The documentary follows Marquez and a team of other researchers as they tag and track great white sharks in the unusual environment of Guadalupe Island, 240km off the coast of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula, where the sharks hunt enormous elephant seals as well as a variety of other prey.
“We were trying to figure out how great white sharks hunt in Guadalupe, specifically because it is an area where the water is very clear and so the ambush predation that great white sharks are known to do is made harder because their prey can actually see them coming,” Marquez explains.
“We thought that most of their kills would be in what we call the ‘kill zone’, in the dark depths around Guadalupe, and we found that it’s not the case.”
Telemetry data and video footage from the high-tech tracking tags revealed that individual sharks take very different approaches to hunting in the waters around Guadalupe.
“It’s very similar to how you and I are both humans but we have different tastes and make different meals,” Marquez says.
“Great white sharks are very individualistic in what they eat and how they hunt. While some of them still are probably doing the ambush attack, their success rate isn’t the best.”
Marquez, who has spent years studying sharks around the world and is currently working on a shark-related PhD project at Curtin University, says she still feels “pure excitement” every time she sees a shark.
“I never get tired of being in the water with them and seeing these massive top predators glide effortlessly through the water,” she says. “It’s those kind of moments where I just sit back, whether I’m in a cage or I’m scuba diving, and think ‘If people could see them in their habitat like this it would really change the perception they have of sharks.’
“They’re not these mindless, man-eating monsters, they’re actually very intelligent, very important animals.”
Marquez has founded The Fins United Initiative (www.finsunited.co.nz) to help dispel myths about sharks and spread awareness of the important roles they play in ocean ecosystems and the huge threats they face.
“It is an uphill battle for them. They don’t have the best PR,” she says. “But I do think that Shark Week and other documentaries are starting to open people’s eyes to (the fact that) if we want a healthy ocean we do need sharks.”
While shark attacks make headlines in Australia every year, Marquez says that the magnifying effect of media reports and social media discussion can make attacks seem much more common than they really are. Besides, she points out, sharks aren’t actually hunting us.
“They have a little nibble to figure out whether you’re food or not, and once they figure out you’re not food they release you,” she says.
“The problem is that their teeth are designed to cut through blubber, through muscle, through bone, through (turtle) shell. So think about how much we bleed after a paper cut or a rug burn, and a ‘little nibble’ from a shark can prove to be fatal for us. But we’re not on their menu. Not at all.”
While Marquez sees numerous shark species facing existential threats from overfishing, bycatch and environmental degradation, she hopes that Shark Week documentaries can play a part in inspiring people to help.
“Look at these shows. Realise the beauty that we have under the waves in the form of these amazing animals, and then care enough to do something about it.”
WHAT Great White Kill Zone: Guadalupe
WHEN Discovery Channel, Monday, December 9, 9.25pm. Shark Week airs on Discovery from Thursday, December 5.