This July 2021 saw a real Turks & Caicos first, (two of them actually), land on a Discovery Channel show normally dominated by our northern island neighbours. This year the Turks & Caicos Islands together with our Big Blue team were selected to provide the backdrop and help host two of this year’s legendary Shark Week episodes –
While Covid and its related worldwide travel constraints certainly played a part in decision making, what undoubtedly pushed the California based production team, led by Ping Pong Production co founder Casey Brummels, to these shores, was as much to do with our shark related research in collaboration with Beneath the Waves as well TCI’s undoubted untapped potential for new stories underpinned by a healthy shark population.
Shark Week Research
After two weeks of pre-production groundwork, investigation and interviews with Big Blue’s Philip Shearer and Mark Parish to make sure logistics and expectations could be met, the Ping Pong crew packed their cameras and bags and headed down to the islands in mid-March ready to capture and film both episodes back-to-back while under severe island wide Covid restrictions, regulations and ultimately all manner of limitations. With support from the DECR filming was then allowed to go ahead.
Filming from Big Blue’s Very Own Live & Direct
The legend that is Live & Direct became the ideal platform from which to dive and film, while Philip took on the role of expedition leader ably supported by many of the Big Blue captains and crew alongside local resident, shark, and dive expert Judy Dirx. Our collective excitement and anticipation were high, while both teams were also a touch nervous during the build-up due to so many unknowns. Filming somewhere for the first time comes with its own unique challenges, while hosting shows as renowned as Shark Week, meant that the Big Blue team had to deliver. The pressure was on.
Week one, day one saw the arrival of the well-known personality and skin specialist, Dr Pimple Popper, aka Dr Sandra Lee. Proceedings kicked off with host and shark scientist, Dr Austin Gallagher (Beneath the Waves) explaining and preparing the affable and bubbly Sandra on how to dive with and then tag sharks. In doing so they spent the week exploring the world of shark skin and how the science they gather could help human skin issues.
Long days on the boat, many hours under water and numerous sharks tagged, filmed across the Caicos Banks, offered Dr Sandra and Dr Austin a chance to share their own unique insight into the differences and similarities between shark and human skin and their capacity to heal if the right conditions allow.
Week Two – Filming Shark Week
Week two started as soon as Dr Sandra Lee left, with the emphasis shifting from Reef and Nurse Sharks to the larger and more notorious Tiger Sharks. Once again scientific host Dr Austin Gallagher shared his knowledge with explorer, shark enthusiast and first female host of Shark Week, Kinga Philipps to find the ever-elusive male Tigers of the TCI.
However, finding Tigers to film would prove to be much, much harder than we anticipated and expected.
Two Boats – Pressure On
The first two days however, proved to be very tough as stress and tensions with the pressure to deliver began to rise for all of us. With only a week to film all the scenes every day mattered. Losing two off the bat was certainly less than ideal even with the knowledge that we were dealing with rare wild ocean predators. Philip and Casey decided a change of tack was needed resulting in splitting the team up into two boats.
The first was then dedicated to finding the Tigers while the second was ready to film the action with the hosts once the scene was set. That meant super early starts for Philip, Judy and Capt. Colin as they set out at dawn to set numerous BRUVs (Baited remote underwater video systems) in order to lure the animals. With tides, currents and winds all affecting the in-water scent, the first Tiger, a huge female showed up about 5 hours later just as the film crew arrived.
What then followed over the next few hours in water no more than 10-12’ deep was nothing short of spectacular. Judy joined Kinga and Austin in front of the camera, above and below the water as this curious female stayed around the boat and camera crew. Just when we thought we’d seen it all another Tiger showed up. This one was smaller, 8’-9’ and the team decided that this one would be ideal to acoustically tag and take DNA samples from. Under the expert guidance of Dr Gallagher, the shark was hooked and brought along the stern of the vessel allowing the science team to take samples and then place the first ever acoustic transceiver in a Turks & Caicos Tiger Shark before she was set free. Absolutely amazing.
While this was undoubtedly the highlight, the next three days also produced more Tigers as well as a stunningly large Great Hammerhead. It left us all in no doubt that these islands are a hot spot for Tigers, much like the Bahamas to the north.
The questions we want to know now, is where to the larger adults go? Where are the males? And can we with enough science-based information and strong content make a case to protect all sharks from fishing?
For as we know, healthy oceans need sharks. Let’s see what 2022 brings.
With both episodes also available on Discovery Plus.