Ocean predators take center stage

Snapshot of expert Neil Hammerschlag on "Shark Week." Photo: Discovery Channel

By Amanda M. Perez

Snapshot of expert Neil Hammerschlag on "Shark Week." Photo: Discovery Channel

Ocean predators take center stage

By Amanda M. Perez
University of Miami shark expert Neil Hammerschlag stars in two nail-biting “Shark Week” specials this week on the Discovery Channel.

Marine animals engage in a rare game of life and death during a special on this year’s highly anticipated “Shark Week” television program.

“I’ve never seen anything else like it. It’s previously undocumented animal behavior, and I think it’s going to blow people away,” said Neil Hammerschlag, research associate professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. Hammerschlag is also director of UM’s Shark Research and Conservation Program.

On July 30, Hammerschlag will appear in the special “Air Jaws Strikes Back,” which features a newly discovered shark versus seal battleground at the base of a 200-foot cliff in South Africa. Hammerschlag teamed up with local naturalist and shark expert Chris Fallows to study a new feeding ground for great white sharks in the area. Those who tune in will be able to experience shark hunting from a new perspective.

“What’s really unique is that the sharks are hunting seals in very shallow water which goes against what we have learned from our previous research at other great white hunting locations. Our team was able to stand on top of a cliff and watch the whole hunting process with a rare bird’s eye view,” said Hammerschlag.

Not only are viewers going to see new footage, they are going to witness amazing anti-predatory tactics used by the seals to foil attempted attacks by great whites. Here, the seals have learned to team up and mount counter attacks against the predators.

“The seals are able to see the sharks through the clear water, so it’s difficult for the sharks to sneak up on the seals. It’s pretty incredible to see the tactics used by both predator and prey play out in front of our eyes,” he said.

Hammerschlag believes this kind of research is important as predator-prey interactions can have rippling effects that can influence the structure and function of ecosystems.

“Large predators, like great white sharks, can most obviously impact prey population numbers by consuming individuals,” he said. “But when prey suffer stress or alter their behavior to reduce the risk of being attacked, they can incur physiological costs impacting growth, health, and reproduction, which consequently also impact their population. For example, any time and energy that seals devote to countering shark attacks means less time and energy that can be devoted to feeding, growth, and reproduction. Any resulting changes in seal numbers would obviously impact the organisms that seals feed on and so on.”

Another show that Hammerschlag is featured on is “Andrew Mayne: Ghost Diver,” in which master illusionist, author, and inventor Andrew Mayne attempts to create a shark suit that will make him invisible to great whites. He teams up with Hammerschlag on a global quest to uncover the power of shark senses — all to prepare maybe for the ultimate test where he puts himself in the middle of a great white feeding frenzy in Australia.

“It’s an entertaining show and a cool opportunity to teach people the remarkable array of senses a shark has,” Hammerschlag noted.

Hammerschlag said shows like “Shark Week” provide him an opportunity to help educate people about these fascinating predators.

“Many people fear sharks, largely because they fear what they don’t know. Remarkably, as more people are exposed to sharks through “Shark Week,” it’s actually turning their fear into fascination,” he said. “I think what ‘Shark Week’ does, is lure people in with the fear and mystery, and once they tune in and learn more about these incredible animals, people transform that fear in to a fascination and love.”

He added that it is important to learn about these creatures because shark populations are declining worldwide due primarily to climate change. In fact, Hammerschlag was part of an international team of researchers that just published a study in the journal Nature, revealing that even the remotest parts of the open ocean offer sharks little refuge from industrialized fishing. The results found that major high seas fishing activities are currently centered on ecologically important shark hotspots worldwide indicating an urgent need to implement effective conservation strategies, like large marine protected areas at these sites.

“In the past, these species were decimated without people caring, but now people are seeing they’re much more than killing machines. Shows like the ones I have been fortunate enough to be involved with help demonstrate just how amazing sharks are. There’s a lot you can learn by just tuning in,” he said.

“Air Jaws Strikes Back,” airs at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, July 30, on the Discovery Channel.

“Andrew Mayne: Ghost Diver,” airs at 9 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 2, on the Discovery Channel.