Until the mid-1990s, Gansbaai and the adjacent Kleinbaai were sleepy fishing villages where there was hardly anything to do. But the rise of cage diving has put the once-sleepy South African coastal hamlets on the tourist map as “shark capitals of the world”. The aura of the intriguing white shark is everywhere here and the range of shops (often tailored to tourists) is quite large for a place the size of Gansbaai. The difference with shark paradises like Isla Guadalupe (Mexico) and the Australian Neptune Islands is that in Kleinbaai you don’t have to make a long sea journey to actually meet the white shark in person. A fifteen minute boat ride from the local harbor is Geyser Rock, an island inhabited by thousands of Cape fur seals. And these animals are just now prominently featured on the white shark’s menu. The sharks and seals are engaged in a delicate, deadly dance for survival almost every day. Close to Geyser Rock is Dyer Island, the breeding ground for various sea birds, including the increasingly rare African penguin.
Mike Rutzen lives in Gansbaai and has developed a special bond with the often so feared white shark. “I’ve never seen ‘Jaws’, so that will certainly have helped me build a less negative image of white sharks than many other people.” Rutzen is not a scientifically trained biologist, but an autodidact: “For a long time I knew nothing about white sharks. In fact, when I started as a captain on a shark boat, I only knew the animals from hearsay. I was familiar with the so-called tommy sharks, so called in this part of South Africa because they are said to have devoured several British soldiers – often called tommies in popular parlance – during the sinking of the British army ship the Birkenhead off our often rough coastal waters in 1852. It was only during my first trip that I found out that the tommy sharks that I had already seen several times during diving trips turned out to be the so feared white sharks. ” Rutzen now belongs to the very select group of people who consciously share the water with white sharks without a cage. “In a cage or from a boat you can ultimately only gather a limited amount of information about the behavior of these predatory fish. By actually entering their environment without barriers, you will eventually learn a lot more. In my opinion, diving with white sharks is also not very dangerous, provided you observe the animals carefully and keep a close eye on the signals they give. If a white shark is showing its teeth showy and its pectoral fins down, it’s clear it doesn’t particularly appreciate your presence. In the event of such a clear warning, I will immediately leave the water. But let one thing be clear: white sharks are not mindless eating machines that blindly swallow everything that appears in front of their imposing jaws, ”Rutzen knows from his own experience.
Based on the work of Rutzen, ‘Great White Shark, A Living Legend’ (released in the Netherlands in the DVD box Natural World Collection under the title ‘Swimming with Jaws’) paints a true picture of the white shark in its natural habitat . A profile that differs from the villainous, gluttonous and fresh human flesh-hungry monster shark of Spielberg’s shivering epic “Jaws”. In reality, white sharks are graceful, choosy, intelligent and extremely thoughtful hunters that people rarely think of as swimming snacks, but mainly have fur seals and large fish on their menu. This is also clearly visible in the sometimes breathtaking images that record the interaction between Rutzen and the white sharks: there is regular direct contact between shark and humans, but there are no aggressive reactions. Yet the white shark remains an excellent hunter, in many ways the archetype of evolutionary perfection. “Great White Shark, A Living Legend” features unique, rarely seen before images of white sharks in hunting mode. We are all familiar with the images from False Bay (“Planet Earth”, “Air Jaws”), in which white sharks suddenly shoot with their entire bodies above the water like gigantic, gray-white bolts. But the cameramen behind “Great White Shark, A Living Legend” manage to capture this phenomenon from a completely different perspective on film, namely from the sea floor. It is therefore extremely fascinating to see from below how white sharks can accelerate to a top speed of over 40 kilometers per hour in a fraction of a second of a snail’s pace and, like a precision torpedo, a (in dit case plastics) to ram unsuspecting rob. The scene also ensures that you get a lot of respect for the surprisingly nimble seals, who manage to avoid the deadly jaws of their almost invisible attackers in more than half of the cases.
Research shows that the white shark is not doing well. Populations and the numbers of large, sexually mature specimens are dwindling. For that reason alone, “Great White Shark, A Living Legend” is an important movie. Hopefully, through beautiful images and solid information about the true nature of the white shark, this documentary can polish up the ancient monster image of one of the world’s most beautiful and misunderstood predators before it’s too late.