Neil Hammerschlag’s favorite animal? Forget Man’s Best Friend. Or a cuddly cat. He likes sharks. The more voracious, the better.
Hammerschlag is the world’s foremost expert on tiger sharks, which are known for — as he says without an ominous note in his voice — “indiscriminate feeding.”
“They’re built like tanks and they have hundreds of serrated corkscrew teeth that allow them to tear through anything,” he said. “They eat license plates, turtles, birds, dolphins, crabs, dogs, boots, bags of coal.”
Hammerschlag, a research assistant professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the UM Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, appears in two documentaries during Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual “fintastic” film festival that starts Sunday night.
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There will be no Jaws reruns, but the network will broadcast 18 films made by brave scientists and cameramen.
Hammerschlag stars Sunday at 8 p.m. in the opener, Tiger Beach, which takes place in the Bahamas, and also Tuesday at 10 p.m. in Air Jaws: Night Stalker, on great white sharks’ nighttime hunting of seals off the coast of South Africa.
Hammerschlag also has a film, Mega Hammerhead, appearing on National Geographic’s Shark Fest broadcast Sunday at 9 p.m.
“If you want to bring science to the public, you have to find the right balance for edutainment,” he said. “Many shark populations are in decline due to overfishing, and we want to show the importance of shark conservation and preserving our oceans to a large audience.”
Neil Hammerschlag stars Sunday at 8 p.m. in ‘Tiger Beach,’ in the Bahamas, and Tuesday at 10 p.m. in ‘Air Jaws: Night Stalker,’ off the coast of South Africa.
When Hammerschlag found himself eye to eye with a tiger shark in 2003 — and he was not in a shark cage — he called it a “thrilling, life-changing experience.”
He has never been bitten or attacked. He fears sea sickness more than the predators he studies. To him, swimming with sharks is just as dangerous as driving on I-95. It’s about perceived risk and being on high alert.
“I happen to love sharks and enjoy diving with such beautiful animals,” Hammerschlag said. “To me, sharks are cool. You’re either afraid of them or fascinated by them. They’re not mindless killers. They try to avoid people, don’t like to be bothered. They have great senses and can detect a human from a great distance and they don’t like humans so it’s hard to interact. For most people the only way to see a shark is during Shark Week.”
Hammerschlag has been researching the behavior of tiger sharks that congregate in a small, shallow area off Little Bahama Bay for six years. He’s tagged and tracked 40 sharks to follow their movement.
“Usually sharks are out in deep ocean but here at any given time you could have 10 swimming around you in 15 feet of water, and most are female,” he said. “There was a fear fishermen would trophy hunt them. We wanted to figure out why these giant sharks were in this special place, where do they mate, where do pregnant females gestate and where do they give birth?”
‘To me, sharks are cool. You’re either afraid of them or fascinated by them,’ says the native South African.
In Tiger Beach, Hammerschlag uses technology he developed — waterproof, high-definition ultrasound similar to that used by doctors and nurses to do sonograms on pregnant women — to determine the reproductive status of the sharks. It took skill and muscle to examine sharks that can be 14 feet long and weigh up to 1,400 pounds.
“It’s non-invasive,” he said. “Historically, to find out if a shark was pregnant, you had to cut it open.”
The second film, Air Jaws: Night Stalker, is narrated by Game of Thrones actress Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister. Hammerschlag joins shark photographer Chris Fallows and shark expert Jeff Kurr in their ongoing study of the hunting behavior of great white sharks in False Bay, south of Capetown, South Africa. In winter the sharks target a feast of 60,000 seals on Seal Island.
“They launch with such velocity that they shoot out of the water and do a somersault with a seal in their mouth,” he said.
They investigated the sharks’ habits at night in the pitch black using low-light cameras, sonar equipment and tracking devices.
“How do they optimize their hunting in the dark — with moonlight, sound, vibration? How do seals avoid sharks?” said Hammerschlag, a South Africa native.
Hammerschlag also has a film, ‘Mega Hammerhead,’ appearing on National Geographic’s Shark Fest broadcast Sunday at 9 p.m.
Back home, he’s working on his Urban Shark Project, tagging sharks with acoustic devices that send out a high frequency signal recorded at listening stations to track their movement close to shore in urban areas of Miami.
“We’re looking at the Miami River, South Beach, downtown, Brickell, and it’s surprising how often they come in but it’s usually when humans are not around,” he said. “It’s getting harder for sharks to avoid people because we are having a huge effect on the oceans through development, erosion, pollution and boat noise.”
Don’t be afraid, Hammerschlag said, because it’s not true that sharks are approaching humans more often.
“No, there are just more people out on the water, with GoPros and underwater cameras,” he said. “Sharks are elusive. We know little about them and yet they’re at the top of the food chain.”