A great white shark named Bitey

29 February, 2020

Frequent visitors to this website (both of you) will no doubt remember my story about Flag.

Flag was a beast of a great white shark. In many ways, she encapsulated everything we try to discourage people from associating with the species.

A leviathan of evolutionary perfection with little interest in demonstrating anything but her raw strength and destructive capabilities. Like Anna, when I need an early night and she’s got ‘things to do’ around the house.

Around the time we met Flag in Mossel Bay, there was another shark on the scene. Physically and behaviorally, she embodied the exact opposite of Flag.

We named her Bitey.

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A shark who doesn’t know she’s a shark

Some confusion over what all those teeth are for

I forget precisely when we first met Bitey, but she was originally named Hook shark. As you might expect, this name derived from the hook stuck in the right hand side of her mouth. Despite our best attempts, removal wasn’t possible.

It’s not uncommon for sharks to be named after something physically identifiable. It’s why so many great white sharks are named Black Eye McFin Teeth. Flag’s another great example of this, as are Ugly Betty, Slashfin, Nemo and countless others I hope to one day discuss.

Great white shark with hook in mouth

We initially named this girl ‘Hook Shark’, because we’re such fans of originality. Photograph by Amy Blessington.

But one morning, she surprised our decoy handler and managed to capture the fake seal in her mouth. In such instances, the shark would usually notice that it tastes like shit and spit it the fudge out. Alternatively, they might just thrash it around with violent gay abandon. A maneuver I like to call, The Woodward.

This girl did neither. She just kind of… sat there, almost looking confused.

2008 was my second year visiting South Africa to work with these animals, so I’d already seen my fair share of ‘surprising behaviors’. Seeing sharks do things that contradicted popular assumption was pretty much a daily occurrence by this point.

But even by those standards – this was some weird shit. Watching this incredible creature sort of ‘hold on’ with her mouth and be quite content to just get pulled along, wasn’t something any of us were especially prepared for. As time went on, she seemed less bothered about going for the bait or decoys alone and more interested in what was going on above the ocean’s surface.

All of this started from the moment she gently bit onto the decoy. Therefore, we renamed her Bitey. 

Great white shark spy hopping

Can’t resist showing us her face. Photo by Amy Blessington.

A trusty spy hopper

Great white sharks are one of a few shark species who’ve been known to spy hop. This behavior involves bringing their head out of the water to view their surroundings. Exactly why they do this, I don’t know.

I’m not sure anyone does because whenever we asked, they just look at us blankly. The sharks, not the people we’re asking.

Bitey was a big fan of doing this. The longer she spent with us, the more frequently she would do so. I can think of a couple of occasions where she swam by the boat without even approaching the bait or decoy, just spy hopping as she passed us by.

Her curiosity extended to briefly mouthing the engines. Again, this isn’t something that’s unheard of. However, during the time I spent in Mossel Bay, it happened infrequently enough to be worthy of note when it did.

Great white shark nudging motors

Curiously nudging our motors. Photograph by Amy Blessington.

Consistently delightful

Mood swings were not in this shark’s vocabulary

Some sharks will demonstrate variations in their behavior and personality, depending on others in the area. They’re like people, only nicer.

For example, Pasella was another Mossel Bay shark who was hanging out around the same time as Bitey and Flag. I’d heard stories from absolutely everyone that this fish was totally off her meds. Literally every single person who’d spent time with Pasella had only one thing to say – she’s nuts.

Great white shark spy hopping.

More spy hopping from Bitey. Photograph by Amy Blessington.

However, this was not the case when I first met her. The skittish, erratic behavior I’d heard so much about wasn’t on show in the slightest. The only thing we theorised at the time, was that the presence of several much bigger sharks on this occasion, may have caused her to be more cautious. Understandable.

Bitey never demonstrated this sort of ‘Passive Social Adaptability’ (I can’t imagine that’s an accurate description but in the event that it is – I invented it). It didn’t matter if she was surrounded by a few much larger sharks, or loads of a similar size.

Great white shark spy hopping

SO – CUTE!!!! Photograph by, you guessed it – Amy Blessington.

She bought the same calm, curious, seemingly care-free temperament to every party.

Just like all the ladies in my family and friendship group. All of them lovely, well balanced and emotionally consistent, regardless of the time or day.

Especially the ones reading this right now.

Completely unique and thus, impossible to forget.

I think this actually has a lot to do with why Bitey became so memorable. She was one of the first whom I really came to know by personality and subtle body language, over physical markings and broad behavioral tendencies.

I don’t honestly think I could even point out her dorsal fin if my cat’s life depended on it. If my life depended on it – completely different matter.

Great white shark approaching bait

Chilled and cute as fudge – Bitey. Another Amy Blessington classic.

If that comment makes me sound like a dick, bare in mind that said cat sat in her litter tray and took a dump over the side, onto the floor this morning. Who’s the dick now?

Even Jasper (our other cat) agrees:

Cat

Like people, lots of sharks ‘are who they are’ regardless of context or circumstance. But even then, you still know if they’re having a good day or a bad day.

Flag would sometimes be especially aggressive. Pasella might be uncharacteristically relaxed. Slashfin could surprise you by staying much deeper than usual for no obvious reason, on a given day.

But Bitey was always Bitey.

Hopefully, she still is.

Rather than dead.