In the Shark Week special Jaws Strikes Back (premiering Aug. 11, at 9 p.m. ET. on Discovery), marine biologist Greg Skomal takes the sharkcam, which allows him to track a great white at depths of 300 feet, to the remote Pacific island of Guadalupe. His team had two objectives: “We wanted to test the new tool, sharkcam—the drone if you will—in a place where we could really run it through the riggers of following sharks and where we had good visibility,” he says.
They also wanted to solve a mystery: “Whenever you have white sharks and seals together, usually you see white sharks attack and eat the seals. Certainly Discovery Channel has covered that extensively on Shark Week numerous times. But Guadalupe is a place where you just typically do not see that kind of behavior. We’re wondering: there’s seals there, there’s sharks there, what is going on? Where are these attacks occurring? Or maybe they’re not occurring at all….How do white sharks behave around Guadalupe Island after they leave the boats that are chumming them in? Are they going and attacking seals at night? Are they doing things at depths? Or are they just going away and ignoring them? Those were the questions we had.”
As seen in the clip below, the team tags a shark, Johnny, and the sharkcam tracks him. Then something unexpected happens: Another great white attacks the drone.
“We tested it in Cape Cod for Shark Week 2013, and had great success. I think all of us were really surprised, including the engineers, that the darn thing worked and was able to actually follow a fish. That was really the first time we were able to follow a large marine animal and film it using a drone. The engineers get a little bit nervous, a little overprotective, so I figured I’d have a little fun with them. I was teasing them. I said, ‘Look, these sharks might eat this thing,’ and never anticipated it in Cape Cod. The sharks ignored it,” Skomal says.
“We took it to Guadalupe, and it came back after one track, and it was all scratched up. We said, ‘Whoa, what the heck is going on here?’ My teasing had come to fruition. I was really quite surprised, not only at the fact that white sharks were attacking it, but that it wasn’t actually the white shark we were tracking. These were other animals that were in the area and viewed the drone as a prey item, and then attacked with incredible force and great vigor.”
Spoiler alert: What Skomal discovers is that because of the visibility off Guadalupe, sharks have to lurk at depths of 300 feet. “Cape Cod, where there’s 10 feet of visibility—a white shark can go 20 feet deep and not be seen. It blends in really well with the bottom, and it’s not an issue for the shark. It’s shrouded in mystery and just cruises around and can sneak attack seals really easily,” he says. “But you get to a place where you have 100 feet, 200 feet of visibility, a shark’s gotta hide deeper and shroud itself in darkness. And that’s exactly what these animals are doing. They’re going down to deep areas where they can look up and see a silhouetted prey item—in this case it was the drone—but in a natural setting, it could very well be an elephant seal coming to the island, and then attacking these animals at depth, which is why we typically don’t see it. So we’re trying to solve the mystery of where and when white sharks may be attacking these seals, and I think we have.”
Where does Skomal want to go next? “We’ve all seen our share, and we keep loving to see our share of these white sharks leaping out of the water attacking seals. Believe me, I can watch that all day. But I think the future of white shark research is seeing what they’re doing at these deep depths.
“One of the things that all researchers have learned that have tagged white sharks is that when they leave these coastal areas, they go out to the middle of the Pacific, the Atlantic, or the Indian Oceans and they start diving to depths as great as 3,000 feet every day. Well I guess that really poses the question, ‘What the hell are they doin’ down there?’ Imagine if we could use sharkcam or some other new technology to go follow them and see what a white shark does at 3,000 feet. That, I think, would be really quite revealing. And I think that’s where science is gonna go with this species in the next few years.”
How close are we to seeing that really happen? “We use baby sharkcam, but there’s mama sharkcam out there,” he answers. “And mama sharkcam can go to, like, 18,000 feet. So the vehicle exists, and the software exists—it’s just a matter of putting it together, and it all boils down to funding. We’re really not far away from making that happen. It’s just a matter of with that kind of expansion in size and depth comes an expansion of budget. I tend to do things in baby steps. So now it’s time to start becoming a teenager.”