On board with ITV and Britain's sharks

Where are the sharks?
That was the question repeatedly going through the mind of Dr Nick Higgs as he sat on board the vessel at the centre of one of the most innovative British marine research projects in recent memory.

With a nine-metre whale carcass in tow, and a television crew with two celebrity presenters on board, the only thing missing from ITV’s new documentary, Britain’s Sharks, was the guests of honour.

“It was a nervous time,” says Nick, a post-doctoral research fellow and Deputy Director of the Marine Institute, reflecting on the first two days of the shoot. “The whole time we were sitting there, the directors were saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll make something of this regardless.’ And that’s part of the attraction of science – you can’t guarantee results – but it’s not necessarily good for television.”

As anyone who watched the final documentary over the Easter holiday, Britain’s Sharks was ultimately a resounding success in capturing on film for the very first time how whales are ‘recycled’ by the marine ecosystem in our waters. But the story of how the programme came into being in the first place is of no less interest, particularly in the sphere of science communication.

Nick joined the University in January 2013, not long after completing a PhD at the University of Leeds and the Natural History Museum, and the opportunity to be part of the documentary came his way via his former supervisor in London.

“These types of programmes have been done in Japan, the US and Sweden, but not in British waters,” Nick says. “We’d spoken to several producers in the past who were interested in doing something similar, and so it was in 2014 that I received a call from Big Wave TV.”

Big Wave TV, which has a track record of filming nature documentaries, was offering to take care of all of the logistics, including the freezing of the animal, and had already developed links with whale stranding groups. They had also obtained agreement-in-principle from the ‘Receiver of Wrecks’ at the Natural History Museum, an historic position with authority vested in it to oversee the Crown’s interest in certain maritime affairs.

“Whales are classed as ‘Fishes Royal’, like sturgeon,” Nick says, “so technically they are owned by HM The Queen!”

With a filming window of summer 2014 identified to meet the schedules of Ben Fogle and Ellie Harrison, the wait began for a whale to wash up that was suitable for the experiment – neither too large nor too small, and sufficiently intact. But despite an average of seven whales being washed up every year, the rest of the year would yield nothing. It was not until July 2015, when a nine-metre humpback whale died after becoming entangled in fishing gear in Scottish waters, that the programme-makers were able to give the green light.

At the end of August, Nick boarded the research vessel at Yelland Quay, near Bideford, and the crew set off, towing the whale behind them. They got to Lundy the next day and were forced to stay there due to the bad weather. And it was at this moment that a very different story hit the media.

Nick recalls: “The newspapers started to report that we were baiting for great white sharks, and there were discussions around whether that was irresponsible. So Ben Fogle had to do satellite interviews with ITV breakfast shows, which in a way worked to our advantage because we were able to convey the message that this was a scientific study. And the reality at that time was that we were still in inshore waters and we were not seeing any scavengers at all!”

The following day, the team reached the Celtic Deeps, 35 miles off the coast of Cornwall, and that was when the blue sharks began to show up. In total, the team estimate that over the course of the next four days, 200 sharks consumed 15 per cent of the whale, ingesting some two million calories.

With a storm fast approaching, the crew had to sink the whale into the deeps, and it came to rest 86m down, with a camera for company. When Nick revisited the site six months later, he was amazed by what he found.

“The whale had been completely skeletonised,” he says. “After one month there was essentially a large hole in the side of the carcass, but five months later it was just bones – six tonnes of whale eaten.”

Nick is now studying the footage taken from the cameras, both of the sharks at the surface and the crabs that picked at the corpse below. An academic paper, written with fellow consultant on the documentary, Richard Pierce, of the Shark Trust, will follow.

“It deserves to be recorded that we were able to secure funding for a scientific project through television,” Nick adds. “An external company paid for it, undertook all of the logistical work, documented it, provided facilities, and were quite happy for us to do scientific testing as well.”

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Plymouth University’s Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK. We provide the external portal to our extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities, enabling us to understand the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions. We are integrating our multidisciplinary expertise in marine and maritime research, education and innovation to train new scientists, engineers, policy-makers, artists, technicians and business managers of the future. 

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