Shark scientist Dr. Taylor Chapple and wildlife filmmaker and shark enthusiast Andy Casagrande are on a mission that could change the very basis of shark studies. Tonight on Die Trying: Great White Ambush, a team of determined shark experts and engineers set out to get the video of a lifetime: a great white shark’s breach attack from its own point of view. They have designed and created Crittercams that they will mount on top of sharks in order to capture a breach from a never-before-filmed point of view. These special cameras will help them capture footage of the explosive attacks that are as much the great white’s signature as the famous two-toned crescendo that invokes the ominous image of a fin gliding through the water. When science and determination meet in the middle of chaos, this group can either catch remarkable shots from the point of view of nature’s perfect predator or they can die trying.
The Crittercams themselves are a product of genius scientific innovation and the only way to get that miracle shot that drove the team out to South Africa. Kyler Abernathy, the Director of Research in Remote Imaging at National Geographic, describes the Crittercams as a research program first and foremost, rather than an entertainment tool. Each Cam is designed with the help of animal experts to explore serious scientific questions. They are tools of “fine-textured information,” giving the experts a more direct look into the animals’ lives. This takes much of the guesswork out of the equation, sometimes reinforcing what they already knew–or other times, completely changing it.
For example, a study using Crittercams changed what we thought we knew about Emperor Penguins’ hunting habits. Previously, we thought that these penguins dove through holes in the ice to hunt fish deeper down, but the Crittercams that scientists attached to the penguins themselves showed that they dove down for much the same reasons as hawks fly up: to find their prey. As it turns out, the fish they eat actually live right under the ice, and the penguins dive down so they can look up and get a wide view of their hunting ground before torpedoing back up to eat.
These cameras are uniquely built for each species to produce footage that could never have been captured before. They ride along with the animal, seeing the world through its eyes to collect visual data. It is essential that the cameras are noninvasive because that ensures the animals act naturally, which would be impossible if people were around filming, which would disturb natural behavior. In this way, the cameras catch footage and data in places that people can’t reach in ways that we normally could not film. Footage from the typical point of view is secondary data, albeit valuable and fascinating. Most importantly, however, Crittercams are special research tools that provide incredible looks into undisturbed wildlife behavior, something that is both unprecedented and essential for the learning process. It is all for science.
The footage itself, however, allows for not only greater exploration, but also better communication. Kyler says that, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a single second from the Crittercams is worth 30,000,” as they take thirty pictures per second. It is a form of storytelling and a humanization of the sciences to promote education and discovery in innovative ways. The average person cannot look at a chart created from a data logger’s information and understand what is before their eyes, but they can watch a show like Die Trying: Great White Ambush and see tangible visual data that is easily processed in an entertaining manner.
Remote Imaging engineers Mike Shepard, Eric Berkenpas and Graham Wilhelm designed the cams, clamps, and deployment pole, giving us a way to peer into the mysterious hunting techniques of some of the greatest predators on earth. These cameras are noninvasive, clamped onto the sharks’ dorsal fins, which provides a steady firsthand point of view. The experts and engineers are very concerned about the animals’ well-being, and so every Crittercam is built so that they can collect actual research data without affecting the animals. Their noninvasive natures make them safe, humane, and ethical, but that also has a practical element because it does not hinder any natural behavior and so gives insight into previously unknown lives. Normal dive recorders or other instruments that take measurements not only lack video and provide indirect data, but some like jab-dart tags may also temporarily disturb the animals in a way that Crittercams do not, affecting natural behavior. In fact, the animals oftentimes do not even react to Crittercams at all. Once, a shark continued to circle the investigating team’s boat even after the camera had been deployed onto it. Why? The team had chummed the water to attract sharks, and so that area was full of free food. The camera did not matter to the shark, and the team even had to navigate to a different area because the shark just continued eating, paying no heed to the clamp on its dorsal fin.
These sort of reactions—or lack thereof—highlight the fact that the animals are neither hurt nor hindered by the Crittercams, which benefits researchers who develop long-term relationships with experts and engineers to ensure that they understand as much about the animals while impacting them as little as possible.
Tune in tonight, Wednesday July 30th at 10PM, to view the harrowing process of attaching these cameras to monstrous great white sharks. Horrible weather, a tight schedule, huge swells, and thousands of alarmingly close teeth make for quite the adventure… all in the name of science. Even the sharks’ tails are dangerously powerful weapons, as the shark specialist in this video is reminded when one smacks him square in the jaw:
Don’t Miss Die Trying: Great White Ambush Wednesday at 10P.