As expected, the highly anticipated Blue Planet II series has been nothing short of amazing. This week we are incredibly lucky to have a guest post by shark researcher; Samantha Andrzejaczek who helped film the upcoming Blue Planet episode. Sammy is a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and University of Western Australia investigating the vertical movement of sharks. She also runs a fantastic blog – www.sammyshark.wordpress.com, which we definitely recommend checking out. Read on to go behind the scenes of Blue Planet II. You can watch the episode this Saturday night (17th) on Channel 9 in Australia.
In March of last year I received an email that would lead to one of my most exciting adventures to date. For the last four years, BBC’s Blue Planet II had been in production and as part of the ‘Green Seas’ episode they were to be heading out to film the vast seagrass meadows in Shark Bay. Firstly, from an aerial perspective and secondly, they were interested in seeing the meadows from the perspective of their largest predator – the tiger shark, and it was for that reason that I was contacted. As Shark Bay in Western Australia has some of the biggest seagrass meadows in the world and a healthy population of tiger sharks, it was the perfect place to attempt to get these shots.
Customised Animal Tracking Solutions (CATS), the company that makes my tags, made the Blue Planet II team aware of the work I was doing for my PhD research, namely, trying to better understand the behavior and track the movements of these big predators. After a few short but intense phone calls to discuss data and image recording tags, we agreed that I would head out as an independent consultant to work in collaboration with the team. The goal was to tag a tiger shark in order to record footage and information as it hunted in the seagrass meadows. It was a win-win situation! The only catch was that the trip was leaving in two weeks time, and I was up to my ears in preparation for a further PhD tiger shark tagging trip coming up in a months time. But this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. David Attenborough has always been my idol, and to pass up the chance to help out in one of the documentaries he was narrating would be passing up the chance to live some of my earliest career dreams.
The aim was to use a pole to attach camera tags to tiger sharks without catching or retraining them, and we only had seven days to do it. In my head it was an almost impossible task. We would have to somehow have the shark swimming pass the boat at just the right angle, and slow enough for me to correctly aim and put the tag on. It was incredibly daunting, and I really didn’t want to let the team down. Luckily, the two weeks before the trip were such a whirlwind of logistics, planning and permits, that before I had the chance to get nervous I was picking up the BBC producer, Kathryn Jeffs, from the airport and driving up to Shark Bay.
Kathryn was one of the most incredible people I’ve ever met, and I felt so lucky to be working alongside her. She completed a wildlife filmmaking degree about 20 years ago and has been with the BBC almost ever since. On our eight hour drive to Shark Bay I heard so many amazing stories from when she worked on the Frozen Planet and Planet Earth documentaries, which made me even more excited for the week to come. She was very hardworking, and knew exactly how to go about getting the job done.
When we arrived in Shark Bay we met the rest of the team: Leon – Shark Bay local and the leader of the Shark Ark Project (http://www.sharkarkproject.com/), Shayne – one of the cameramen, Nick – our indigenous skipper, and Dan – the drone cameraman. It was a great crew, and we had a week to get the shark’s shot, as well as filming some aerial drone shots of the immense seagrass beds of Shark Bay. The guys were all working for BBC for the first time), and we were all super excited and slightly awed to be working for Blue Planet II. This was the dream.
Our days were incredibly busy trying to complete the task. We were getting up and leaving at 4:30 am and getting back to base around 8 pm. Our first days were spent testing the gear and looking for sharks and the best seagrass beds to film. Almost continuously we were also being filmed for the ‘making of’ sequences. BBC was emphasizing this behind the scenes component of Blue Planet II this time round to personify the shots of the ocean action, and also to emphasise the importance of the scientists. I had slightly improved at being in front of a camera since my first appearance on the Shark Week documentary, but I still found it very hard to remain natural when there was a camera pointed at me.
The first five days went by without us seeing a single tiger shark, and we would arrive back at base feeling exhausted and discouraged. I began to lose hope early on that we would even see a tiger shark, let alone tag one. Despite this we were still seeing a lot of other cool marine life: countless dolphins, dugongs, turtles, rays and other shark species. On one memorable day we saw a fever of seven cowtail rays cruising in a line along the shore.
On the sixth day we were at the dock at Monkey Mia at 5 am. The sun was rising and Nick told us he had a good feeling about the day. I brushed him off, not being particularly superstitious. He then pointed out a cloud shaped like a tiger shark and I got a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach as we set off on our hour long commute to an area known for tiger sharks. On the way we dropped Kathryn and Dan onshore to take seagrass aerials. I did not envy them. The flies were horrendous, and it was quickly warming up.
We headed a bit further offshore and waited. I settled in for a long wait, without any high expectations. About 30 minutes later Nick shouted “Thaarka, Thaarka” (‘tiger shark’ in Malgana, the traditional language of the people of Shark Bay). I launched myself up, even though I thought he was joking, but sure enough, there was a beautiful, iridescent, roughly 4 m female tiger shark cruising along our starboard side. She was sleek and graceful, with very defined stripes for such a large shark. We quickly launched into action.
Leon helped me with the two person operation of mounting the tag on to a specially designed mechanical deployment arm. This would give me the reach to make sure I could position the tag well on the back of the shark. Shayne began filming and Nick positioned the boat alongside the shark. First time around I fired… and missed. Luckily the tag is designed to float so we could retrieve it and try again. Second time around Leon knocked my arm as we positioned ourselves and I accidentally fired the tag again. Third time lucky – the shark swam by again, I got the tag in position… and released the switch… it sat snuggly on her dorsal fin and she swam away unphased. There was a great cheer and I literally jumped for joy. There were high 5s all round. Later on it was all a bit embarrassing to look back at my recorded reaction, but I’m sure anyone else watching would’ve felt the elation we were all experiencing. I never thought it was remotely possible that we would get a tag on.
She ended up being the only tiger shark we saw of the whole trip, but it didn’t really matter, we had achieved our goal. The shore team was upset to have missed it, but were also excited for us.
The whole trip had been a bit of a whirlwind, and it took me awhile to believe it had actually happened. I felt incredibly lucky to be a part of it, and I got to meet some amazing people in the process. It was so cool to see the footage and hear my idol’s voice telling me about the importance of tiger sharks. I also gained a lot of confidence during this trip about my own abilities in directing people, which would come in very useful for my own tagging trip at Ningaloo a month later. Grabbing this opportunity by the horns turned out to be a decision which led to me ticking off some major boxes from my career checklist, as well as fulfilling some of my lifelong dreams.