A closer look at elusive great whites

"Great White Highway" reveals how little we know of the predators. It begins 30 miles off San Francisco in the Farallon Islands, where huge specimens gather for a time each year.
"Great White Highway" reveals how little we know of the predators. It begins 30 miles off San Francisco in the Farallon Islands, where huge specimens gather for a time each year.
Posted: August 17, 2012

Discovery is celebrating the 25th year of Shark Week so, of course, you get your fill of the usual briny savagery, with such specials as Shark Fight, Sharkzilla, and Air Jaws Apocalypse. Sound like movies on Syfy, don't they?

But in the middle of the carnage, the channel has slotted in Great White Highway, a fascinating study of how little we actually know about these behemoths.

Narrated by Ted Danson, the documentary, scheduled for Thursday at 9 p.m., begins in the Farallon Islands, some rocky and barren outcroppings 30 miles off San Francisco.

For a few months each year, some of the largest great white sharks in the world - weighing up to 7,000 pounds - congregate in these waters.

We meet Scot Anderson, a former bird tagger who has become the Jane Goodall of the Farallones. Well, except for the fact that he's never been tempted to interact with his creatures.

But he's identified and chronicled these sharks for decades, long enough to know that they migrate to this same habitat year after year. Long enough to give them names like Mr. Burns and Scar Girl.

In recent years, scientists and marine biologists have gotten into the act. The study of the Farallon predators has turned into a high-tech search, using sensitive computerized tags and satellite tracking.

The mission: try to discover the migratory patterns of these elusive animals.

Even with all this expensive gear brought to bear, Great White Highway reveals how little we know about these creatures, even something as basic as how many California great whites there are.

The primary conundrum: No one has ever seen this species mate and no one has ever seen one give birth. And while scientists can now map their long annual journeys, they can only conjecture about what the sharks are doing out in the deep ocean waters where they spend much of the year.

They do know that for other kinds of sharks, mating is an exceedingly violent act, involving coercion and fierce resistance. That may explain why great whites, male and female, are so often scarred and torn.

There again, the emphasis is on may explain.

We all know the reasons Shark Week is such a highly anticipated annual event. It's the cold, ferociously lethal nature of the shark, the dark side of evolution.

Great White Highway is a refreshing change, a chance to see these creatures as sources of wonder, not as ruthless killers.


Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, "Dave on Demand," at www.philly.com/dod.

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