White Shark – The Nature of the Beast

For years great white sharks have been portrayed as solitary oceanic assassins, but as this riveting documentary reveals, the reality could be even more terrifying…

Produced by NHNZ

In the far south of the Pacific Ocean, divers on the isolated Chatham Islands have detected an unwelcome pattern in a recent spate of attacks by great white sharks. To protect the islands’ precious abalone stocks from over-fishing, divers are banned from using scuba or other breathing aids, and can work only as long as they can hold a single breath. But having to constantly shuttle from seafloor to surface means these men are at risk every time they enter the water.

An increasing number of attacks on surfacing divers seems to suggest that, rather than being the random targets of solitary sharks, the divers may be being hunted by packs of white sharks. It’s even suggested that the sharks may be responsible for unexplained whale strandings, working together to herd pilot whales aground in the hundreds.

The hotly debated suggestion that white sharks could be living and hunting in co-operative packs leads scientists and researchers to join forces with local divers in order to study the true nature of the ocean’s most feared and ruthlessly efficient predator.

A highly developed result of four hundred million years of evolution, the great white is able to keep critical areas of its body warmed, which in turn boosts its metabolism like a turbo engine. The heat generated by this deep muscle activity also warms the sharks’ brain, enabling it to process information from a battery of super sensors and turning it into a predator without parallel in the chilled waters of the South Pacific.

If it’s proved that these killing machines are able to work and live co-operatively, it will suggest that the white shark possess a higher level of intelligence than has ever been previously suspected. To track down the answer, New Zealand shark expert Craig Thorburn travels to the islands to tag the sharks with radio transmitters audible up to a mile away.

What he is proposing has never been done before, but by tracing the movements of the tagged sharks, he and his team hope to establish whether in fact the white sharks do hunt and live in packs. As well as tagging, Thorburn is also hoping to take DNA samples that may reveal family links among the sharks. But finding the great whites is just the first of the challenges he and his team face as they battle the islands’ volatile weather patterns.

After a successful tagging and tracking program the team have come tantalisingly close to a major breakthrough in white shark research before the weather once again forces them back to land. Determined to continue their study, they relocate their program to the Spencer Gulf in South Australia, one of the few places in the world known to have more white shark activity than the Chatham’s.

Once again, the researchers tag and track the great whites. Observations from the relative safety of the shark cage, and round-the-clock monitoring of the sharks’ sonic tags seem to confirm the findings made in the Chatham lslands. Tracking what appears to be an established pack, they discover mature males, females, and adolescent sharks apparently moving and hunting together in a co-operative, closely-knit unit.

White Shark – The Nature of the Beast is a remarkable insight into shark behaviour, and poses an emphatic challenge to both current scientific ideas and the conventional view of the great white shark as an unthinking, underwater assassin.

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