With Shark Week dominating the content on Discovery channel and Animal Planet until next month, eminent specialist Chris Fallows sheds in-depth light on the subject, writes Debashine Thangevelo.
CHRIS Fallows has spent years studying the Great White. He started his research in Gansbaai, Western Cape. The co-founder of African Shark Eco Charters in False Bay has catalogued over a decade’s worth of predatory events.
Having also worked closely with Discovery, National Geographic Channel and the godfather of wildlife, Sir David Attenborough – he has collated quite a bit of knowledge of the predators’ habits, hunting techniques, breaching and so on.
On why he was drawn to the Great White of the 400 shark species out there, he notes, “The Great White is the ultimate predatory shark on the planet. It is a creature of myth and legend. As a young boy, I was fascinated by predators and, having grown up in the northern parts of South Africa, my interest initially was with lions, leopards, cheetahs and wild dogs.
“When I was 13, my folks moved to Cape Town and my interest quickly turned towards the sea, and there was no more spectacular a shark than the Great White. Fortunately for me, Theo and Craig Ferreira, who ran a white shark research project, offered me a volunteer position at Dyer Island and I got to know the ins and outs of the super shark.”
The shark-infested content across the two channels covers various species and angles in the documentaries: Air Jaws: Fin of Fury, Shark of the Darkness: Wrath of the Submarine, Jaws Strikes Back, Monster Hammerhead, Lair of the Mega Shark, Great White Serial Killer, Zombie Sharks, Spawn of Jaws: The Birth, I Escape Jaws 2, Ultimate Air Jaws, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, Megalodon: The New Evidence and Sharkageddon.
Touching on the importance of sharks from an environmental aspect, he says:
“They play a very important part in creating balance in the ecosystems. As apex predators, they not only control populations of prey by feeding on them directly but also by their mere presence. As such, they keep large numbers of other species off reefs and out of areas where they occur and, in so doing, protect the species of fish, algae, shrimps etc that the prey of the sharks would normally feed on.
“Their role is key in balancing ecosystems and this is an animal that has been around for 400 million years and outlived the dinosaurs, which certainly deserves our respect.”
As for the often negative portrayal of sharks in films and media reports after an attack, he offers, “The primary reason for shark attacks, in my humble opinion, is statistics. Quite simply, sharks generally pay us very little attention but once in a while they may be hungry, the water may be dirty and we might unknowingly be doing something that makes them want to investigate what we are.
“With millions of people using the water each year and thousands of encounters that involve sharks investigating people unknowingly, there is always going to be that one or two times when a shark will take its curiosity to the next level and that makes that unfortunate person the one in a million.”
Addressing the misconceptions of these mesmerising but feared creatures, Fallows says, “The first one is that their population is around hundreds of thousands. This is completely untrue. Research done in South Africa suggests a total population of probably just over, or near to, a thousand sharks. South Africa has the world’s largest great white shark population and we only have, at best, a thousand or so.
“Other areas have considerably fewer sharks and if we added all areas up I would guess that somewhere between 3 000-5 000 at a stretch would be the global population. This makes them a very rare and vulnerable animal.”
Having had his close encounter with a Great White, back in 1994, he cautions, “If you come face to face with a shark, there’s a very good chance you will survive it. Less than half of all shark attacks are fatal – why do you think this is? Quite simply, the motivation for the attack is not hunger.
“Sharks are often curious and, in the great whites case, they often investigate floating objects. Without hands, they use their teeth to see what things are and even when they gently bite people they can do great injury with an exploratory bite.
“If they wanted to eat us, nobody would get away – a fact proven with the seals of Seal Island, which are a lot faster, stronger and tougher than we are.”
• Tune in to Discovery Channel (DStv channel 121) at 10.50pm from tonight until August 31 to catch back-to-back episodes of the documentaries on offer. Tonight kicks off with Air Jaws: Fin of Fury and Shark of the Darkness: Wrath of the Submarine. The former doccie uses underwater gadgetry to track down the missing “mega shark” Colossus with the second one exploring the legend of the “Submarine”, an enormous Great White off the coast of South Africa.