Big Wave Heads North with Shark Below Zero

From Big Wave Productions, Shark Below Zero investigates what drives white sharks’ journey to the northernmost limit of their range into Canada, featuring expert insights from Dr. Greg Skomal, Heather Bowlby, Megan Winton and Warren Joyce. The doc is airing as part of National Geographic’s Sharkfest.

“It all began three years ago when I was filming Dr. Greg Skomal and Megan Winton in Cape Cod for a series we made for National Geographic and Love Nature called Planet Shark,” says Mark Woodward, director of specialist factual at Big Wave Productions. “While we were filming, Greg was tagging 14-foot white sharks for his ongoing study into the behavior of Atlantic white sharks. He mentioned that many of the sharks he was fitting with satellite tags were heading north, over the border into Canada and that no one really knows what they get up to in Canadian waters. Intrigued by the mystery, we stayed in touch, and when Greg and Megan began a research collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists Heather Bowlby and Warren Joyce, the opportunity to launch an expedition north of the border became a real possibility. We approached National Geographic with the exciting news, and with their support, the high-risk expedition became a reality.”

To try to find out how the sharks are behaving in Canadian waters, the scientists were determined to deploy a camera tag. “This tech not only records fine-scale depth, speed, location and fin beat data, it also records 4K video so scientists can really see what the sharks are getting up to,” Woodward says. “But to record natural behavior, you need to avoid hooking or catching a shark, so the team came up with a plan to try and lure white sharks to the back of the boat using some of their favorite prey: tuna. White sharks have an incredible sense of smell, so every morning, we’d place the tuna heads in the water and within hours, and sometimes minutes, a white shark would turn up to take a look. Then it was a game of cat and mouse. The team tried to draw the bait lines close enough to the back of the boat so that Greg could lean over with a tagging pole and place the camera tag on the white shark’s back. As you can see in the film, we had many dramatic and frustrating near misses, but when we finally managed to deploy a camera tag, it was groundbreaking stuff. The footage showed that white sharks in Canada spend a lot of time near the surface looking for prey. It’s too cold for them this far north to go too deep, so all their hunting and foraging is happening in the surface layers of the ocean, which is very different from what’s happening south of the border in the U.S. It shows how adaptable white sharks are, changing their tactics and even their prey as they migrate up and down the Atlantic Ocean.”

To help build a picture of what the sharks are up to in Canadian waters, the scientists also relied on a network of underwater acoustic listening stations. “These pick up the signals coming from tagged sharks and helped show how far white sharks are moving into Canadian waters each summer and for how long,” Woodward says. “Using this data, the team was able to discover it’s mainly juvenile sharks heading into Canadian waters and that they’re roaming vast distances in search of feeding opportunities.”

Much of the work took place in the Bay of Fundy, which has the biggest tides on Earth. “In the morning, you’d load the boat, only to return 14 hours later to discover your dock is now 15 meters above you!” Woodward explains. “We spent a lot of time climbing up ladders and passing gear up and down. The area is also prone to thick sea fog at that time of year, which made logistics tricky. Only the skill and know-how of our local skippers kept us from running aground, and we had many heart-in-mouth moments trying to get our drone back to the boat through thick fog banks! Fortunately, here at Big Wave, we specialize in marine filming, and our skilled drone pilots got some stunning footage without the loss of a single machine.”

The team also investigated if global warming is having an impact on white shark numbers in Canada. And while there’s still much more research needed, Woodward says, it is clear that Canada’s surface waters are warming year on year and that marine life is having to adapt to this change in order to survive. “White sharks have been around for millions of years and are master opportunists,” he adds. “The hope is they’ll be able to take advantage of warming seas to expand their range north, but many other marine creatures are not as adaptable. It’s a scary time for anyone involved in the marine world.”

The research from this production’s undertaking has even helped rewrite the understanding of the Atlantic white shark population. “The scientists involved are expecting to write many important papers based on the expedition and ongoing research,” Woodward says. “It provides another piece in the puzzle into how Atlantic white sharks live their lives. It appears that Canadian waters are really important foraging grounds, especially for juvenile white sharks. Once we better understand where and why they’re going to different parts of Canada, we should have the tools and knowledge to better protect them.”

Shark Below Zero premieres on National Geographic on July 5 at 9 p.m., followed by Nat Geo WILD on July 24 at 8 p.m. It is available to stream on Disney+ and Hulu from July 2.