Did you know there are great white sharks in Canadian waters?
If you said no, you’re not alone.
These fearsome predators with a bad reputation are often associated with more tropical waters. Over the last few years, however, shark sightings in the Maritimes have risen, driving news reports and social media posts, stoking fear in some and excitement in others.
In Jawsome: Canada’s Great White Sharks, a documentary from The Nature of Things, a team of East Coast shark nerds went on a quest to find them, film them and learn as much as they could about these elusive and often misunderstood predators.
Great white sharks are considered a vulnerable species around the world, but in Canada, they’re actually endangered. As a population, they’re extremely difficult to study and monitor because they are mostly solitary and can migrate thousands of kilometres.
The white sharks that visit our East Coast are members of a population that live in the waters that stretch from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to Newfoundland. They visit Canadian waters during the summer and early fall.
And there’s a good reason why they’re making the seasonal trip north — food, and lots of it. Atlantic Canada has a thriving grey seal population and is home to the biggest colonies in the world.
When they’re young, white sharks start off eating fish and other small sharks, but once they reach adulthood, they’re after larger meals. Sea turtles, sea lions and even dolphins are all on the menu, but in the Maritimes, they’re hunting seals. As apex predators, the white sharks help to maintain balance in the ecosystem.
They can grow up to six metres in length and weigh as much as 1,800 kilograms.
With the large seal population, white sharks have clued in that there’s abundant food here, and more are making the trip to the Atlantic buffet.
Alanna Canaran, a passionate ocean educator and scuba diving instructor, is on a mission to find out everything she can about white sharks in Nova Scotia, helping to fight the misconception that sharks are scary and dangerous. She wants to make sure her diving students are well-informed and want to keep going into the ocean.
Canaran often heads out on the water with Art Gaetan, a citizen scientist who’s been working with sharks for over 25 years. Together, they film white sharks using underwater cameras and bait lines to better understand how many sharks are swimming around and to identify individuals. By recording unique markings on their dorsal fins and bodies, Gaetan is creating the first ever catalogue of white sharks found on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.
Through Gaetan’s library of amazing footage, he’s learned that sharks are very cautious — and kind of sneaky. They’re certainly not the mindless eating machines they’re often made out to be.
For Jawsome, the documentary crew wanted to get an even more intimate look at the sharks’ lives, and hopefully some better images for Gaetan’s catalogue, so they teamed up with wildlife filmmaker Nick Hawkins.
But it turns out that finding sharks and filming them underwater is not easy. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of waiting.
For more than 30 days, Hawkins and Gaetan headed out with the film crew to find sharks. But in all that time, they only managed to film sharks on a single day!
While many people think white sharks are a recent visitor to the Maritimes due to warmer waters brought on by climate change, Canaran dug into the past with archaeologist Matthew Betts from the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. He showed her white shark teeth that were uncovered in middens — ancient trash heaps and mounds of shells and artifacts — dating back at least 4,000 years.
It’s proof that there was a relationship between people and white sharks on the East Coast well before colonizers arrived, and current-day Mi’kmaq still maintain traditional knowledge of how they coexisted with the sharks.
Melissa and Todd Labrador, Mi’kmaw canoe builders from Kespukwitk (southwest Nova Scotia), show Canaran how spruce roots and eelgrass were tied to birchbark canoes to deter sharks when out fishing and harvesting in the open ocean.
After weeks of effort and bad weather (including a hurricane!), Gaetan and Hawkins finally managed to get the images of white sharks they’d been hoping for.
Hawkins filmed a large female underwater, which is a great sign for Nova Scotia. Females are larger than males and can live up to 70 years. It means that the Maritimes ecosystem is healthy and diverse enough to properly support large predators like this incredible female white shark.
There aren’t a lot of places left in the world where you can see great white sharks, but in Eastern Canada, they’re hopefully here to stay. Their presence provides an incredible opportunity to learn more about these epic yet enigmatic animals, and to learn how to live with them in our waters to ensure they thrive in their Canadian home.