video by writer, producer and cinematographer Richard Theiss, the Island of the Great White Shark (IGWS) brings out the dramatic behavior of GWS themselves and the sheer thrill of the divers viewing the “King of the Seas,” up close and personal. Perhaps more importantly, the film features shark research and conservation at work, and bravely faces the tremendous teeth of threats facing sharks worldwide. Excellent graphics throughout the film help highlight the usefulness of tagging to understand the habits of the sharks, threats to their survival as a species, and occasional subtitling underscores the points for those of us too intrigued by the animals to be paying attention to the fact that it is sharks that are threatened, and we are the top predator of the ocean.
The clear water and close proximity of sharks reveals a remarkable amount of detail assisting in identification of individuals, distinguishing physical characteristics, including an incredible range of scarring from unknown sources. Indeed, one notable shark aptly titled Scarboard is tagged with an internal transmitter to collect depth and temperature and, several others are tracked using acoustic tags. Featuring notable shark scientist- UC Davis Professor Peter Klimley PhD, and young Mexican biologist Mauricio Hoyo Padilla, we see shark science at work. The scientists explore the mysterious world of these animals from movements to dinner habits, and the graphics help translate the arcane into the exalted, and at times the dismal future sharks face. Admirably, the filmmaker does not shy away from taking on the greatest threat to pelagic shark populations worldwide, the rising popularity of shark fin soup, creating a demand for shark fins, and supporting the practice of shark finning; the killing of sharks for just their fins. Kudos to the filmmaker and the Aquarium of the Pacific for not soft peddling this very serious issue that not only affects sharks, but the entire oceanic ecosystem of which they play an integral role. Sharks desperately need more films in this light.
Educational yes, but excitement and information pepper this independently produced film and if it weren’t for the subtle melodies scoring the film, one might subconsciously hear that familar tum tum, tum tum we associate with circling sharks. Those of us intrigued by the Man in the White Suit with the cold black eyes and perpetual grin will not be disappointed by a lack of teeth and predatory attack. Tight shots, in focus details and ghostly long shots abound, and the haunting music accompanying the encounters paint a primal scene of intrigue and unearthly beauty. This film shows sharks in their most glorious light, lazily swimming by, ignoring tasty tuna and then surprising shots of striking bait so fast and close the camera can barely follow. But it does, IGWS has one fantastic scene- so fast it requires a replay in slow mo - of the intrepid Hoyo Padilla gathering a tissue plug for DNA analysis as a shark snagged on an unhooked bait collides with the cage.
This is the rub: the footage and the film are collected (prudently) in a cage diving operation. Attracted by chum, and encouraged by fresh fish, divers inside submarine cages connected to the dive boat pay good money to safely experience shark diving. But is it safe for the sharks? Cage operators are under tight scrutiny these days, and for some operators, with good reason.
Not without controversy, certain cage operators have been charged with irresponsible attraction of sharks to areas and even harming the sharks themselves through over-stimulation. Some in the shark community dispute the rising popularity of “shark tourism”, e.g. cage diving in South Africa, Australia, Hawaii, California, and Mexico, claiming that the operations have deleterious effects on the ocean’s most noble predators. Lets face it, we all know that you pour blood in the water and the sharks will come, but it is how you handle the rest of the encounter that seems to make the difference.
This film features the company Shark Diver which conducts the cage operations at Isla Guadalupe, and interviews Shark Diver CEO Patric Douglas. An articulate advocate of sharks, and shark tourism, Douglas seems to take the business of shark conservation very seriously. Without the actual experience of diving in a cage first hand (but with the experience of diving with these sharks) the writer cannot speak directly, but on film, and by anecdote, this operation does appear to be as safe and well managed as can possibly occur while attracting predators within touching and photographic range. To their credit, Shark Diver and the owner/ operators of the vessels leading the tours; the MV Nautilus Explorer, MV Islander, MV Horizon and MV Ocean Odyssey along with DivingWithSharks.com are directly supporting the Mexican research program and working together to support the Guadalupe Island Conservation Fund.
The argument runs parallel to that of maintaining wild animals in zoos, or in this case aquariums: that people will love and want to protect what they are familiar with. If the enthusiasm expressed by the divers in the film (and the amazing footage obtained) is any judge, one hopes that the thrill of viewing these wild animals first-hand, or enjoying this compelling film will override any negative impacts of the operations. We clearly take home the message that the conservation efforts of the Mexican Government, the Shark Diver, and the researchers highlighted in this film are making serious efforts to protect and conserve Great White Sharks.
In this film we don’t just watch sharks, we learn about sharks.
Shark lovers who eagerly anticipate the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week are often disappointed by beautifully shot films lacking substance, or even capitalizing on the “man eating, killer” images as portrayed in the successful Jaws vein. Not so, Island of the Great White Shark, and Shark Week is where this film squarely belongs, on broadcast television where millions of viewers can learn to appreciate these amazing predators in a positive light, and how shark conservation needs public support.
The famous conservation biologist E.O. Wilson has offered the following explanation to our love/hate attraction to large predators: “We don’t just fear our predators, we are transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination breeds preparedness and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.”
Films like this help us understand sharks, and with hope, reverse the perceptions of fear or hate, and help demystify the monster. Listed as threatened with extinction, lets hope we will learn to love the Great Whites Sharks before it is too late. The Island of the Great White Shark is a fin in the right direction.
For more information on Islands of the Great White Sharks and how to see the film go to www.rtsea.com.