Entertainment

How Orcas Threatened Shark Week's Most Popular Franchise, "Air Jaws"

In 2001, Discovery's Shark Week introduced viewers to the great white's most stunning predatory behavior -- breaching while ambushing seals in South Africa. The Air Jaws franchise was born. Tonight's ninth installment, Air Jaws: The Hunted, tells the story of how it could end.

In February 2017, a great white washed ashore in Gansbaai, South Africa, presumably having beached itself out of fear of something in the bay. That May, three more white sharks followed, each one missing its calorie-rich liver, as was a fifth shark found a month later.

Two orcas, known as Port and Starboard for their collapsed dorsal fins that fall to the left and right, respectively, were blamed. Though none of the attacks were witnessed, the killer whales were spotted around the time of each discovery.

"They basically went on an unprecedented killing spree of great white sharks," says Air Jaws filmmaker Jeff Kurr. "And some of these great whites were huge. We're talking about a 16-foot great white, a 14-foot great white that these two orcas were attacking, removing and eating their livers, and leaving to bleed out and wash ashore. They wiped out a local population of great whites -- the ones that weren't killed took off for at least eight months to a year before they started trickling back in."

The ecotourism industry took a hit, as cage-diving with great whites is a big draw. Local shark naturalist Dickie Chivell, who Shark Week fans will remember riding the female great white decoy Parthenope in 2014's Air Jaws: Fin of Fury and the inverted sled HORNET in 2015's Air Jaws: Walking with Great Whites, describes the empty waters as "truly one of the weirdest times of my life." He was involved with retrieving the dead sharks and examining them. Like other experts, he quickly suspected orcas: He knows great whites have been scared off by orcas before, and orcas have been filmed preying on different shark species elsewhere and are known to target certain organs of certain animals ("Like with gray whales, they'll only eat the tongue," he says).

He actually dived with Port and Starboard in May 2017, before that month's trio of attacks. "You see this truly majestic, beautiful, intelligent animal. Then on the other side, you know exactly why they're in your area and what they're capable of," he says.

The duo was tracked up and down the coast. "Everywhere they went, the sharks seemed to take off," Kurr says. "There was a time when we were actually worried about the future of great whites in South Africa, because we had spoken to several orca experts who told us that when these orcas become fixated on great white sharks, they won't stop until all the great white sharks are gone."

As Chivell points out, it's impossible to know the orcas' full body count: "White sharks actually sink when they're dead. So the fact that we found these white sharks doesn't mean that those are the total of white sharks that were killed. A lot could have been killed around the island system that just sank and we never found them."

For Chris Fallows, the renowned photographer who first captured great whites breaching in South Africa and remains the face of Air Jaws, following those orcas was a strange experience.

"I love orcas, and I don't think there's any more capable predator on Earth. They have incredible teamwork. They're able to figure out a situation, where a white shark is more an instinctual hunter," he says. "But when you see these two orcas that you know are actually killing great white sharks, which are in a lot of trouble just because their numbers are so low and it's also an apex predator, it's very much a bittersweet moment." (Not to mention the fact that a leading orca behaviorist believes humans are likely responsible for whatever trauma caused the orcas' dorsal fins to weaken -- were they shot at? were they entangled? -- and perhaps put great whites on their diet as easy prey.)

shark week
Discovery Channel

Fallows wants people to know that South Africa has a bigger problem than the possibility that those orcas, who've since left the region, will return. "You have shark longlining, which right now is racing certain smaller sharks species to extinction. And these smaller shark species are vital components of the great white's diet. People always think seals are the primary food source, but it's actually smaller sharks and fish and rays that are the primary food source of these animals," he says. "When they're removed out of an area, the white sharks move on as well. So bad fisheries' management and our local government [refusing] to actually do something to stop the destruction of our ecosystem is having a catastrophic effect at the moment."

He's hopeful that in the years to come, if changes are made, great whites will return to South Africa in their previous numbers (he reports witnessing a few breaches in Gansbaai and False Bay this season). In the meantime, there is one bright spot: In Air Jaws: Back from the Dead, premiering July 25, Fallows and Kurr travel to New Zealand to try filming the first footage of a great white breaching on a seal decoy there. Spoiler alert: They succeed. But even more thrilling: they then break out Seal Sled 3.0, a metal raft similar to the one that Fallows road in 2010's Ultimate Air Jaws and Kurr mounted in 2012's Air Jaws Apocalypse, to observe a second breach from the surface. This time, viewers feel like they're on the sled with Fallows, experiencing it with him.

"It's something that'll give you goosebumps," Kurr says. "I've seen people watching this film actually get emotional at the end, because there's something about Air Jaws. It has this mystique about it and this magic, and it always seems like we're able to come through in the end."

shark week
Discovery Channel

Fallows estimates he spent 12 hours waiting on the Seal Sled in total (there's a two-hour window each day around sunrise when the sharks are most likely to fly at a towed seal).

"So many people come up to me and say, 'Oh, I wish I could have been on Seal Sled.' But the truth be told, you get dragged around on that little sled for hour after hour. The air temperature is eight or nine degrees Celsius. It's raining. You don't move, so your body starts cramping," Fallows says.

What kept him sane was birdwatching. "Albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters. These birds that circumnavigate the globe and are some of the greatest travelers are flying an arm's length away from you," he says. "When that shark did finally jump, I was just glad I was looking the right way and not distracted by the birds."

Back from the Dead refers to New Zealand as "the final frontier" (the series was also first to capture a breach in Australia in 2002). Have we seen the last Air Jaws?

"It's very difficult to come up with new ideas and new locations all the time, but I think we do have another idea in the pipeline," Fallows says, adding that more research is needed before they commit to the cost of an expedition.

As Kurr says, "Air Jaws is more than just breaching sharks; it's always about great whites, but it's different ways of filming them and understanding their behaviors. So I would never say that it's the end of Air Jaws."

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Mandi Bierly, a veteran of Entertainment Weekly and Yahoo Entertainment, is now a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @MandiBierly.