Filmmaker Jeff Kurr Talks ‘Walking With Great Whites’

posted: 08/29/15
by: Danny Clemens

Marine wildlife cinematographer Jeff Kurr is taking Shweekend to new heights -- er, depths -- this year, employing groundbreaking new technology that allows him to walk along the ocean floor, shoulder-to-shoulder with sharks in New Zealand. WASP (which stands for Water Armor Shark Protection) is a one-man shark cage lightweight enough that its occupant can pick it up and walk across the sea floor to observe sharks.

First featured in Shark Week 2014, WASP returns this year, new and improved, in Air Jaws: Walking With Great Whites:

WASP underwater
Chris Fallows/Discovery Communications

"On a trip to New Zealand in 2013 I was filming from a surface cage, but I could see the real action was 55 feet down on the sea floor," Kurr tells SharkWeek.com. "I noticed our sharks would circle around the boat for a few minutes, then dive to the bottom and just sort of 'hang out' together. It was then that I had the idea for WASP. I wanted to see exactly what was happening with these animals on the ocean bottom."

Predictably, the sharks hanging out on the sea floor had mixed reactions to the device.

"Great whites are always very curious about strange objects in their environment and they were definitely interested in WASP, which was pretty alien-looking as it walked around the sea floor," Kurr recalls.

"We had a group of sharks take turns knocking WASP down like it was some sort of bowling pin. These sharks wanted to know what WASP was and knocking it around was the only way for them to try and find out."

"Luckily, WASP is 'self-righting', so every time it got knocked down, it got back up. It was like one of those Socker Boppers we used to punch on when we were kids. On the other hand, we also had many sharks around that were curious, but too shy to actually come in contact with WASP."

WASP boarding
Chris Fallows/Discovery Communications

But what's Air Jaws without flying sharks? It goes without saying that the series is known for its airborne elasmobranchs -- Kurr teases that this episode includes what might just be the best breach yet.

But this time around, Kurr and his team wanted to explore shark behavior beyond just breaching. They deployed WASP to get an up close and personal look at the social behavior of great white sharks, with special focus paid to the differences between great whites in New Zealand and those in South Africa.

"The New Zealand sharks seemed to be far more social and comfortable in close contact with one another -- it's almost as if there is a level of trust there that you don't see elsewhere."

Air Jaws breaching
Chris Fallows/Discovery Communications

"White sharks elsewhere usually give each other a wide birth and try to avoid contact. This is what we regularly see in South Africa. In South Africa, when there's multiple sharks in the area, the biggest one usually rules the roost and the smaller sharks give way. This is referred to as a size-based hierarchy. What's really cool is these sharks, wherever they're found, are using body language to communicate with each other."

So, what's next for Air Jaws? Kurr teases that new camera technology in the 2016 installment of the perennial favorite will be the next Shark Week game-changer, showcasing the great white like we've never seen it before.

"It's an exciting time to be a shark filmmaker with all of this incredible new technology coming out!"

Shark breaching
Chris Fallows/Discovery Communications

Air Jaws: Walking with Great Whites airs Sunday, August 30th at 9 p.m. on Discovery. Check out this exclusive preview clip:

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