Forget Jaws, Now it’s … Brains!

Great white sharks are typecast, say experts. The creatures are socially sophisticated and, yes, smart

It may be hard to fathom, but many great white encounters with humans are investigative, not predatory. (A great white attacks a seal decoy in False Bay.) They’re just curious, Compagno says. (Brandon Cole)
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But the great white shark entered the landlubbers' pantheon of most terrifying creatures only in 1971, when a great white approached a dive cage in a documentary called Blue Water, White Death. The film inspired American novelist Peter Benchley to write the book Jaws, about a great white terrorizing a New Jersey seaside community. Heart-thumping fear spread around the world in 1975 when a then little-known director, Steven Spielberg, directed a movie based on the novel. Jaws was the first film to earn $100 million at the box office, and it launched the era of the summer blockbuster.

Leonard Compagno, one of the foremost experts on sharks, helped design the mechanical great white used in the movie. "When they made it a huge male with its characteristic claspers, I told them they'd got it wrong because the biggest great whites were females. The art director told Spielberg, who brushed aside my objection. He wanted it to be an enormous male great white, and that was that." Compagno knew the movie was a "monster gig," but he did not anticipate how seriously people would take it. "The movie great white scared the hell out of people, and made the shark much feared," he says. In reality, great whites "rarely bother people, and even more rarely attack them."

Compagno, 64, has run the Shark Research Centre of the Iziko South African Museum for more than two decades. He became fascinated with the animals as a child growing up near Monterey Bay, California, and studied them as a graduate student at Stanford. He took a job in South Africa in 1984, during the apartheid era, and "got a bit of flack from a few scientific colleagues," he says. But South Africa is one of the best places to study great whites.

Much of his work entails observing behavior, and he's found the fish to be a surprisingly intelligent creature. "When I'm on the boat, they'll pop their heads out of the water and look me directly in the eye," he told me. "Once, when there were several people on the boat, the great white looked each person in the eye, one by one, checking us out. They feed on large-brained social animals such as seals and dolphins, and to do this you have to operate on a level higher than a simple machine mentality of an ordinary fish."

Compagno has also found that they are not lone hunters but social animals. When great whites gather, he says, "some are assertive, others relatively timid. They body-slam, gape or carefully bite each other in dominance displays." Fishermen have told him they've seen the sharks hunt cooperatively. "One great white will draw the attention of a seal, allowing another to come from behind and ambush it," Compagno says.

And he swears that the sharks display curiosity. Seals, penguins and other animals sometimes have scars from shark bites; Compagno says the bites were investigative, not predatory. One of his students has watched a shark catch a seal in its mouth and toss it into the air repeatedly. Alison Kock says she saw a great white sneak up below a bird floating on the water, "gently" grab the bird in its mouth and swim around the boat. A few seconds later the bird resurfaced and flew off, hardly the worse for wear. Compagno even says that "some 'shark attacks' on humans by white sharks seem playful; I interviewed two divers here who were grabbed lightly by the hand by a white shark, towed a short distance and then released with minimal injury."

The great white shark attacks near Seal Island end as suddenly as they begin. The sea gulls stop screeching. Kock drops anchor and chums the water with a slurry of pulped sardines and tuna. "Great whites can smell this from a mile away and come because they think there's been a kill." She baits a hook with a large tuna head and throws it into the water.

"Shark!" she shouts, and I see an enormous dark fin slice through the water near the boat. I should know better, but I can't help it: on the tip of my tongue is the Jaws theme music, the heart-pumping duh-dum, duh-dum, duh-dum. Kock says that it's a female, about 11 feet long. Swimming with graceful power, the shark follows the tuna head as Kock's assistant pulls it to the boat before the shark can get a bite. Kock balances against the side wielding a modified spear gun with a blue electronic tag at the end. The shark pulls away untouched. It skirts the boat, swims to the other side, turns and—I swear—looks me straight in the eye.

The shark returns an hour later, and Kock is finally able to inject the tag on its right side, below the dorsal fin. The great white body-slams the boat, shaking it, then swims away.

Kock has tagged 75 great white sharks with electronic markers since 2003. She had divers set 35 detectors in the seabed around False Bay. Whenever a tagged shark passes within about 1,600 feet of the instruments, they record the time, date and identity of the shark. It's mid-September, almost summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and her research has shown that the great whites will soon abandon Seal Island and move closer to shore, patrolling the water just beyond the breakers.


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