Fear at the topResearch paper published

Free Willy has been killing Bruce. If that's not sciencey enough for you - Orcas (killer whales and pricks) have been killing great white sharks (the best animal ever). This raises serious questions.

Posted on 9 July, 2022

Oh, haai Mark?

That opening remark will make sense to two very small groups of people. I doubt anyone will find themselves sitting in both, but if I’m wrong – to you, I tilt my hat.

Anyway – the last couple of months have been exceptionally busy. This is neither rare nor likely to change, hence why my journal updates have been (and will continue to be) few and far between.

And truth be told, while many of my present distractions are of the fun variety, they’re either wrapped up in NDAs, not quite ready, or just not quite fun enough to bother writing about on here. Soz.

But if there’s one subject I’m unlikely to ever get bored of talking about – it’s great white motherfudging sharks.

That’s right, I have shark news, which is officially the best kind of news – even during the same month where the Colorado Avalanche lifted the Stanley Cup!.

I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to support a sports team who weren’t all shades of faeces. Thanks Man United. Anyhow!

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Underwater great white shark.

I might be bias, but this pic never gets old.

Free Willy? More like Free Dickhead

Long sufferers of my journal will possibly remember my trip to poke some sharks, back in May 2017.

In that entry I explained that there were question marks over whether we’d actually see any great white sharks in Gansbaai, the great white shark capital of the world.

Why? Because a pair orcas – or as I like to call them, the dickheads of the ocean – were the culprits behind a trio of white shark carcasses washing up on local shores, sans their livers.

Now before I go any further, I recognise that referring to such ‘beautiful, majestic’ creatures as dickheads might trigger a negative response in a portion of my disernably miniscule readership. I can’t browse the internet for more than a single second without seeing some unqualified sad sack I don’t even know, lecture me on the virtues of ‘being kind’ in the best interests of myself and society at large.

Skeptical as I might be to the true benefits of such self-aggrandizing rhetoric, I’m nevertheless not one to dismiss an offer of guidance outright. Therefore, I’d like to take this moment to qualify my irks with killer whales. My hope is that as a result, any feelings of discomfort I might’ve inspired find themselves appeased.

Because I care.

Killer whales are knobs

My fundamental problem with killer whales is that they’re knobs. More importantly, that they’re dishonoest knobs.

They like to come across all “Oh look at me, aren’t I cute and graceful? I’m intelligent and innocent, please don’t put me in a fish bowl”. Meanwhile, they’re happy decimating delicate ecosystems (hence the research project that I will get to – I promise) or better still, bullying their prey instead of just straight up eating them.

At a time when mental health is such a hot topic of conversation, the latter tendency seems particularly egregious.

Despite this, they manage to maintain an almost messianic status in the eyes of the general public.

“Orcas are almost as intelligent as people”. Jesus christ, let’s be honest, that’s faint praise at the best of times. But besides, how is being comparable to the human race a good thing? We’re the ones that are responsible for wildlife numbers plummeting to almost depletion in the first place. In the case of intelligence specifically – have you been on Twitter? Did you see The Last Jedi? Do you know how many supporters Manchester United have? Have you read a single article on the Metaverse?

All of these observations provide unilateral support of my point – this is not a species with whom a comparison of intelligence does your argument any favours.

And then there’s the hypocrisy they symbolise regarding wildlife conservation in general. Take this scene from Jurassic World, for example:

Can you imagine what’d happened if they’d hung an orca instead of a great white shark? The subsequent outrage would’ve bought down the heavens! I can see it now:

Hospitals would be flooded with keyboard activists whose fingers have crumbled under the pressure of their empassioned indignance. Facebook profile pictures would be awash with black and white ribbons expressing solidarity with the victimised species. Carefully crafted hashtags would make subject experts of people with no knowledge of the subject over night. The NFL would go on strike, Amber Heard’s dog would step on another bee – the world would end.

And that’s not to mention the absolute field day that the mainstream media would enjoy. The headlines write themselves:

  • Jurassic World and how the industry that gave us Blackfish now serves those it once guarded on a hook.
  • What the male directed Jurassic World’s treatment of dolphins tells us about toxic masculinity.
  • How Jurassic World makes a joke out of extinction and why that’s a bad thing.
  • Black and white, and hung out to dry – What one scene in Jurassic World tells us about America’s racial divide that history ever has.

Any such outrage on behalf of our beloved Tommy shark? Don’t be silly, it’s just a fish.

“But great white sharks are monsters!” I hear in retort. Are they though? Really, are they? I ask because although I’ve seen many eating seals before, I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed them doing this:

Maybe ask that propelled pinniped which they think are the bigger monsters out of orcas and great whites. Better yet, maybe ask Dyer Island’s resident (and critically endangered) african penguins what they think about great white sharks being monsters, when they weren’t then around to manage the local seal population.

You get the jist of it.

Bloody hell mate, steady on

If it wasn’t obvious that I’m waxing lyrical, let me clarify this to be the case.

As far as marine mammals are concerned, I do love me some whales and dolphins, I think I was just soured on them a lot growing up. I was the only shark-kid in my first three schools and invariably whenever I raised the topic, it would divert to “Ugh, sharks are horrid creatures, why not like dolphins instead?”. I think I started to associate the attitude and mentality of people completely disconnected from dolphins, more prominently than I did my own knowledge and understanding. After a while, that association colours any subsequent knowledge you might amass.

It’s another one of those things where my issue isn’t really with the subject, so much as the hysteria and culture that we’ve amassed around it. The representation of some creatures in human culture has nothing to do with their natural behaviour, so much as how conveniently they sit with our worldview on a superficial level.

But I suppose that’s nothing new…

What was this journal update about again?

Oh yeah, the research

In all seriousness – I generally like all animals, even the ones Idon’t.

For example; I can’t be anywhere near a spider without feeling like I’m going to vomit, or try to jump through a sheet of glass (tried that once – I bounced), but I appreciate the badadassary of their natural design and engineering. Either way, you can be sure as buggery that you’ll never find me killing one.

And one cannot deny that for better or worse, witnessing such a significant change in the natural environment as what happened in Gansbaai is a privilege. Before 2017, I don’t think I’d ever witnessed a single no-show of great white sharks in Gansbaai. We might be at sea for eight hours and only see a shadow, dorsal fin or ‘bleep’ on our tracking hardware, but they were there.

That changed after the orcas arrived, although I am happy to report that the great white sharks have been steadily returning to Gansbaai in recent times… hmm, how much are flights to Cape Town these days?

A rare opportunity for better understanding

In addition to being a privilege to witness, it’s also a unique opportunity for research. This isn’t a phenomenon that occurred decades back that we’re now sifting through the remnants of to better understand. It’s occurring in realtime and in an area blessed with specialist logistical and intellectual resources.

Furthermore, the introduction of predators into ecosystems not used to their presence is neither well documented nor well understood. This wasn’t just an opportunity to ‘figure out’ what’s going on in the seas outside a small african fishing town (that is a small town in africa that specialises in fishing – not an african fishing town populated exclusively by dwarves), it was an opportunity to better understand an extremely rare occurence.

Friend and colleague at the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, Alison Towner headed up the project which stretches back to those times in 2017.  Fear at the top: killer whale predation drives white shark absence at South Africa’s largest aggregation site was recently published in the African Journal of Marine Science, co-authored by a beast of a team comprising marine specialists from across southern africa. Oh, and me!

Great white sharks out, bronze whaler sharks in

Starting with the five great white shark carcasses that washed up in 2017, it documents the distinct change in their behaviours against the regularity of orca sightings in the subsequent two and a half years. One of the most interesting side effects of the great white sharks’ departure, was the opportunity it created in the local food chain for another predator – the bronze whaler shark. Something I can personally attest to.

Anna and I returned to Gansbaai in 2019 and I was amazed to see just how many bronze whaler sharks visited the boat on any trip we went on. Before then, I knew they were in the area but had never seen one – now they were everywhere.

In short, the data suggests that great white sharks not only respond very quickly to the presence of top predators in their ecosystem, but that such scenarios are increasing. It’s certainly going to be interesting to see what comes next.

As for my role – was it super small? Oh yes! Will I nevertheless make a disproportionately large song and dance about any involvement I have with something shark related? Oh yes!

I think I contributed to some of the data set, I helped out with some figures and also definitely created the promotional artwork seen below.

For more information, please do give the study a read over at the African Journal of Marine Science.

Fear at the top - animation overview

Stop living off other people’s work Ed – what are you doing that’s shark related, eh??

Well, that’s a bit harsh.

But it’s also fair! For someone who is as self-confessed an ‘addict’ of sharks as I profess to be, my portfolio is certainly lacking in this respect of late.

I do have one creative project underway with a team of whose work and influence on great white shark research and conservation in South Africa is long-standing and significant. It’s the type of project I’d long hoped I’d be a part of, but could never forsee how such an opportunity would arise. Suffice it to say I’m tres excitide (French for very excited) and will be sharing news from this just as soon as I can.

My A conversation with series has actually proven to be quite popular (as in, at least three people like them when they’re shared on Linkedin) and in the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing my first with someone of a marine wildlife persuasion. Judith Scott is a wildlife guide and photographer with extensive experience of working with incredible animals across the globe. We get into quite a lot of detail about the realities of working with wildlife and I’m hopeful that this will provide a unique insight into that whole world, for people otherwise unfamiliar with it.

Aside from that, not a whole lot of great white shark stuff is going on I’m afraid.

Oh, except my shark-based videogame is underway.


Great white shark videogame

Slow progress, but progress nonetheless!