Virus-quieted oceans open window for ‘Shark Week’ researchers

Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay put, but it gave sharks a travel passport and scientists a

rare opportunity. Ocean spots cleared of fishing boats and other intrusions by COVID-19 quarantines saw increased and even unusual marine life behaviour.

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week jumped through hoops to capitalise on the brief window. The 32nd annual slate of all things shark, airing for eight days beginning on Sunday with a record two-dozen shows.

This includes a pair taped earlier this year during the lull. “It really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study these sharks without the impacts of human activity,” said Discovery’s Senior Vice President for Production and Development Howard Swartz.

It’s not just any toothy species under scrutiny by the two programmes, but the one with a Steven Spielberg summer blockbuster on its resume.

Image released by Discovery Channel shows a shark breaking through the water in a scene from ‘Shark Lockdown’, one of three programmes kicking off Shark Week 2020 on the Discovery Channel. PHOTO: AP

“Sharks are the stars of Shark Week. The great whites are the stars of the sharks,” Swartz said.

“They’re so captivating and they’re so beloved and interesting and, I think, mysterious to viewers, rightly so.”

Shark Lockdown is set in New Zealand-area waters that are home to female great whites of such impressive length they’ve been dubbed “the 747s”, after the famously long jetliner.

The programme features a founding member of New Zealand’s Great White Shark Research Project and a familiar face to Shark Week viewers Kina Scollay, and a broadcaster and the fiancé of New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Clarke Gayford.

Their exploration of the Foveaux Strait, which separates New Zealand’s South and Stewart islands, brought them up against what Swartz called one of the ‘Holy Grail’ shark mysteries: why females leave the area when their size indicates they’ve reached maturity.

“They disappear and nobody’s really sure why they’re there and where they’ve gone,” said the journalism award-winning TV science producer (formerly with PBS’ Nova).

What Scollay and the team discovered was an unusual mix of male and female sharks, with some of the latter carrying fresh mating gashes that are on painful-looking display in the documentary. That suggested the area was a mating ground absent of human activity, a possibility that could lead to new safeguards for the great white population, Swartz said.

A similar revelation emerged in Abandoned Waters, in which researchers were able to closely observe great whites near Australia’s Neptune Islands minus the usual fishing and tourism traffic.

“Just the general decibel level of the oceans quieted down significantly” for the noise- and vibration-sensitive sharks, Swartz said.

The team recorded the arrival of about three times the average number of female great whites mixing with males off the Neptune Islands, located near the entrance to South Australia’s Spencer Gulf.

Although it’s premature to draw conclusions, the information could be part of ongoing research and analysis that might help protect the area for sharks, Swartz said.

Along with the scientists, local production crew scurried to take advantage of the ocean solitude before those nations gained relative control of the virus and began lifting restrictions on internal travel and business activity.

Discovery said it was unaware of anyone involved in the productions testing positive for the coronavirus. Strict protocols were in place to guard against infections, Swartz said.

Then producers had to gear up to meet the challenge of a quick turnaround in just a few months.

While Shark Week programmes are usually made for the following year and have eight to 12 months to be completed, the research and production teams for the virus-related films had just three months.