SHARKFEST Key Art 2020 | ©2020 National Geographic

SHARKFEST Key Art 2020 | ©2020 National Geographic

National Geographic’s SHARKFEST is taking a mighty bite out of the schedule, extending five weeks, July 19 through August 22, on both National Geographic and National Geographic Wild. The shark-themed documentary films are also available on National Geographic on Demand and on Hulu the day after telecast premiere.

Marine biologist Ryan Johnson is involved in two of this year’s SHARKFEST documentaries, SHARK VS. SURFER and SHARK VS. WHALE. Johnson has largely specialized in the study of Great White sharks, though in recent years, he has expanded his work to include a variety of sharks in the tropics off the coast of South Africa.

In an exclusive conversation, speaking by phone from South Africa, Johnson talks about SHARK VS. SURFER, SHARK VS. WHALE, and sharks in general.

ASSIGNMENT X: What got you interested in sharks in the first place?

RYAN JOHNSON: I’m from New Zealand. In New Zealand, you are essentially living on this big island. So the ocean is part of your everyday life. I grew up swimming and surfing on a beach called Shark Alley. But I think it was just that growing up in New Zealand and being so close to nature that I decided very early on that I was going to spend my life outdoors, studying nature.

But it was only once I came to South Africa and started looking for a Masters [Degree] project that a chance to study Great Whites came up. And when it arrived, everything just fell into place – my love for the ocean, my love for nature, and a chance to work on an incredible species.

AX: Did you stay in South Africa once you completed your degree because that’s where your projects were? Because the waters around New Zealand and Australia are fairly well-known for having Great Whites …

JOHNSON: When I was in New Zealand, that was twenty years ago, we didn’t know there were Great Whites. We knew there were one or two, but definitely not the numbers that they know about now. So I was studying zoology and marine biology in New Zealand, but Africa had an allure for me because Africa’s Africa. It had lions and elephants and rhinos and all these things you dream of studying, and when I came across, I realized it wasn’t only the big animals on land, there were also incredibly big and charismatic and fun animals to work on in the sea. It was only after about five or six years in South Africa, working on Great Whites, that suddenly sharks started becoming a big thing in New Zealand. I definitely went back, and I spent time in New Zealand and looked at the sharks there, because they’re incredible. But at the time, when I left, nobody really knew just how incredible sharks in New Zealand were.

AX: Is there any difference in the Great Whites you find off South Africa, and those off of Australia/New Zealand?

JOHNSON: Well, I think the main difference is the hunting behavior and the breaching behavior [leaping out of the water] that we see in South Africa. We initially thought we would see it everywhere – Australia, New Zealand, Guadalupe – but it seems like it’s a unique behavior to the South African population. I put it down to the fact that we’ve got these very small offshore seal islands that are chock-a-block full of seals, and these seals run the gauntlet over a predictable area, and sharks that are patrolling right below them, waiting and having to rely on this massive high-speed ambush attack. In New Zealand, where the Great Whites are, because I don’t think there are a lot of people around there, the seals are all on the mainland, they’re all going out everywhere, so it’s really not that huge focal point [of having so many seals that the shark has to come up from underneath to grab one, with so much momentum that predator and prey are launched into the air].

Whether it’s that reason or a different reason, that breach behavior is a spectacle that’s really unique to South Africa. In South Africa, these sharks were originally known as “jumping jacks,” and not Great Whites, because of that habit that’s been around for years, of them just leaping out of the water. In South Africa, they were very famous – their distribution was known, because obviously, people could see them. The original sightings of them were from commercial sealers who would go onto these seal islands, club the seals, and tie ropes to these seals, pull them to their boats and transfer all the seal skins that way. And the water would just be storming with Great White sharks trying to get the seal carcasses. There are a lot of stories in the folklore of South Africa about these big sealers going one on one with these Great White sharks, trying to keep their seal skins and pelts, with the sharks trying to grab them. When the research and tourism industry in South Africa started, it all started around those seal islands, because that’s where people thought Great Whites were exclusively concentrated.

AX: What can you say about SHARK VS. SURFER?

JOHNSON: The stories of the victims and the survivors are very much at the forefront, and I pop in to give commentary to try to understand, by talking to the various survivors, the nature of the attack. It was quite rewarding for me, particularly with one of the survivors in a very small town in South Africa. He had so many questions. And for me and him to just be able to sit there when the cameras are off and talk for two or three hours was very good for him to be able to process what happened to him and almost get his head around it and help in his recovery. So I think that was role in SHARK VS. SURFER, is to try to get the context, try to offer education based on the instances of possibly what we as humans can do better in terms of being more informed about how to go about minimizing the risk of encountering sharks.

AX: You’re obviously involved in shark conservation. Are you concerned that pointing out that sometimes there are encounters between sharks and humans that don’t go well for humans might make people more inclined to want to kill sharks?

JOHNSON: It’s always a concern. Within the shark scientific community, some of my colleagues frankly refuse to be involved in productions that involve shark attacks, because they’re scared that it gives a bad impression, or an impression of sharks that is not justified and doesn’t aid in the conservation.

I take a different approach, in that, if I’m comfortable with the production company, and I know them, and also, I know a broadcaster such as National Geographic is very reputable, and insures the accuracy to a T, then that gives me the confidence to say, “Yes, I will be involved in this, I can comment on it, and I know my words and what I say will be correctly respected in the final documentary.” But there’s definitely a level of trust. And I think when we look at the final documentary, SHARK VS. SURFER, I think both National Geographic and the producing company, which is Imagine, did a great job in terms of balancing.

People have questions, whether they’re rational or irrational, when they’re in the water and they’re concerned about shark attacks. Now, you can either let that mind go crazy and wonder and let fear generate, or you can use a documentary, such as SHARK VS. SURFER, to get some education, get some information across that can allow people to make informed decisions, to understand that this is very rare, but it does happen. So if you are really concerned about it, [you think], “I can learn about sharks, I can learn about their ecology, I can minimize the impact or the possibility even more.” So I think that if done correctly, documentaries do serve a good purpose. I think SHARK VS. SURFER achieves that in spades.

AX: Is there truth in the belief that a surfboard, particularly with somebody paddling out, does resemble a seal?

JOHNSON: Oh, definitely. In terms of the general size, around six foot, the general shape is correct. I believe [shark attacks on humans are] mostly related to mistaken identity. The way a shark would mistake a surfboard for a seal is in a situation where water visibility is really bad, where light levels are low. In this type of environment, a shark can’t trust its eyesight a hundred percent. So instead of being certain, “Okay, this is a seal, let’s go for it, I know what it is,” it’s, “What is this, what is this not, let’s at least go investigate, and use my other senses, [including] taste and smell, to determine whether this is a seal or not.” And in some cases, it’s not a seal, it’s a surfer. And even if it’s just an investigatory bite to determine what this is, even a small bite from a Great White is going to have drastic consequences on a human.

AX: What about the shark attack off the coast of Maine, the first known case of a Great White killing a human there? Isn’t that colder water than Great Whites usually inhabit?

JOHNSON: What happens on the Atlantic seaboard is that the waters off Massachusetts, up into Nova Scotia, actually warm up over July, August, September. And that allows the Great Whites to extend their range a little bit further north to that higher latitude, as the tracking data and fishing records overlaid with satellite imagery have shown us. So it’s not out of the ordinary that there are Great Whites there this time of year. There aren’t a lot, the population is definitely not big, but the ocean is the ocean, and it is their home. They do extend up even further north than that this time of year.

AX: What can you say about SHARK VS. WHALE?

JOHNSON: SHARK VS. WHALE is a special that I’m particularly proud of, very proud of all the people who made it with me, because it was a huge team effort. You only get once, twice in your career as a scientist to really have the opportunity to rewrite an entire research paradigm with a discovery. When we filmed the Great White hunting a humpback whale, it opened up a whole new research paradigm for scientists to look at the importance of whales as food sources for sharks, not only in a scavenger sense, but in a predatory sense, as hunters of living whales.

All through my work on that project, I was looking for other instances, and we did find them. We found one other instance of a group of dusky sharks that hunted and attacked a living humpback whale calf in a documentary. But since the documentary has come out, I’ve had a number of people writing to me with photographs and evidence that sharks have hunted whales, and they’ve been able to observe it. Obviously, some of the pictures are very grainy, and not very good. But it’s opening up a whole new avenue that many scientists weren’t even considering, of these big sharks in the correct circumstances, either individually or as a pack, being able to hunt very large whales. That’s really exciting for me, to be at the forefront of that, and now to have it shown on National Geographic, is great.

AX: Is pack behavior usual in sharks?

JOHNSON: There have been accounts of it, yes. It’s very sophisticated behavior, particularly when you get into cooperative hunting, but I’d say the last five years, some pretty good papers have come out that have shown that sharks are capable of that type of cooperative hunting, and hunting in packs, which I think is fantastic. I think particularly with drone [cameras], and more divers going into the water with cameras, you’re going to see more and more of these examples, that sharks can work in a very sophisticated manner, a lot more so than we’ve given them credit for, for many years.

AX: Does the cooperative hunting behavior suggest that sharks’ intelligence is greater than they’ve been given credit for?

JOHNSON: I think in the scientific community, we believe they are a quite intelligent species. Particularly in the U.S., there are a number of labs that have been training sharks through Pavlovian-type techniques, conditioning techniques, and they can learn at a similar rate as small mammals, like rats and mice, which is incredible. So yeah, I definitely think they’re intelligent. Obviously, if you look at their brains, a big part of their brain is dedicated to sensory perception, and being able to sense the outside world. But there’s a lot more to their intelligence.

AX: With SHARK VS. WHALE, besides sharks preying on whales, aren’t there instances of whales, specifically orcas, preying on sharks?

JOHNSON: Yes. The big news in South Africa, for about four years, they had two orcas that had their own pod. They weren’t very well-liked by other orcas. They seem to have isolated themselves off from the bigger pods of killer whales that have been around. They got the names Port and Starboard, because both their dorsal fins were rolled over. You don’t normally see the curled-over dorsal fins in wild killer whales.

AX: Aren’t rolled dorsal fins in orcas typically the result of bad conditions in captivity?

JOHNSON: Exactly. We don’t have evidence, but there is speculation that they did come from captivity, and they don’t really know how to assimilate with the natural orca pods. But they started hunting Great White sharks at some of our Great White hot spots, namely False Bay, and caused this acute exodus of Great Whites from the area, essentially scaring the Great Whites off.

This was originally observed in the Farallon Islands in California, way back in 1992, when a pod of orcas came in and hunted one White shark there, and all the Great Whites left for the rest of the season. We saw that type of behavior sort of replicated here in South Africa. And that pod, for four years, had an incredibly negative impact upon the shark ecosystem, because those Great White sharks couldn’t be observed as predictably as before. Ecologically, definitely, the orcas had an impact, because the sharks were being pushed away or scared away from their favorite hunting grounds around the seal islands. Because of limitations, we actually don’t know where those sharks have gone at this stage, whether they just dispersed off into the deep around the coast, or whether they’ve relocated to specific areas.

AX: What are you excited about learning about sharks now?

JOHNSON: Well, I’ve worked on Great Whites for the last sixteen years, but two years ago, I started working in a more tropical environmen called Aliwal Shoal here in South Africa, and it’s a phenomenal place for the diversity of sharks. You have black-tipped sharks, you have ragged-tooth sharks, you’ve got whale sharks coming through. So it’s been really exciting to start exploring questions on those sharks. Because I’ve been working on Great Whites for so many years that I’ve taken quite a lot of the techniques across from what I’ve learned with Great Whites to study these sharks, and when you start a project, the core questions always most interesting to me are the seasonal current, the size of distribution, the population numbers.

I think it’s really important that, as soon as you start research on a project like this, particularly with a species that is so vulnerable and endangered, you have get population figures, and you have to be able to monitor that population over a long period of time. And there are some core methods that we can use, mainly around photo IDs [of distinct dorsal fins], which [can be used to] start generating annual population estimates in certain areas. That’s where our focus has been on the shoal work the last couple of years, to try to get baseline data on how many sharks there are of each of the species there are on the shoal.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about SHARK VS. SURFER and SHARK VS. WHALE?

JOHNSON: With SHARK VS. SURFER, it’s really important to know that every survivor on that show is an ambassador for the oceans, and an ambassador for shark conservation. Despite what happened to them, none of them have any type of revenge thoughts towards sharks. I think because the reason they were in the ocean initially is because they love the ocean, and they love nature, all of them want to insure that the oceans remain the home of sharks.

SHARK VS. WHALE I think is just an incredible story that turns the whale hunting the shark on its head, and reasserts what I believe is the rightful place of the Great White shark as the highly respected predator that can take on prey far larger than itself, given the correct circumstances. I’m excited by that.


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Article: Exclusive Interview with Shark Expert Ryan Johnson on SHARKFEST 2020 and the specials SHARK VS. SURFER and SHARK VS. WHALE


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