Gibbs Kuguru being interviewed at Millers Point, Cape Town for SHARKFEST 360° | ©2024 National Geographic

Gibbs Kuguru being interviewed at Millers Point, Cape Town for SHARK ATTACK 360° | ©2024 National Geographic

One of the main features of National Geographic’s annual month-long SHARKFEST programming this year is SHARK ATTACK 360°. This eight-episode miniseries explores how, why, and where sharks attack, what can be done to deter them, and the surprising reactions of many human survivors.

All eight episodes are available on Hulu and Disney+ starting Monday, July 1. The on-air National Geographic episodes premiere over the course of July beginning Tuesday, July 2, and will then run on National Geographic Wild beginning August 1. The series host is marine biologist Dr. Diva Amon.

Shark scientist Gibbs Kuguru participates is four of the episodes, “Coming in Hot,” “Blood in the Water,” “Swimmers Beware,” and “Killers in the Water” (the other episodes are “Urban Jaws,” “Dangerous Forces,” “Bites in the Shallows,” and “Making Waves”). He gets on Zoom with Assignment X to discuss SHARKFEST: SHARK ATTACK 360°.

In the Kuguru’s previous Assignment X interview for 2022’s SHARKFEST, he talked about the special CAMO SHARKS. This dealt with research into whether Great White sharks can camouflage themselves by changing their pigment to match the water around them. (Spoiler alert: they can.) Do any of those findings come up in SHARK ATTACK 360°?

“No, this is a completely different concept,” Kuguru explains. “CAMO SHARKS was more of a pure scientific exploration about what happens in our natural world. SHARK ATTACK 360° targets more of a social issue that we’re facing, in not just how do we understand shark attacks, but what is the actual reality behind shark attacks?”

As far as how SHARK ATTACK 360° explores this, “We get to see scientists uncover the mysteries behind [the attacks]. Also, we hear from the victims, which I think is probably the most compelling component of SHARK ATTACK 360°, because the people that survive these and their stories really give you the right feeling about what it’s like to experience something like that, and then, you can see the graciousness with which they approach it, and how they respect nature and wildlife, despite being in that situation.”

In fact, many of the shark attack survivors, even those who lost arms or legs, tell the documentarians that they got right back into the ocean as soon as they were physically able, in order to conquer their fears and also because they were fascinated by sharks.

“That’s amazing,” Kuguru observes. “I have so much respect for these guys. My heart goes out to them, because they’ve gone through something incredibly traumatic. No way to sugar-coat that. It is traumatic, and the strength of character that they have – man. They’re all my heroes, and I want to be them when I grow up, one hundred percent.”

The last time Kuguru spoke with Assignment X, he was working on his PhD. “I’m still in it. It seems like it’s never-ending,” he laughs, “but it’s going to be over soon. I’ve heard a lot of scientists say stuff like, ‘I just want to get this baby out of me.’ It feels like it’s been gestating for four years, and I’m ready to be done. I’m ready to be Dr. Gibbs, and look back fondly on this time.”

Kuguru is still involved in research in the unique elements of shark DNA and what they reveal about how these sharks are surviving and withstanding the negative effects of humanity.

“There’s always a little bit of excitement and joy in finding out what happens with these animals, how they survived for millennia through several mass extinctions. And then there’s the part where you start to face the impacts of what humans have done to sharks, and you start to see there are some real genetic problems that are happening to these animals, because we’ve reduced their gene pool to a gene puddle. And they simply don’t have the diversity in their DNA to withstand climate change and humans and disease and whatever number of issues they have to struggle with on a daily basis.

“Yet still they’re here. I think that speaks to their resilience, for sure, but the fact that they’re struggling to survive humans, when they’ve survived glaciation periods during the Ice Age, when they’ve survived sea levels rising and falling, meteor impact – they’ve survived everything, real natural disasters. But we’re giving them some trouble. I just want to put that into perspective, to really tell people what’s happening here in our oceans.”

 SHARK ATTACK 360° Key Art | ©2024 National Geographic

SHARK ATTACK 360° Key Art | ©2024 National Geographic

In the SHARK ATTACK 360° episode “Urban Jaws,” it is shown that areas where sewage empties into the ocean have evolved new ecosystems. For all their toxicity, these areas attract tiny marine life that feeds on the sewage, which attracts small fish that feed on the tiny marine life, which in turn attract larger fish, which in turn attract sharks. Is it known if these sewage ecosystems are making sharks sick?

“There is a line of research that looks into the toxic ecology that’s going on in the environment. We are constantly releasing stuff into nature, whether intentionally or not. I do believe that these sharks are capable of withstanding great deals of trauma. But there’s a limit to that. They can absorb a lot of shock, but it’s not that they’re repelling the shock, they’re taking it in, and they have a limited capacity to do so.”

While hardly the only factor, sharks being drawn to these human-made ecosystems draws the animals nearer to shore, which in turn contributes to shark attacks near coastlines. Are dangerous shark encounters actually more likely to occur near shore?

Kuguru doesn’t believe it’s that simple. He has often dived with sharks, both when he is inside a shark cage, and when he is outside a cage. “Each time I dive with sharks, I always make sure I choose my circumstances. For example, if I’m going to dive with sharks without a cage, I know I’m not going to go into the water when the conditions are not fair, if there’s a storm. I’m not going to jump in the water where I see people fishing [sharks are attracted to fish blood, and can become over-excited by this], or if sharks are actively hunting there.

“I also make sure that I don’t dive in an area that is unknown to me – I would not just jump in randomly to a spot before I truly understand what the conditions are. This is just simple checking the boxes before you do anything. It’s the same as, you don’t go drive in the snow with smooth tires. I also wouldn’t go for a swim [near a] shore where I know that the sharks are going to be coming in, and there’s a ton of fishing activity, and a whole litany of red flags. I look for these red flags, and I actively avoid them.”

How can one determine if sharks are in hunting mode, as opposed to just swimming?

“The first indication is, are there prey items that any particular shark likes to feed on? Let’s use Great Whites as an example. You go to a spot where you find a lot of seals or sea lions, and you know sharks like to eat seals and sea lions, and when there’s an aggregation there, then it is likely not an ideal place to dive.

There’s a really strong case for shark attacks happening under the circumstances of mistaken identity – murky water, and you look like a seal from a distance.”

Since Great White sharks are ambush hunters, meaning that they try to surprise their prey by attacking from below, the shark is not ideally placed to distinguish a human in a wet suit from a seal. “You’re basically putting a target on your back. Not necessarily that the shark associates people with food, but if you look like a zebra and you’re running around the savannah, you can’t expect the lion not to chase.”

On the other hand, sharks are sometimes prey items themselves. In the ocean just off the coast of South Africa, a pair of orcas, called Port and Starboard because their dorsal fins tilt in those directions, have so successfully preyed on Great White sharks that the latter have fled the area. Is this primarily because the orcas actively want to eat Great White sharks, or because they see these other predators as competition when it comes to hunting seals and sea lions?

Per Kuguru, “What I think is going on here is that, first of all, there are different eco-types of orcas. Not all orcas dine on the same kind of diet. Some [orcas] eat primarily mammals, like seals or dolphins, some have a specialized diet of fish, and others have a diet of sharks.

“I think these ones that are actively killing these sharks, Port and Starboard, are an eco-type that is specialized in hunting sharks, and they do so because that is their preference. I haven’t really heard of instances of [orcas] hunting seals, for example, in South Africa. I’m not saying that it never happens, but I just doubt it. It’s just not part of their typical life history.

“And it’s not even a matter of chasing away the competition, because between a Great White and an orca, there is no competition. One is just bigger, faster, and badder than the other, and that is the blackfish. It’s like the difference between a heavyweight and a middleweight [human boxer]. A fully-grown orca is a magnitude of order larger than a fully-grown Great White, big enough to make a difference.”

SHARK ATTACK 360° features sequence with host Dr. Amon in a digitally-created “Shark Lab,” where Great Whites, bull sharks and other species appear to be swimming in the air around her. Has Kuguru had any experience with the CGI sharks?

“I have not had the pleasure of being invited to the CGI Shark Lab, but I would love to do that. It looks incredibly fun, and yeah, I’m sure Diva just knocks it out of the park. She’s a superstar.”

With Kuguru involved in so many different SHARK ATTACK 360° episodes, does he always know what footage is for which segment, or is that determined by the filmmakers and/or National Geographic after the footage is shot?

“We like to try to cover our bases, because our shooting windows are incredibly short and narrow. We had a very specific scene that had to be shot in a very specific sequence; we cranked that out, and then we had to pick up something that could be added to another episode somewhere else, and that’s how we do it. It’s really the most efficient way of doing filmmaking, especially if you want to find animals. You prioritize finding the animals, getting that initial sequence done, and if you can add content to another episode, we shoot all that stuff after.”

What has Kuguru learned lately about sharks and/or shark attacks?

“I’ve worked with sharks for more than twelve years now. I’ve seen a lot. What doesn’t really change very much from one attack to the other is the actual incident, and from that, it just depends on how intense was the attack. The exact circumstances change in different places, and I think this is where we really get the most knowledge.

“For example, were there influences from weather? Were there influences from the behavior of the [human] individual? Were there influences, just like the shark was curious, and swimming around, and wanted to nibble on things in its environment? These are the things that I don’t think we can a hundred percent reveal what’s going on, but we can get a pretty good indication.”

Kuguru adds that most sharks don’t return for a second bite, although depending on the size of the animal, the first can be deadly. “I’ve seen it a couple times, that sharks have gone back for a second bite. I think there have also been a very rare number of occasions where a shark has actively consumed flesh from a person. Most of the time, if the shark tastes a human, the shark knows that it is not an ideal menu item. It would be just the same as if you were walking outside, and you saw an earthworm on the ground, you might taste it and be like, ‘This is yuck. This does not taste like what I like to eat.’ But if you’re hungry enough, you might swallow it.”

Usually, though, the bite is the result of the shark simply wanting to know what this strange thing is in their environment; lacking hands, they tend to investigate with their mouths.

“They will taste it, they will realize it’s not what they want, and they’ll just say, ‘You know what? You go on your merry way, sorry for the disturbance.’ By that time, it could have been a fatal situation for the victim, but in most situations, sharks rarely ever try to actively eat something they don’t like the taste of. Most of the time, it’s an exploratory bite.”

What does Kuguru most hope viewers will get out of SHARK ATTACK 360°?

“I’ve said this a couple times in the past. I just want people to know that, though there is a mystery behind some of these shark attacks, and people always wonder why would this happen, it’s possible to understand, and even possible to prevent, based on the knowledge that we’ve been compiling about these incidents.

“I don’t want people to be afraid of sharks. I see this in the same way that people are not afraid, specifically, of lions or tigers, for example, because they know how to behave around a lion or a tiger. I just want people to learn how to behave around sharks, which will make the world safer for people, and also, safer for sharks.

“Because, at the end of the day, it is fear and the paranoia about sharks that drives the deaths of sharks dramatically around the world. I would like people to leave with an understanding, to have knowledge replace fear in their minds, so that they can coexist peacefully with these animals.”

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Article:SHARKFEST: SHARK ATTACK 360° Shark scientist Gibbs Kuguru on new NatGeo docu-series



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