A new study puts the entertainment value of sharks in the billions of dollars; but the planet’s most known great whites have nearly vanished.
In 1996, wildlife photographer Chris Fallows bobbed over the waters of Cape Town’s False Bay in an inflatable boat hoping to capture a glimpse of a mind-boggling site—a 3,000-pound great white shark soaring through the air. Fallows, then in his early 20s, had scrapped and saved to purchase a camera capable of freezing the moment, an incredible phenomenon he had recently discovered but not yet been able to capture.
“We spent a considerable amount of time waiting, waiting and waiting,” says Fallows, “Eventually, when a shark did breach, I managed to actually capture it on film. In those days, it wasn’t digital, and when we finally saw the results it was truly amazing.”
The photograph—taken on a Canon camera selling for about $700 at the time—garnered print headlines around the globe and helped kickstart one of the most popular series of shark television shows to date, Discovery’s “Air Jaws.” In the process, the image helped establish Fallows as one of the world’s most well-known fine art wildlife photographers, earned him an Emmy nomination and helped Cape Town’s shark diving industry grow from a single operator in 1991 to more than a dozen by 2000.
Today, Fallows is one of those operators. Apex Shark Expeditions, a business he founded the same year he snapped the first photos of a flying great white, has provided shark dives in False Bay for nearly three decades. And Fallows is part of a concerned community of experienced dive operators that are advocating for greater protections of South Africa’s sharks.
Globally, great whites are listed as vulnerable by IUCN. But 26 years after the first still images of flying white sharks captured the world’s imagination, the sharks Fallows grew to know over two decades of False Bay filmmaking have all but disappeared. Faced with pressure applied largely from humans, Fallows says the white sharks of South Africa are in dire straights.
Sightings in Gansbaai, the former great white capital of the world, have faded into memory alongside their relatives in False Bay. In Mossel Bay, the country’s last remaining stronghold for great whites, the population is in decline. And the annual $59 million local shark diving industry that sprouted up largely thanks to the presence of great whites is being forced to adapt.
“White shark sightings are few and far between,” adds Fallows. “Nowadays, the dive operators work with other species of sharks that are coming into areas where the great whites used to be the dominant animal. The dive industry has started focusing on other species like bronze whaler sharks, mako, blue and seven gill sharks. So, tourists coming to South Africa can still have an amazing shark experience, but sadly, it’s not with the great whites on a regular basis.”
In 2016, the breeding great white population of South Africa was estimated at between 333 and 500 individuals, a figure that falls shy of a healthy, sustainable population. Currently, there is a real likelihood that the Fallows was documenting the last days of the flying apex predators of South Africa.
Fallows says the decline is due to a combination of factors. Commercial shark fishing is drastically reducing the number of prey species available to great whites, which feed on smaller sharks for a significant portion of their lifespan. One of those prey species, the soupfin shark, is now listed as critically endangered in part because longlines are harvesting the sharks for export to Australia, where they become fish and chips.
The small size of the South African great white population also lends itself to being less resilient to human pressure. Fishing nets kill between 11 and 60 great whites in South Africa each year. Meanwhile, an influx of orcas—and two individuals in particular—has also been blamed for the demise of great whites, though data shows the population declining prior to their arrival.
How Much Are Sharks on Film Worth?
Humanity’s fascination with sharks didn’t begin with the release of “Jaws” in 1975. The earliest documented artwork of sharks dates back to 800 BCE, to Mediterranean depictions from Pompeii and Persia. But according to archeologists, sharks have occupied a place in human conscience since at least the late Stone Age.
Today, modern humans are inundated with shark mythology year-round, from Steven Spielberg’s box office classic to modern hits like “Sharknado”, sharks occupy a permanent place in the public zeitgeist. But it’s in July when sharks hit the public conscience most heavily, on the heels of National Geographic and Discovery, whose combined “Shark Fest” and “Shark Week” programming serves up nearly 126 hours of streamable, shareable shark content like “Air Jaws” and “Sky Sharks.”
“People love sharks, even if they love to be afraid of sharks,” says Shark Week host Kinga Philipps, whose “Tiger Queen” and “Sharks in Paradise” programs spotlight tiger shark populations in the Turks & Caicos and Tahiti this year. “I myself came into sharks because of ‘Jaws.’ For a long time, I think that movie was viewed in a negative way by those of us in the conservation space, but we have turned the narrative around. Discovery and National Geographic both do a good job of walking that line between having really dynamic, high-impact shows, celebrity-laden shows and really educational shows.”
California-based non-profit Shark Allies recently released a series of financial reports—in partnership with Endangered Wildlife OÜ—that reveal significant economic figures connected to sharks on screen. According to the reports, “Shark Week” brings in $60 million annually for Discovery.
National Geographic has refused to disclose their numbers to the non-profit. However, television figures likely pale in comparison to the financial impact of box office draws that have brought in billions from sharks.
Going back to the era of silent films, sharks have played a central role as one of Hollywood’s go-to bogeymen.
Significant Global Box Office Earnings of Shark Films
- “The Meg” (2018) — $530,200,000
- “Jaws” (1975) – $470,700,000
- “Shark Tale” (2005) – $374,600,000
- “Jaws 2” (1978) – $208,900,000
- “Deep Blue Sea” (1999) – $165,000,000
- “Sharknado” (2013) – $100,000,000
- “Tiger Shark” (1932) – $879,000
Shark advocates say that influx of income is disproportionate to the level of protection shark species are being given around the globe. In 2021, the six films of the “Sharknado” series were estimated to surpass $4.5 billion in total revenue.
Stateside, a July 9 recreational shark fishing tournament near Jupiter, Florida has drawn criticism from activists and garnered more than 175,000 anti-shark fishing signatures on change.org. The single-day tournament resulted in the deaths of at least 11 sharks and was sanctioned by both Florida Fish & Wildlife and NOAA. The deaths were independently confirmed by shark activists, as neither organization requires anglers to report shark catches.
“We have to start seeing the true value of sharks alive versus only seeing the value of sharks as a collection of pieces that can be slaughtered, butchered and sold off,” says Shark Allies founder and executive director Stefanie Brendl, who adds that the dollar figure of living sharks can be calculated and should be brought into fishery management decisions.
The great whites in False Bay, for example, have been valued at more than $550,000 in tourism and entertainment dollars per individual. It’s estimated that the value of a healthy population in the Western Cape would exceed $240 million over a 30-year period. “These economic numbers matter,” Brendl adds. “There is massive value in sharks that is just as important as fisheries numbers.”
Brendl hopes her organization’s figures will encourage the entertainment industry to invest in the protection of one of its most valuable animal stars. In some areas, like Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, great white individuals carry a lifetime value of more than $1 million.
Back in South Africa, Fallows is using the images he began to capture in 1996 to raise money for conservation efforts by selling fine art prints of the animals he watched soar and vanish during three decades career at sea. “As crazy as it sounds, you build relationships with them,” he says. “You get to understand them as individuals and see that they have unique personalities. When you realize they are never coming back, it is deeply saddening.”
Fallows believes government sanctioned shark fisheries and shark nets have left South Africa’s most iconic shark susceptible to catastrophe. He says he is skeptical that populations will rebound if protections are not put in place. “They have essentially cut off the golden goose’s head, one that could have sustained the ecotourism industry and costal communities here in perpetuity, let alone the unknown consequences of removing the ocean’s most famous predator.”