The beauty of watching a predator hunt is not in the kill but in the preamble building up to it. Each predator has its own skills, be it almost invisible silky smooth movement, lightning like speed, crushing power or cunning ambush.
If you’ve ever watched a leopard stalking through russet coloured grass where it moves so low to the ground that is looks like a rosette patterned carpet magically moving; or watched a cheetah smoothly going through the gears reaching north of 100kmph, tail acting as a rudder, balancing it’s turns through high speed cornering, you will appreciate the beauty of each predator’s mastery in the art of the hunt.
In the ocean it is no different. I remember watching a pod of Argentine orcas 200 yards offshore sending pulses of sonar to the shoreline, scanning for movement as they lay in wait for young seals to play in the surf. The moment this happened and the returning pulse of sonar confirmed an acquired target, the predators turned as one,heading shoreward and launched an assault that culminated in snatching their prey off the beach.
It’s like watching a game of chess with the predator and prey each making a move, the only difference being that the prey can’t afford to make one mistake.
The Great White shark has been part of my life for over three decades. I have spent time with them all around the world and have had some of my most memorable life experiences with these huge charismatic warm bodied fish. Aside from getting to know their personalities, the other aspect I have loved getting to know more than any other, is getting inside the head that drives the tail.
Unlike orcas that think on their flippers, white sharks are for the most part instinctual. They have evolved through millennia to be finely tuned aquatic computers picking up minute electrical fields that all living organisms emit. They have a line of receptors along the length of their body that picks up vibration, an inner ear that picks up sound, 18% of their brain is dedicated to olfactory receptors and their eyes function along similar lines to our own with the exception that they can see in very low light levels and can see both below and above the water.
When it comes to predators that hunt purely on instinct, and the cues that trigger the switch from curious spectator to engaged gladiator, there are few, if any, that match the evolutionary hunting prowess of the Great White Shark.
Photographing great whites on the sea floor off Edwards Island at the Southern tip of New Zealand I had the rare opportunity to watch an adult great white as it sensed its prey on the sea surface.
A young New Zealand fur seal was returning from feeding and chance led it to swim directly over an ever alert great white shark that was curiously circling me. In an instant the shark went from relaxed and benign, to taught and ready for action. Eyes focused, its senses locked on and like a coiled spring every muscle in the sharks torpedo went taught. With two exaggerated swipes of its tail, the shark arced its athletic body surface wards and the super predator began its hunt. Upon the shark nearing the sea surface in the final stages of engagement, the seal picked up on the grim reaper and immediately used agility to counter speed.
In a split second the great white knew the game was up and aborted the assault. If it had gone undetected a split second longer it may have resulted in a surface born attack taking the shark ten foot clear of the surface, hapless prey straddling its razor filled vice-like grip.
This time the shark had called check, the next time it would be mate.
Exhibition: 173cm x 122.5cm (68” x 48”)
Classic: 118cm x 83.5cm (46.5” x 32.8”)
© Chris Fallows 2018