Discovery Channel/Discovery+’s SHARK WEEK kicks off its thirty-fifth anniversary beginning Sunday, July 23, available on both cable and streaming. This year’s SHARK WEEK host is Jason Momoa, whose big-screen outings as Aquaman have given him at least a little familiarity with the famed genus of fish.
Marine biologist Tom Hird, aka “the Blowfish,” is involved with two of Discovery Channel/Discovery+’s thirty-fifth annual SHARK WEEK documentaries. Originally from Halifax, West Yorkshire, England, Hird is a prolific diver, whose writings include the book BLOWFISH’S OCEANOPEDIEA: 291 EXTRAORDINARY THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THE SEA.
Hird traveled to New Zealand for GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB, which debuted Monday, July 24. This explores how the largest Great Whites, typically female, battle for dominance.
In the Florida Keys, drug trafficking is a big problem, not only for law enforcement, but also for the environment and the animals within it. So many wrapped cocaine packets go astray and land in the ocean that the locals call these “square fish.” COCAINE SHARKS, which premieres Wednesday, July 26, examines whether the big sharks in the area may have ingested cocaine from the packets and, if so, how they react. Both wrapped square packages and plastic swans were used, to see if the sharks reacted more to something shaped like a pelican (plastic pelicans were unavailable), or to the squares.
Hird gets on a Zoom call to discuss both GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB and COCAINE SHARKS.
ASSIGNMENT X: Are there any issues that overlap between COCAINE SHARKS and GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB, in terms of sharks displaying aggression towards each other?
TOM HIRD: Certainly, the bigger question about chemicals entering our waters, pharmaceuticals entering our waters, that is a worldwide thing. But where we were [for GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB], down in Stewart Island, at the very, very back end of New Zealand, it’s a massively under-populated area. It’s unlikely that those sharks there have ever had a sniff of the old how’s your father, as it were.
AX: With the cocaine in the waters off Florida, do the sharks have to ingest it by eating the packets, or is there so much cocaine floating around in the water that all of the marine life there may be high?
HIRD: When you have a very soluble substance like cocaine, it will dissipate very quickly, and it will reach a background level within a given area very quickly. This is the kind of thing where we’re seeing runoff from land, from waste water systems – from us [humans], basically – so you’ve got this kind of constant low feed.
But the thing we were originally looking at was this idea of this one big hit. So, if a cocaine bale falls in the ocean in the Florida Keys, does a tree fall in the forest? [laughs] No. If a cocaine bale falls in the Florida Keys, and nothing touches it, the wrapping around it will get degraded very quickly, and it’s likely that there will be a slow leak out. And anything surrounding it at that time is going to get an absolute face full.
What the effects might be on the plankton, on the water chemistry – we know that things like filter feeders that go through tons and tons and tons of water, potentially sometimes in a day, we know that they are going to be straining out long, slow particles that eventually build up to toxic levels in them. But in COCAINE SHARKS, we’re looking at the idea of, here’s a bale of cocaine, it’s a unique entity in this environment. You’ve got a shark, top predator, intelligent animal, all it needs to go up is to investigate it. I think that, if you have a shark that’s going to bite into a bale of cocaine, you’ve got the gills, highly vascular area, it’s going to be straight into those gills. So, it’s going to be a huge hit.
We believe that humans choose to snort it because it can cross over the blood barrier there in the nose; obviously, if you’ve got gills, that’s designed to move chemicals across. So, the uptake of a shark getting hold of one of these bales and thrashing it around, it would just be a face-full so quickly.
AX: Since it seems unlikely that the DEA would give you a real packet of cocaine to feed to a shark, what is in the packets you’re putting into the water?
HIRD: [The first ones] didn’t have anything in them.
AX: And the sharks didn’t ignore them, going, “This doesn’t smell interesting”?
HIRD: Well, it’s not necessarily all about smell with sharks, although smell plays a huge role in their lives. They have a cascade of behaviors that they go through, and as they get closer and closer to an object, they then start relying on things like their actual sight, and starting to work on things like touch and even, as they get close enough as well, the electro-reception.
This is the tricky thing about behavior – you have a square, white object floating in the ocean. And that is so unique, it’s so new, that it would make complete sense for an animal that regularly patrols the ocean, looking for sick and injured fish, looking for new, novel food sources, to investigate that. And it will investigate it with the only thing it’s got, which is its mouth.
So, the shark’s coming up and nosing and investigating things. We expect that. It’s the speed at which they will go for things. If they’re finding something that they’ve never seen before, they tend to be quite laid-back, they’ll take a long time to look at it. But here, we saw that the sharks were actually getting much more interested, much more quickly.
Now, this is the trouble with behavioral studies, you need to do so many of them to really be cast-iron. But what we could have seen with them pulling at the bales, biting at the bales, that could have just been because there were more sharks around them. The shark is emboldened to have a bit more of a go, because, “Well, maybe if this does taste good, then I don’t want Steve to get it, I want to get it first.”
We wrapped those square packets in plastic wrapping tape, so they’d be watertight, so they’d float. But we know, from previous studies, that plastics like that very quickly start to leech into the water, and that itself may have been an attractant. So, what we did here could be decades’ worth of a study as we look into all the different sides of these things.
But when we came to the end of the show, that was very highly concentrated fish powder, so it was the perfect thing for the sharks to just get really excited with.
AX: So, the idea with the packets was, the sharks were displaying familiarity with them by not investigating, but instead just grabbing them, which suggested they’d had experience with packets before and liked it …
HIRD: That’s one side of it. You would have to go back and do further study, again and again and again. For a scientist like me, I love it, but you don’t want an hour-long shark special of just fifty different attempts of moving bales, swans, swans, bales [laughs]. You don’t want that for an hour. That’d be boring.
AX: Back to GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB, do the Great Whites tend to fight until somebody is harmed, or is it more just, “I’m here, shove off”?
HIRD: Great Whites, when they finally make some kind of aggressive gesture, it will either be as a kill strike, because Great Whites are obviously hunters, they are intending to eat what they’re attacking, or it will be the last port of call in what is a very complicated hierarchy of dominance, as is the way across the whole world, really.
There’s probably an animal that proves me wrong at some point, but usually, the stronger you are, the more deadly you are, the less likely you come to blows. Because the animal is aware of how much damage it could do, how very quickly. And there’s always a risk on any of these things. So, usually, the most aggression you would normally see out of Great Whites is gaping, fin stretching. They’ll come and buzz each other, and perhaps a nip or a bite.
But if it gets to the point where they’re very evenly matched, and there is a serious clashing of heads, then that’s when you start getting the bites in and around the gills, which is the weakest area, as far as a shark is concerned. If they reach that stage, that really is the absolute pinnacle of their behavior. Past that, you’re moving from what could be considered dominance-related behavior into behavior which is predatory.
AX: So, sometimes they actually are trying to eat each other?
HIRD: Yes. Great White sharks feed on other sharks. That’s one of their many food sources.
AX: What would you most like the audience to get out of COCAINE SHARKS and GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB?
HIRD: Well, for COCAINE SHARKS, I’d just like people to enjoy it. It was a hell of a lot of fun making it, and it was really cool to kind of lift the lid on this very new idea that, as I said, could start decades’ worth of research that could really have great ramifications in the way that we treat our waters, and look at what’s going into our oceans that isn’t toxic waste or pollutant sludge.
As far as GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB is concerned, the one thing I want people to get out of that is the fabulous [zoologist] Michelle Jewell, kicking ass, being the queen of sharks as she always is, and it was just a pleasure to be there with her. So, they should tune in for that, to just watch her do her badass thing, and see me help out wherever I could.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with Marine Biologist Tom Hird on new SHARK WEEK documentaries COCAINE SHARK and GREAT WHITE FIGHT CLUB