Marine researchers chumming the ocean to lure sharks closer to their vessel off South Africa’s southwestern Cape coast got more than they bargained for when a half-ton (500-kilogram) great white shark leaped into their boat.
It happened on Monday near Seal Island, off Mossel Bay, in a part of the ocean famous for its “flying” sharks. (View the photo gallery Sky Sharks: Pictures of Super-Predators Snatching Prey From the Air.)
“We go out into the bay everyday to get data on the shark population,” Enrico Gennari told National Geographic News Watch in a phone interview. Gennari is director of Oceans Research, an independent research organization that works with universities and runs public awareness programs to teach people about sharks. Oceans Research has also collaborated with National Geographic to produce television documentaries about sharks and other predators.
“Our team was chumming to attract sharks to the boat so that we could photograph their fins, which, like human fingerprints, are a way to identify individual animals,” Gennari said. “They waited for four or five minutes, but nothing happened until there was an enormous splash and a shark landed in the boat. It did not come from the stern area, where the bait had been put into the water, but from the side.”
The team’s first thought was to make sure everyone was well clear of the giant predator, which was thrashing around on the deck. “They moved everyone out of the way, then radioed us,” Gennari said. He and a colleague arrived at the boat within minutes. It was not possible to push the flailing animal back into the sea by hand, and an attempt to pull it off the vessel with a rope attached to the second boat also failed.
“We radioed the harbor and said we were on the way, and that we needed a crane. It took about 20 minutes, and the whole time we were splashing water on the shark’s gills, trying to help it breathe,” Gennari said.” At the harbor a pipe was placed into the shark’s mouth to pump water over its gills, to keep it alive. The crane was used to hoist the animal by its tail, a risky maneuver because its great weight out of the water could have damaged its spine and internal organs, Gennari said. “But the only other option we had was to let it die on the boat.”
The shark was lowered into the water, but it stranded itself on a harbor beach. Attempts to push it back into the water by hand failed, so the Oceans Research team lashed the animal to the side of a boat and drove it out to sea. After half an hour of the assisted swim through the ocean the shark seemed to recover, slapping its tail strongly, Gennari said. The shark was released and it swam away, he added.
“We don’t know whether it’s still alive; we hope to see it again soon,” Gennari said. The specimen is well known to the Oceans Research team because it has been photographed regularly and it is readily identified by its unique dorsal fin.
“This was the first, and hopefully last, time a shark has jumped into our boat,” Gennari said. “It was quite stressful for everyone, both for the shark and the humans. But the people were safe and apparently the shark survived, so it really could not have ended better.”
White shark breaching clip from National Geographic Channel.
This is not the first time a shark has jumped into a boat in this part of South Africa’s coastal waters.
“There have been several incidents of leaping great white sharks in the past,” Chris Fallows told National Geographic in an email interview. Fallows has been monitoring and photographing breaching great white sharks for 20 years. His work has also been showcased in National Geographic documentaries and recently featured in a highly popular News Watch blog post about breaching sharks in the same coastal waters where a shark jumped on to the Oceans Research boat.
“In 1976 in False Bay, it happened on two different occasions,” Fallows wrote today. “One of the incidents resulted in a very badly injured fisherman. Sadly in both cases, the shark died.”
Fallows said that the crew of his company, Apex Shark Expeditions, records around 600-700 predatory events every year at Seal Island, “Often during these events we see spectacular breaches. It is thus inevitable that over the years we have had a few sharks jump close to the boat, but due to a huge emphasis being placed on safety, good fortune, as well as a fairly large boat, we have thankfully not had a shark land in [our] boat.”
What could cause a shark to jump on a boat?
“There can be several things,” Fallows explained. “In most cases the sharks breach while in pursuit of something, be it a seal, or fish, or a decoy. Occasionally however, great whites and some other species perform what is known as a natural breach. This type of breach takes place for no apparent reason, although it is speculated that it could have some form of social function of communication or dominance. These breaches are often very high, the mouth of the shark is closed, and it is often when there are several sharks in the immediate vicinity.”
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Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.