BELLY OF THE BEAST | ©2023 Discovery Channel

BELLY OF THE BEAST | ©2023 Discovery Channel

BELLY OF THE BEAST: FEEDING FRENZY and MONSTER MAKO: FRESH BLOOD are two of the specials debuting on Discovery Channel/Discover+’s thirty-fifth annual SHARK WEEK. This year’s SHARK WEEK is hosted by AQUAMAN star Jason Momoa.

BELLY OF THE BEAST premiered on Sunday, July 23, and MONSTER MAKO premieres Thursday, July 27. Both documentaries feature American marine biologist Dr. Austin Gallagher, founder and CEO of Beneath the Waves, a nonprofit conservation organization.

In MONSTER MAKO, Dr. Gallagher and free diver Andre Musgrove use an acrylic diving bell, shaped something like an upside-down wine glass, to observe mako sharks and great white sharks off the coast of Southern California. Dr. Gallagher and his team want to know if makos are increasingly eating seals. Since the seals are high in mercury, Dr. Gallagher and Co. employ a metal device with a pincer at the end to get tissue samples from the wild makos to determine whether they, too, have a lot of mercury.

In BELLY OF THE BEAST, Dr. Gallagher watches great white sharks off the coast of South Africa from a unique perspective: a clear window in the belly of a fake whale carcass, designed to get the sharks to feed from it. The vantage point allows for some astonishing footage in the midst of a feeding frenzy.

Over a Zoom call, Dr. Gallagher discusses both documentaries.

ASSIGNMENT X: You have two specials in this round of Discovery Week. In BELLY OF THE BEAST, you talk about how two killer whales, Port and Starboard, have managed to chase off a lot of the great white sharks that used to be more plentiful in the waters off South Africa. Other SHARK WEEK documentaries reference these two orcas as well. How can only two animals affect an entire species like that?

DR AUSTIN GALLAGHER: This is a new phenomenon with orcas, and what we’re seeing is, as the ocean is changing rapidly, you’re going to have some species that change, and adapt to those changes really quickly. Some don’t. Orcas do, and these two orcas off of South Africa have specialized to hunt white sharks specifically.

You have to remember, orcas, killer whales, are literally the apex predator of global oceans. Nothing [preys on] them, nothing. We love to think that the white sharks and tiger sharks are apex predators, and they are, but literally, orcas are the top, top, top. And we see that.

So, how can two basically decimate a whole population and redistribute a population of South Africa? Well, we’ve seen, from ten orcas off of the U.S. West Coast, they completely decimated the sea otter population in [approximately] three years. So, just a few orcas can have a huge impact on the food web.

And what has happened off of South Africa with the white sharks is that there are probably several thousand white sharks living off of South Africa, and there are still quite a few left, but the killer whales have probably killed a few dozen. They’ve scared off all the other ones. So, predators and prey are locked into this arms race. And if the white sharks realize that a serial killer has arrived, they’re going to leave town. And that’s what’s happened.

AX: In MONSTER MAKO, is there another purpose in looking at the mercury levels in the mako sharks, besides seeing if they’re eating more seals? Because high mercury levels in marine life sounds alarming, for many reasons.

DR GALLAGHER: Yeah. Mercury is found in all food webs, and it’s found widely in the ocean. There’s this process called bioaccumulation that happens naturally. So, anything that is high on the food chain, whether we’re talking about a seal, or a shark, or even something like a barracuda, or a tuna, or a swordfish, the higher you are on the food chain, the more you assimilate all the other mercury levels from the bottom up.

That’s why they say pregnant women shouldn’t eat swordfish when they’re pregnant. It’s okay to have a little bit of it, but having a lot of it may be a cause for concern. So, we were not really talking about the human health implications for the mako shark, but what we saw in that mako shark tissue was that it was suggestive of a signature that is high or higher than that we see in seals. So, it probably means they’re eating seals.

AX: In terms of being able to observe and film sharks, do you have a preference for the camouflage whale carcass or the diving bell?

DR GALLAGHER: This year was really interesting, because I was able to utilize two innovative platforms for viewing and observing sharks. I would say that the decoy whale was by far the most effective, because it’s actually an item that the white sharks will naturally feed on. So, I was able to get extremely close to the sharks, using the whale.

AX: Sharks have a very keen sense of smell, so did you do anything to the fake whale to make it smell like something they would eat, as opposed to what it’s actually made out of?

DR GALLAGHER: With any type of hunting event, foraging event for sharks, they rely on a number of different types of sensory cues. One of them is visual. White sharks are extremely visual, but scent is arguably the strongest sense that sharks have. So, we did use some chum – dead fish, minced up, and some fish carcasses, as well – to help maybe bring sharks close into the area where the decoy was.

But when the animals saw the whale decoy, that took over. They were doing things around the whale decoy that we see them do all the time around real dead whale carcasses. So, it was definitely an effective [visual] cue for them.

AX: A couple of the great whites were swimming off with the decoy whale’s pectoral fins. How many replacement pectoral fins did you have, and what are those made out of, so that if the shark ate it, it wouldn’t make the shark sick?

DR GALLAGHER: We went through probably four or five pectoral fins on the whale decoy, and it was made out of high-grade Styrofoam. And it’s interesting, because the sharks will normally go for fins, and the fluke, the tail, of a dead whale first, when they’re hunting them. We don’t actually know why they do that, but that’s what our research suggests. So, it was so incredible for us to see that they would actually do the same thing on a fake one.

That gets back to the visual cue there. But oftentimes, a shark would rip it off, attack it, swim away with it in its mouth, trying to eat it, and after generally about five or six seconds, the sharks know that it’s actually not an organic material, and they’ll just spit it out and go on their way. They never consumed it. White sharks actually have incredibly sensitive receptors in their teeth that can feel and manipulate, so they knew pretty quickly that it wasn’t real, and they spit it out.

AX: Did any of the ones who spat out the pectoral fins come back, and see if maybe any of the rest of it was real, or did they just give up after that?

DR GALLAGHER: No, they didn’t give up. They kept coming back, that’s for sure. Think about it from a shark’s perspective. This is like ringing the dinner bell. This is a huge opportunity for them to gain a lot of energy for really cheap [expenditure of energy, much less than if they had to chase prey].

We have estimated that fifty pounds of blubber from a whale can sustain a white shark for one month, so it wouldn’t need to eat for one whole month. So, it really is in the shark’s best interest to stay around. The really large white shark that we had, that was eighteen-, twenty-foot long, hashtag Not a Big Deal, that shark was with us for five hours. It was just amazing. So, it was clearly very interested in the decoy.

AX: Do the great whites feeding on the decoy whale ever catch sight of you in the transparent belly? If they do, what do you think they think?

DR GALLAGHER: Earlier in the shoots, that actually happened. With the smaller white sharks, the eight-to-ten-foot, twelve-foot, they were a lot more curious, more investigatory, a little bit more bold. They don’t have as much experience as the big ones. The big ones are really cautious.

But I had the most profound experience in the decoy with these two probably ten-foot white sharks. They’re swimming around the decoy, thinking it’s a whale, trying to find where they want to bite. But I’m in this clear capsule, looking straight out, and the sharks can see me in the capsule. And at one point, I had one of these white sharks come up to me, and literally arch its body – it almost looked like it stopped in time. You can see this in the show. The shark almost stopped in its tracks, and looked at me, and it was like, “Oh, my God. What is this?”

It totally saw that I was in there, not expecting it to be something moving inside, and I feel like I blew the shark’s mind, honestly. It’s difficult to describe, but it was a very powerful interaction with that individual. It lasted probably two seconds, but it felt like it lasted for ten minutes, because we were just both standing there, just locked on each other.

AX: Do you have a preference between the great whites and the makos?

DR GALLAGHER: Well, they’re very similar species. They are in the same family of sharks, called lamnids. White sharks obviously get all the press. Mako sharks are really cool. They’re the fastest shark in the ocean, they’re like torpedoes, their teeth do not retract like white sharks. White sharks’ teeth, the top row can retract, so when they open their mouth, the jaws drop down.

That doesn’t happen in mako sharks. In mako sharks, just swimming, [it’s as if they have] a bunch of box cutters or sharp knives, just in the mouth at all times. So, they don’t get as much love as the white sharks, and I had a lot of fun shooting them, but for me, great white sharks are the king.

AX: And what do you hope viewers get out of BELLY OF THE BEAST and MONSTER MAKO?

DR GALLAGHER: Well, SHARK WEEK is a celebration of sharks. This is the Super Bowl for animals, honestly. So, for these specials that I’m part of, and honestly, all the other ones, it’s just that there’s a lot of really exciting stories out there in the ocean, and I think what we’re seeing now is that the ocean is actually changing a lot.

We’ve been doing these documentaries for thirty-five years. This is the thirty-fifth year of SHARK WEEK. And the situation in all these locations has changed, not necessarily for the better or the worse, but they’ve changed. There are not as many white sharks in South Africa. Now we see a new white shark hot spot emerging in New Zealand, for example. A lot of [shark documentary] shows are being shot there now.

So, the ocean is dynamic, and the sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years, they’re going to be around for many, many more. They are the ultimate ambassadors for a window into what’s happening on our planet.

Related: Exclusive Interview with Marine Biologist Tom Hird on new SHARK WEEK documentaries COCAINE SHARK and GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB

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Article: Exclusive Interview with Dr. Audtin Gallagher on new SHARK WEEK documentaries BELLY OF THE BEAST: FEEDING FRENZY and MONSTER MAKO: FRESH BLOOD



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