17 March, 2019

A great white shark named Flag

Flag was a 4.5 metre great white shark, seen in both Gansbaai and Mossel Bay (South Africa) from 2007 to 2009. She was massive and terrifying.

Meet The Sharks is a feature where I attempt to immortalise some of the amazing great white sharks I’ve worked with over the years.

When people come cage diving in South Africa, it doesn’t take long for any negative preconceptions they have about great white shark behaviour to be dispelled.

They aren’t monsters, they are calm, cautious, seemingly analytical creatures.

The sharks, that is.

Surprisingly, Sharknado isn’t accurate

Great white sharks tend to approach the a carefully, spending a while circling before they become especially active. If you’re lucky enough to have particularly good water visibility, you can sometimes spot the deep blue pupil of their eye staring right into you. This is even better when you’re in the age and they glide, mere feet away.

Shark

That might sound dull if you come expecting to see giant fish hurling themselves out of the water, tearing marine mammals apart before your eyes. But there is something oddly mesmerising about the experience. Their grace and inquisitive nature often puts people in a trance, incapable of looking away for even a second. Because they’re perfect.

Again – the sharks. People I find tolerable at best.

There’s always one

It’s a far cry from what you’ve seen in Jaws or the more sensationalist episodes of Shark Week. I think I speak for anyone involved with shark conservation or ecotourism, when I say that ‘moment’ when someone stops viewing these animals as monsters and sees them for the incredible beings that they are, is one of the most consistently deeply rewarding.

But every now and again, you meet a shark who wants to undo all that work. You meet a shark who is hell bent on proving that the negative Jaws image of sharks, to be absolutely correct.

Sometimes, you meet a great white shark like Flag.

Mossel Bay, August 2008

Just your average great white shark cage dive

I met Flag during a cage diving trip with White Shark Africa in Mossel Bay. I was interning for SAMPLA at the time and we chose to spend our day off from white shark research, on a white shark cage diving trip.

Because sharks.

SAMPLA

The SAMPLA internship, August 2008

I remember it being a fairly standard trip for the most part. A couple of sharks between two and three metres in length, one a little more feisty than the other, tourists loving the experience, etc. I probably ate all the sandwiches.

Then, seemingly from nowhere, 4.5 metres of evolutionary perfection erupted from the depths of the deep blue sea beneath us.

I’d seen sharks of this size before, a couple during this very internship, but none this active.

The control of her speed was equalled by her control in approach. She had particular strategies that she liked to employ, but as time went on she would mix things up, going for the bait from different directions. Whether moving from directly underneath, to our left or right, making her presence known early or mere moments before striking, there were concious changes in approach.

You could see her adapting.

“That one… when she looks at you, you can see she’s working things out”

Goddam, Robert Muldoon is the shit.

Sharks appearing to learn and adapt to the movement of the bait, isn’t something I’d never seen before. In most cases before this however, they were far more slow and relaxed about it. They would approach the bait calmly, nudge it with their nose and depending on the direction it was pulled away in, you might see them approach from a different angle when they came back.

In the time it took sharks such as these to make a single pass, Flag could easily have made four or five. It was a constant battering.

Amy Blessington (a fellow intern and Batman enthusiast whose become one of Anna and I’s closest friends) has a memory of Flag which is pretty close to mine:

Amy Blessington

Flag’s icon dorsal fin, photographed by Amy Blessington

Amy’s memories of Flag

I remember Flag being my first cage diving shark. And what a shark to share the water with for the first time. At this point I was coming to the end of my two month internship with SAMPLA, fulfilling my childhood dream of researching great white sharks.

They were elegant animals, sometimes even timid, and I couldn’t get enough of watching them swim calmly past. I was going to spread the word when I got home about how they just move calmly and steadily like koi in a pond, not like in the films.

So it had to be Flag when I finally got in a cage didn’t it.

Flag was considerably bigger than the individuals we’d seen for the past 8 weeks, and she was scary, to be quite frank. You could tell she knew her way around a bait and she knew how to put on a show for eager tourists.

A few times she repeated the same move, an ambush from the deep, straight at the cage, then an incredibly sharp right angle turn left across the front of the cage before the next round, missing it by inches. She knew what she was doing, and she was fast – I think my blurry photo of her signature move says it all:

Flag

Flag’s signature ‘BOOOM!’ move

Then she just started coming from all directions it seemed. The bait handler got a good workout that day, and he was out-witted more than once.

The next day when we were fortunate to see lots of individuals at once – mainly smaller sharks again – I remember seeing a somewhat wider dark shape coming straight at the boat. It was exactly like Jaws (and I who was usually enthusiastic and excited like Hooper, immediately sympathised with a nervous Brody).

Great white sharks

Three of the sixteen great white sharks we worked with that morning

Ed and I shared a knowing look – if this was Flag showing up, we didn’t fancy being bait handlers anymore, and especially not given we were on a much smaller boat… As the shadow grew closer we saw the bent fin – it wasn’t Flag, it was a far more civilised lass called Roxanne who we had tracked the previous month, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

She’s a tale for another day. I’ve cage dived many times since, but no other shark has been like Flag – a shark who was breathtaking to encounter, but perhaps just the once, thanks. And from a big boat.

Team awesome

This was a bloody good morning

A game of who’s who

Fast forward to June 2009, or there abouts. Oliver Jewell and I are working for Oceans Research in Mossel Bay. We’re the last ones in the office several hours into the evening.

We’re discussing how we hope to see some of the bigger sharks return to the island soon. Winter was when this usually happened and we’d coined the phrase ‘Winter is coming’ long before the Starks did. Ned and Co, not Tony.

This conversation naturally moved onto bigger sharks in general. I immediately remembered ‘the beast’ we saw while on a trip with White Shark Africa, almost a year ago.

I scour Facebook for a video of the animal in question from that very trip. The shark turns and the dorsal fin is perfectly in shot. I find one and Oli’s eyes light up.

The video is blurry as all hell, but there’s absolutely no missing that large notch up at the very top.

Dorsal Fin

The large notch at the top of Flag’s dorsal fin makes her easy to identify

Oli knew this shark from Gansbaai:

Oli’s memories of Flag

I arrived as a volunteer in Gansbaai in 2007 in a bit of a kafuffle. A huge storm was rolling in, my pick up had been a few hours late, there were big birthday celebrations for Alison Towner (Ali, Senior White Shark Biologist for Marine Dynamics) and it was my first-time setting foot in sub-Saharan Africa. When I got to sea a few days later I was greeted by some massive great whites in the inshore reefs in Gansbaai.

None more memorable than this giant, jet black shark, who remains the only shark I ever saw take a bait from Grant, the skipper of White Shark Projects. She did so not just once, but twice in succession! I’d started the day cage diving with Marine Dynamics, and then was on their whale watching boat for the afternoon when we stopped by White Shark Projects.

There we saw Flag in all her glory!

She just had the most efficient technique of disappearing and then in split second lunging up at the bait, snapping it off and disappearing again. In that split second, apart from her size, speed and shading, it was the very clear protruding notch, or flag that made her so distinct.

This was one of the only times I ever saw her in the flesh (we saw her twice more for under 5 minutes each that week), but I’d recognise that shark anywhere in an instance, even in the grainy footage Ed showed me on Facebook 18 months later.

Big shark

Flag – bloody massive.

A shark named Flag

It’s been over ten years since I met Flag. I don’t know if she’s been spotted at Dyer Island or Mossel Bay since. She certainly didn’t return during the time I was based in Gansbaai in 2012. That being said, it did give me a smile to see her dorsal fin when identifying individuals for Gauging The Threat. While I haven’t checked over the Photo-ID database for a long ass time, I’m not especially optimistic that she’s been back since.

It often felt to me like great white sharks would reach a certain size and then just bugger off completely. We saw the same with Roxanne, who Amy mentioned earlier. She was a similarly large female who hung around Mossel Bay at the same time as Flag. I also don’t believe has been spotted since. Likewise with Slashfin, who frequented both areas on a yearly basis up until I think 2014 (a shark that I will definitely need to talk about).

This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there. They might just not want to be seen, or know better than to waste their time around cage diving boats.

Ali had much the same thoughts when I contacted her recently:

Flag was a character – she often showed a really relaxed curious behaviour – as shown in the pictures lifting her head out of the water, making slow and confident passes by the cage.

Sharks like Flag are the ultimate ambassadors for white shark conservation – you cannot help but be in awe of an animal like that. Obviously her highly distinctive fin made her easily recognisable. She was catalogued in Gansbaai on the inshore more than the island. I did not see her again after 2009.

A great white shark named Flag

A great white shark named Flag

An instant impression

Of all the sharks I’ve a strong memory of, Flag is probably the one I spent the least actual time around. A couple of hours on a cage diving trip. That’s it.

That her presence and personality made such a strong impression and are so immediately identifiable by others (the three people I spoke to about her all recalled very similar characteristics), stands as testament to what a memorable, unique and charismatic shark she was.

And hopefully, still is.

Flag, swim long and free.

Thanks to Oliver Jewell, Alison Towner and Amy Blessington for your photographs and memories of Flag.

Posted 17 March, 2019