Understanding the misunderstood great white shark

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The great white shark is an apex predator, living at the top of the ocean’s food chain and facing threats from few other species except killer whales — and us. That’s the message behind “Great White Shark,” an IMAX documentary that explores what humankind has learned — and has yet to learn — about this feared and misunderstood giant.

"Great White Shark“ opened Friday at Carnegie Science Center's Rangos Omnimax Theater. The film was made in 3-D and 2-D versions: Audiences here will see the 2-D domed Omnimax version. 

It was written, directed and produced by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, and they also composed the score. They are the co-creators of the dance/percussion performance act STOMP and directed the documentaries ”The Last Reef“ and ”Wild Ocean.“

The film aims to change attitudes toward great whites and other sharks and challenges their bad reputation. Rather than fearing the popular image of the killing machine portrayed in ”Jaws,“ the film’s creators encourage people to learn to respect sharks instead. As the narration points out, it’s more dangerous to drive to the beach because people run more risks of being hurt in an accident than being attacked by a shark. 

The great whites are the epitome of evolutionary design. Their vision and hearing are excellent. They can detect vibrations in the water and electricity generated by other living things. They predated and outlasted the dinosaurs. But now their numbers are dwindling. Millions are killed every year to appease the human appetite for shark fin soup, and they live in an ecosystem threatened by industrial pollution and pesticides. 

Shark experts, researchers and divers share their insights after years of observing and studying great white sharks in their natural habitats. Replacing fear with understanding has enabled them to study the sharks up close. They talk about their intelligence and how important it is to maintain constant eye contact with them while diving because they won’t attack as long as the diver is watching them. 

The film took three years to make. The crew traveled to several locations where great whites are found, including the California coast, Mexico, New Zealand and South Africa. 

The large format IMAX really delivers in the underwater sequences, drawing viewers into a vibrant world teeming with life and creating the feeling that they’re swimming with the sharks and gazing at them face to face.

Among the highlights is a sequence where they stage a breaching -- a shark leaping out of the water to grab its prey: In this case it was a decoy made to look like a seal. 

In another, free divers without the protection of a shark cage are swimming close to a shark, skillfully using eye contact and body language to create a non-threatening situation. The resulting underwater ballet and game of wills is fascinating to watch and shows that both sides are studying each other. 

In the end, the viewer comes away with a solid sense that these are intelligent and complex creatures, not mindless killers, and that it’s the sharks that are in real danger unless more steps are taken to conserve them. 

To learn more about the film and about shark conservation: greatwhitesharkfilm.com

Adrian McCoy: amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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