Like most apex predators that prowl the ocean depths, the great white shark usually employs its hunting prowess below the waves, well concealed from human eyes. A dramatic exception is the phenomenon known as breaching: great whites 20-feet-long rocket up from deep-water hides at speeds of 35 miles an hour to ambush Cape fur seals, their momentum carrying them beyond the water's surface and high into the air. To anyone lucky enough to witness the feat, the shark's power and athleticism are awe-inspiring. Diver and shark conservationist Michael Rutzen estimates he's seen thousands of breaches since 1994, when he began leading ecotourists on shark-watching and cage-diving cruises off the coast of South Africa. Though he has seen as many as 34 natural predations in a day, Rutzen and his crew began using a lifelike seal decoy to tempt hunting sharks to strike in hopes of capturing the phenomenon on film. Click through our gallery to look at 20 of their best photographs.
Rutzen operates Shark Diving Unlimited out of Kleinbaai, South Africa, about 200 kilometers south of Cape Town. The breaching trips focus on Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, home to 60,000 Cape fur seals in the biggest offshore seal colony on the African coast. He says breaching is a testament not only to the great white’s strength, but also to its intelligence.
“It’s definitely hunting behavior, and they only use this tactic with seals,” Rutzen says. “You have to understand that these sharks know exactly when, where and how” to put the strategy to use. “When they want to eat Cape fur seals they stalk them in certain places.”
“The sharks go to spots where the seals move in and out of the island. They keep close to the bottom, and when the seals come overhead they come up at speed from below and try to catch the seal.”
“Sharks are quite smart. The way they interact with moving mammals and figure out how to catch them or outwit them for food is through intelligence. It’s learned, it’s not instinct.”
Still, the hunting strategy is far from a sure thing for the shark, Rutzen says. “I think intercepting a swimming seal is the shark’s most difficult catch. It seems about 1 out of 10 attempts is successful.”
Rutzen used a mold taken from a real seal to fashion 10 decoys made of a fiberglass skin surrounding a foam-rubber core. “It’s very realistic,” he says. “It looks like a seal and moves like a seal.”
As is true with any artificial lure, presentation is everything. In fact, tactics are so key to his success that Rutzen clams up when asked to share his technique. “That’s a great secret. You are dead right that you have to know how mimic a seal, and technique is very important. But I have 7 competitors who are trying to do the same thing, so I can’t tell you exactly how I do it.”
Rutzen has seen great whites make up to 8 attempts at his seal decoy before successfully catching it, while others smash it on the first pass. “Great white sharks are even more individual than humans,” he says. “Some are clever and some are not so clever.”
Curious sharks that aren’t actively hunting will sometimes come close for a look while others show no interest. “You’ve got to find the great white that is busy hunting seals,” Rutzen says.
Earlier decoys made entirely of foam rubber sometimes got eaten–probably because the foam was of a similar texture to seal blubber, Rutzen theorizes. But sharks (which have a rich network of nerve endings behind their razor sharp teeth that provides a flood of sensory information when they bite something) quickly suss out the fiberglass fake, and spit it out. “They get beat up pretty good,” Rutzen says of his decoys, “but we repair them and go on.”
The scene on deck can be intense during the breaching trips, Rutzen says. “When the sharks start breaching there’s sometimes a flow of emotion. You see a 5- to 6-meter great white going 5 meters into the air, and that animal weighs maybe 1-1/2 tons. It’s awe inspiring that an animal that size can do that. It’s spectacular, and it’s something you really don’t see every day. It’s very difficult to explain, but believe me it’s something you will never forget.”
He hopes some of the good feeling–and revenue–created by his breaching trips and cage-diving excursions will change people’s attitudes toward sharks and bolster efforts to protect them. “You talk about a flippy little dolphin or a cuddly penguin and people want to throw money at you,” Rutzen says. “Talk about great white sharks and they are a little hesitant. But when you can expose people to sharks and they find them fascinating, that can generate money that goes back to research and conservation.”
“To be able to take people out and show them actually what the animals are really like–normally they are very calm and very curious, you don’t think of a great white in that manner. And that has led to people having greater respect and at least accepting that these animals should be on our planet.”
Rutzen is not a scientist. “I’ve never been to university,” he says. “My university was Dyer Island, and my professors were the great white sharks.”
But he does play a key role in research efforts by helping scientists get close to the animals they study. “I get the sharks in the right situation that they can take the data to do the research. If they need a shark in a certain situation, that’s what I can create for them. I’m also the diver that dives for them to take out all the instruments, which they normally want to put into some very sharky places.”
Shark Diving Unlimited has supported legitimate researchers and scientists working with South Africa’s Marine and Coastal Management on research projects that focus on acoustic and satellite tagging population dynamics. Shark Diving Unlimited currently supports the population dynamics research project (which includes DNA sampling) of PhD student Sara Andreonettic of South Africa’s Stellenbosch University.
Rutzen is also a dedicated shark conservationist, spreading his message on the need for greater protections for great whites and other sharks via his “Sharkman” show on the Discovery Channel. “They are not killing machines. These animals are really not like that. They are the most incredible species I’ve seen on the planet.”
He has also attracted attention for his love of free-diving with sharks. “I have worked and swam now with all the shark species that have hurt people, and I am living proof that they do not want to hunt us. Normally they react to something stupid that a human has done. They react to what they see in their surroundings. They see what we are doing and analyze it according to their world, not according to what we think it to be.”
“It’s an honor,” he says of his cage-free interactions with sharks. “Every time I dive with them I am learning. The key is knowledge: If you make a mistake in how you move, when you move, then you can make a great white shark very cross very quickly. And then you have a very big problem.”
“It started as a job,” Rutzen says, “but the more we started working with these animals, the more we realized how little people know about them. Just about everything you can read in books often is wrong. We believe less than a thousand great whites are left on this planet. Our mission is to protect the remaining great white sharks by way of education and conservation initiatives.”
Diver and shark conservationist Michael Rutzen estimates he’s seen thousands of breaches since 1994, when he began leading ecotourists on shark-watching and cage-diving cruises off the coast of South Africa. Though he has seen as many as 34 natural predations in a day, Rutzen and his crew began using a lifelike seal decoy to tempt hunting sharks to strike in hopes of capturing the phenomenon on film. Click through our gallery to look at 20 of their best photographs.