For those of you who wish Shark Week was Shark month and can’t get enough of those toothy tales, here’s another myth busting, first-hand account about one of the world’s most threatened and vital species. We reached out to friend, ex lifeguard, and shark researcher Jeremy Frimond to ask him a little bit about Great Whites and the research he’s currently conducting off the coast of South Africa.
Jeremy swimming with some grey reef sharks
SWELL: First off Jeremy thanks for taking time to talk to us -and all the internet people out there- about your Great White research. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing.
Jeremy: Our main research we do down here is called dorsal fin identification. White shark dorsal fins are similar to a human’s thumbprint; they are all unique. Basically we photograph and take notes on every shark that comes to the boat. After time a population database forms where we can roughly figure out the number of sharks that travel to a certain area.
SWELL: Where exactly are you? Far from Jbay? Surf much?
I have spent half the time living in a small town called Mossel Bay, in the western cape, managing the field research operations at a white shark research institution. The second half I have been living in Cape Town working on a white shark cage diving boat as their onboard zoologist. In Mossel Bay I was about 5 hours away from Jbay now in Cape Town I am close to 10 hours away. I have surfed several times out here but unfortunately most days start early and end late.
SWELL: Heard you’re doing some research for shark week as well?
Jeremy: It was actually a documentary we just finished shooting for Shark Week next year. Discovery’s producer Jeff Kurr and his crew were here for 3 weeks filming the sharks doing their thing around the Seal Island. We got some unbelievable footage and I’m pretty excited to see the final deal next year.
SWELL: What’s the craziest thing you’ve see out there, so far?
Jeremy: I am going to cop out and say two things. First was watching a white shark swim right up onto the rocks of Seal Island, temporarily beach itself, grab a seal, and then pull it back into the water. That stunned us all.
The second thing was sitting in the crow’s nest of the boat with four 13ft+ white sharks circling the boat then about 300 meters off was a huge bait ball with 500 dolphins, hundreds of sea birds (gannets) diving in from the air, cape fur seals in the mix, and roughly 12 whales all taking their turn on the bait ball. It was unbelievable to see that much life in one field of vision.
SWELL: That sounds incredible! Have you had any close calls working with all those Great Whites?
Jeremy: Well I do have a story of me “being an idiot.” I fell off the boat backwards, and head first, onto the back of a 13 foot white shark. Maybe you can call that a close call, but actually when I landed on the thing it bolted off.
SWELL: Yikes! Head-butting a Great white, sounds like something Chuck Norris would do! So with all of this time spent around sharks would you say you are more or less afraid of surfing sharky waters?
Jeremy: It’s one of those things where I know and have seen their size and power firsthand so one would think more afraid, but just like any surfer you just have to throw the idea of a shark attack to the back of your mind otherwise you’ll never paddle out.
SWELL: Do you have any added advice for anyone out there surfing in Great White territory?
Jeremy: Avoid surfing areas where white sharks hunt. A prime example of a hunting ground would be a shelf (shallow to deep water drop off). White sharks love to chase fish from the deep onto the shelf or hit things with speed as they come over to the deep part of the shelf. Unfortunately sometimes good waves also break there. I’m not saying don’t paddle out in these spots just be aware that you are doing the equivalent of putting on a zebra suit and running through tall grasses in lion country; something may happen.
But, in general White shark resting grounds are pretty mellow to surf. I have seen white sharks swimming through crowds of people so many times down here in SA and the people have no idea and, more importantly, the sharks have no interest. White shark resting zones are typically just behind the farthest out breaking waves.
SWELL: So if you were surfing and you saw Mr. Whitey approaching, what would you do?
Jeremy: I would try to stay very calm, swim towards the shark and try to harass it while looking as big as I could. I know this sounds silly, but a shark doesn’t expect this behavior from its potential prey and could easily confuse the shark and send it on its way. White sharks are very cautious creatures. They are far from cold blooded killing machines most people think they are and would rather swim away that fight and risk injury.
SWELL: Predatory questions aside, what types of ecological issues do these sharks face as a species?
Jeremy: Shark fining and recreational shark fishing are without a doubt the two things decimating white shark populations around the world. When I was in Mossel Bay I saw some fisherman pull 4 white sharks out of the water, from the beach, in one day. At that time the entire bay could only have roughly 20 white sharks in it. So that was a significant ding in their population. Sadly that’s what I witnessed on one beach in one small town. They say there are fewer white sharks left in the wild than tigers in India (and we all know how screwed the tigers in India are)
SWELL: Well thanks for sharing that with us Jeremy. It’s great to have people out there like you documenting and carefully studying such an endangered and misunderstood species. We’ll have to catch up with you when you return to the states in September for some Mexican food, coldies, and hopefully some more interesting stories.
One last question though, would you rather surf Jaws (Maui) or surf with Jaws (Spielburg)?
Jeremy: Hmm tough call.. both could lead to a proper ass whooping…
Think of anything you’d like to ask a Shark researcher? Leave a comment below with your question and, if we like it, we’ll ask Jeremy when he returns to the states.
All pictures were used with special permission by Jeremy Frimond. Photos may not be reused w/o his consent.