The Colossus, the holy grail of sharks

The shark Colossus bursting out of the water. (Photos: Chris Fallows/Discovery Channel)

Cue the ominous "Jaws" music: the annual August marathon known as Shark Week returns to Discovery Channel with more new specials than ever before about the fearsome denizens of the deep. Shark expert and filmmaker Jeff Kurr has two new programs in the mix: "Air Jaws: Fin of Fury," about the quest to find a massive great white dubbed Colossus, premiering Aug. 10 at 8 p.m., and "Lair of the Mega Shark," exploring the waters off New Zealand that are home to giant great whites, which airs on Aug. 12 at 10 p.m.

He talked to MNN about what viewers can expect from both shows.

MNN: Is Colossus the holy grail of sharks?

Jeff Kurr: For me, it doesn't get any better than Colossus, a fully mature male great white shark at the peak of hunting prowess. Few things in nature are as awe-inspiring.

How did your obsession with him begin?

My obsession began in 2011 when Colossus flew over the top of me as I was riding on the Seal Sled. I guess looking up and seeing the bright white belly of a 3,000-pound shark flying through the air gets your attention. We'd seen Colossus hanging around Seal Island in False Bay for several weeks, killing seals, munching our cameras … dare I say, following us around. So, when I was being towed behind our boat on a tiny metal craft (Seal Sled), I had an inkling that Colossus might be interested. After 90 minutes of bobbing up and down in the "Ring of Death," where sharks do most of their breaching on seals, my new friend Colossus came bursting out of the water, one shark-length in front of me. Had he landed on me or attacked the Seal Sled, it would have been bad.

Why have you been so intent on finding him?

Many of the sharks at Seal Island are regulars. They come back at the same time every year to engage in hunting activities. My colleague Chris Fallows and his wife, Monique, even give the sharks names. When Chris and Monique told me that Colossus did not return to Seal Island the following season, it got me wondering what may have happened. Why would this dominant shark leave behind a banquet at Seal Island?

You spent two years looking for him. Did it get frustrating, or did that make you want to find him even more?

Our mission was simply to re-sight this animal. But finding a single shark, in a region populated by about 1,000 white sharks isn't easy. And, we didn't have the luxury of Colossus wearing a satellite tag that would allow us to track him. We had to rely on existing data of white shark migrations and our hunches, and a single clue that Colossus had left us: a deformed dorsal fin. Colossus has a dorsal like no other shark, so we knew if we spotted that dorsal, even for a second, we could positively ID this fish.

What’s fascinating about this journey to find him? Is he the biggest out there? Or is there a mega-Colossus you want to find next?

Our journey took us to some amazing white shark hotspots around the world. We encountered some massive sharks, probably bigger than Colossus. But estimating a shark's size is really guesswork on our parts. No one knows exactly how big Colossus is, but I've put him at around 14 to 15 feet and 3,000 pounds… He just seems really, really big when he's flying over the top of you.

Talk about your expedition for 'Lair of the Mega Shark.' What’s exciting about it?

Last year when I was in New Zealand shooting "Great White Serial Killer," we filmed the biggest great white sharks I'd ever seen. And then, when I spoke to the locals they kept telling me stories about these huge white sharks that were patrolling these waters. There are even references to massive sharks in Maori lore. So, the purpose of our expedition was to investigate these rumors and legends of a giant great white.

What was the most interesting thing you learned? What do we know about shark behavior that we didn’t until now? What new evidence is out there?

We discovered a population of white sharks that are predominantly male — a shark "man cave," if you will. These sharks are really, really big. And perhaps most interesting, they seem to be in hunting mode after the sun sets. To find this out, we had to dive to the bottom of the ocean in the middle of the night. It was a memorable scene to say the least.

Were there scary moments during the filming of either show?

For "Air Jaws: Fin of Fury," we designed WASP (Water Armor Shark Protection) as a one-man, mobile cage that could keep a diver safe while exploring the bottom of the ocean. Chris Fallows, my long-time colleague from South Africa, volunteered to be the first pilot of WASP, basically interacting with the massive white sharks of New Zealand on the sea floor. It was scary, simply because we weren't sure how the sharks would react to this "alien" craft in their world. What ended up happening was unbelievable.

Shark expert Jeff Kurr stands nex to the WASP, a one-man mobile diving cage

Shark expert Jeff Kurr stands next to the WASP (Water Armor Shark Protection), a specially-designed mobile cage for exploring the sea floor.

Do you think peoples' attitudes toward sharks have changed for the better? Does Shark Week play a part in that? Or does it play into our primal fears and perpetuate them?

Before Shark Week most people, if they thought about sharks at all, believed "the only good shark is a dead shark." "Jaws" was the only frame of reference for a generation of folks who grew up scared to death of these animals — including me. What Shark Week has done in 27 years is make sharks the most popular wild animals on the planet. Yes, humans will always have some fear of these predators. It's such a deep-rooted fear that I don't think it can easily be changed. But, scared or not, people love sharks like never before. And if you love something or if you're at least fascinated by something, you probably care about its well-being and future survival. Shark Week can take credit for making the world think about sharks, talk about sharks and be aware of sharks … and that can only help their plight.

Has the commercial shark fishing/finning situation improved at all due to increased awareness? What’s the situation there?

It's not easy to monitor commercial shark fishing when most of it is done in remote locations and probably in a lot of cases, illegally. I've heard estimates of 70-100 million sharks being slaughtered per year. But, I do believe, thanks to increased awareness, the tide is turning somewhat with respect to commercial shark fishing. Several states have now banned the possession of shark fins for shark fin soup. White sharks are protected in many places and hammerheads recently received protected status. There's still a lot of work to do, but the hard work of scientists, advocates and fisheries management folks is going a long way toward saving these valuable creatures.

Have you seen any of the other Shark Week specials? Which ones are you most excited about and why?

I've haven't seen all of the shows, but I think this year's Shark Week has a good balance of science, adventure, eye candy and all things sharky … Something for every shark fan!

A shark

Will you appear on the talk show 'Shark After Dark'?

Absolutely! Sunday night I reckon!

What's the takeaway for viewers from your two specials and Shark Week in general?

I don't think it's my job to preach to people about saving sharks; there are lots of shark advocates working hard out there. So, for me the important thing is that the public appreciates the majesty and beauty of these creatures. It's been such a great pleasure for me to bring back some pretty amazing footage and shark stories for the past 24 years.

Are you planning your expeditions for Shark Week? What can you tell us?

I really do live every week like it's Shark Week! We're always either planning, shooting or editing footage. 2015 is looking like another year of incredible adventures!

Where's Colossus? Shark Week filmmaker follows the Big One
Cue the ominous "Jaws" music: the annual August marathon known for the past 27 years as Shark Week returns to Discovery Channel.