Parkites capture deadliest catch
November 13, 2009
In an inconspicuous office building off of Bonanza Drive, hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, a group of local producers, directors and videographers have only one thing on their minds: sharks. Great whites, to be exact.
For the past two years, Park City-based Fischer Productions has been quietly compiling more than 1,000 hours of footage that provides an up-in-their-gills look at the ocean’s largest predator.
The final product, "Expedition Great White," will premiere on the National Geographic Channel on Monday, Nov. 16, as part of the network’s second annual "Expedition Week."
Fischer Productions, founded by Parkite and current CEO Chris Fischer, has been producing original television programming on ESPN and The Outdoor Channel since 2002.
The company’s foray into the depths of the Pacific Ocean came about coincidentally. At a board meeting for the Billfish Foundation, Fischer, who also happens to be an expert angler, mentioned some features of his new fishing boat to marine biologist and leading researcher Dr. Michael Domeier.
Domeier had developed real-time satellite tracking tags specifically designed to study the life cycles and migration patterns of great white sharks, and all he needed was the means. "He had been hanging on to these tags for two years trying to think of a safe way to catch, lift, tag and release great whites unharmed," explains Nick Seifert, president of Fischer Productions.
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With Fischer’s gear and Domeier’s knowledge, the project was a match made in ocean heaven. Plus, Fischer had a camera crew and production team that could capture the unprecedented endeavor on film. "It was pretty obvious that this was the television opportunity of a lifetime," says Seifert.
The team embarked on its first expedition off the coast of northern Baja Mexico in December 2007. "The footage we got was incredible. It was stuff that had never been seen before," says Seifert.
Fischer Productions approached National Geographic with an idea for a series that would provide a fascinating glimpse at great whites while raising awareness about the importance of conserving and protecting the species. The network signed on to air the first of 11 episodes during "Expedition Week" and the remainder starting in July 2010.
The show features Fischer as expedition leader, Domeier as lead researcher, a team of scientists, a handful of experienced anglers, and actor Paul Walker, who has a background in marine biology, as a deckhand.
Thus far, the crew has completed five expeditions in the Pacific and tagged 17 sharks. Unlike the pop-up tags that were previously used to track sharks’ whereabouts, Domeier’s tags last up to six years and have unique satellite tracking capabilities so that a shark’s location can be pinpointed each time its dorsal fin breaks the surface.
"With these tags, we can fill in blanks and start to understand where the sharks feed, breed and have their pups, so that we can find out where they live, where they aggregate, and where we need to protect them," explains Seifert.
According to National Geographic, great white sharks range in size from 15 to more than 20 feet and can weigh over 5,000 pounds. They can detect a single drop of blood in 25 gallons of water and their mouths are lined with up to 300 serrated, triangular teeth arranged in several rows.
Rich Christensen, the director and a member of the camera crew, says he wasn’t concerned about getting in the water with one of nature’s deadliest predators. "What we’ve come to find out is that those sharks are everywhere. I guess I’ve been with them that whole time," he says. "But when you do come face to face with one, it’s extremely intimidating. Your heart skips a beat."
"They are the most dangerous fish by far," says Seifert. However, the sharks are also endangered themselves, and there are strict regulations surrounding research and fishing techniques.
In the past, fishing crews have lacked the equipment and the expertise (not to mention the guts) to attempt a catch-and-release project. Fischer’s boat is equipped with the largest fishing hook in the world; a lift capable of hoisting up to 37 tons; and a system of chains, cable and ropes attached to a series of buoys to bring the fish in. "It’s just like Jaws," Seifert says.
Once the sharks are on the boat, the scientists take measurements, DNA samples, and attach tags to their dorsal fins in less than 20 minutes. Then the sharks are released back into the deep blue. "We take enormous measures to not hurt the shark," says Seifert. "Thus far, every single one of the sharks that we’ve hooked has survived."
Except for one instance, in which local camera operator David Olson got swatted by a tail ("It was like a sucker punch," says Christensen), none of the crew members were injured during the expeditions. "A few times, the sharks tried to get the momentum to bite someone, but once they’re up out of the water, they can’t really move," explains Seifert (they have a cartilage structure rather than hard bones). "They’re very docile once they’re on deck and most of the time, they’re very easy to work with."
The scientists will continue to track the sharks they have tagged and hope to tag sharks in other parts of the world. "The ultimate goal is to tag sharks in all of these different regions to try to understand them even more thoroughly," says Seifert. "The more we know about them, the better we can protect them."
During the course of the project, Fischer Productions has helped launched OSEARCH, a new conservation group that will fund more projects to research sharks and other ocean creatures. The company also supports the Marine Conservation Science Institute, of which Domeier is president.
National Geographic has used the project to launch a global conservation initiative. Over the next year, "Expedition Great White" will air in 167 countries and be translated into 16 different languages, reaching close to 15 billion viewers worldwide.
"Fischer Productions really has been a catalyst for this project," says Seifert.
"It was a great confluence of fishermen and science coming together to protect one of the most iconic creatures in the ocean. It was all for the benefit of the great white and we now have all the research and data we need to help protect them."
"Expedition Great White" premieres on the National Geographic Channel at 7 p.m. Mountain Time Nov. 16. The episode re-airs at 10 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. For more information, visit http://www.fischerproductions.com or http://channel.nationalgeographic.com .