Shark Week: 'Great White North' explores possible great white shark hot spot in Nova Scotia

"The buffet's open up here," white shark researcher Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark said

Discovery's Shark Week features a captivating, shocking and breathtaking Canadian story with the documentary Great White North (premiering during Discovery Canada, Discovery US Shark Week on July 10 at 8:00 p.m.ET). The film, written and directed by P.J. Naworynski, featuring white shark researcher Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark, takes us to Lunenburg, N.S., where a local family of fishermen embark on a thrilling expedition to help determine how many great white sharks are in their local waters.

"We blew Discovery Channel away," Naworynski told Yahoo Canada. "When we started this there was a whole thing about, 'Really? Are there sharks there? Is it fleeting? Are you going to get anything?'"

While great white sharks are very known to be present in areas like South Africa, Australia, Mexico and California, great white sharks on the South Shore of Nova Scotia were unexpected.

Filmed over four years, using a variety of cameras, sonar imaging technology and drone images, the film is a glimpse into just how many great white sharks are in Atlantic Canada.

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As Harvey-Clark says in the film, the number of seals makes Nova Scotia "perfect ambush predator country."

"The system's changing, we know we have a lot more seals than we have had really historically in a long time, 10 times the population they have in the U.S., and that's probably a strong driver for bringing sharks north of the border. The buffet's open up here," Harvey-Clark explained to Yahoo Canada.

"The other thing we have is shark conservation, now for 25 years, which is roughly the doubling time for white sharks. They're very long lived, they don't start to breed until they're in their 20s and it takes a long time for a mama shark to make a new baby shark. She has to grow up for 25 years. ... They don't make a lot of them. A good litter's probably four or five. ... So the whole thing is an intriguing story."

Great White North (Tell Tale Media Inc.)
Great White North (Tell Tale Media Inc.)

As the film documents big sharks found during this expedition, it's a combination of fascination and heart-pumping shock to see such large sharks so close to the individuals on a comparatively tiny boat.

"This day was literally our last day, and up until that point I knew we had a great film, because we had got all this other stuff," Naworynski said. "We tried this last thing because we've seen little sharks, which is mind blowing, ... and we still hadn't seen a big one, a really big, mature breeding sized male or female."

But as stories have popped up throughout the years about concerns related to shark attacks, it really shows this cycle of public opinion on this marine species, including fear from the film Jaws to more affection from movies like Finding Nemo.

"We've kind of come full circle now with the realization, I think, that sharks are formidable oceanic predators, but we're far more formidable oceanic predators, as we extract 100 million of them every year," Harvey-Clark said.

"The other thing that's going on is humans are using the ocean much, much more recreationally than they ever did before, ... and we all have iPhones and we all have social networking, so every time a shark is seen it's on 50 people's feed, and suddenly it's got a million hits. So I think we also have to see that the amplitude of what's going on has increased a lot, in terms of noticing sharks being around."

In terms of particular concerns about the water being safe with great white sharks present, for Atlantic Canada specifically Harvey-Clark stressed that people in the area aren't used to having this species in their waters, but it's all about knowing how to mitigate any risks.

"People ask me, 'Is it safe to go in the water?' And I say, 'Is it safe to drive to work?' Same difference," he said.

"Frankly, these animals don't target us. They're looking for a different prey source, ... and so are bears in the woods. If they made their living eating us, there wouldn't be many people left because these things are very capable predators. But they also have a brain the size the end of your pinky, so you really cannot expect really good decision making from an animal like that. So you avoid giving them the cues, the dusk and dawn swimming, the looking like the seal, the swimming near a seal. All those sorts of things will help to keep you safer in the water for sure. But I would not stay out of the ocean on account of sharks. They were always here."

This undated photo provided by Atlantic White Shark Conservancy shows Great White Shark Turbo. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the organization that tracks the white shark population in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass., identified 55 new individual sharks during its most recent research season, but experts say that's no reason for the tourists who flock to the vacation haven every summer to be afraid of going in the water.(Atlantic White Shark Conservancy via AP)

A 'good news' story for our oceans

In terms of the impact the presence of great white sharks will have for Canada's oceans, Naworynski highlighted that it's "good news."

"This is a great thing for the ocean, that we can hopefully have the apex predator do what they need to do there, instead of us almost wiping them out," he said.

Harvey-Clark added that it's going to make a "dramatic difference."

"We don't really have a good handle on the seal populations on the East Coast, the numbers go up and down every year," he explained. "I remember something like, OK this year's estimate is 385,000 greys and they produce 85,000 pup, and then we'd get a parliamentary report that says no it's actually [340,000], and then the year before that it's [420,000]. So it's all over the place."

"It's hard to count fish in the ocean, it's hard to count seals in the ocean, but we know we've got a whole lot of them. That part, I think, is a big part of the equation. We just have an awful lot of available prey. The other thing we see a lot of is, a lot of these little 10-foot juvenile sharks, they're just learning to be mammal hunters at that stage. ... So we see a lot of mistakes, we see a lot of seals that have had a piece taken out, but they're still alive. And some of them make it after being injured. And we see a lot of fearful behaviour from seals in coastal areas here. ... So watching seal behaviour here has been really instructive on where we might encounter sharks."

While the film shows some sharks that have been tagged, their presence has been documented elsewhere, in terms of the continued research on this marine species the intent is to be as non-invasive as possible.

"That's not to denigrate people who catch them and tag, ... but we're really trying to make this as non-negative for the animals as we can," Harvey-Clark stressed. "So we really do everything using imaging, we use drone imaging, we use remote cameras in the water, we've tagged a single animal I think in the last four years."

"So the tagging we'd like to do, but it's not the top priority. What we really want is photo identification. And it turns out whites have about five zones on the body you can identify that are like fingerprints. For instance, they have a very unique marking on their little pelvic fin that's like a black and white marking on a Holstein cow, each one is quite unique and different. And we're using a lot of remote cameras so we can't totally control the shot, ... so we're getting little pieces here and there, and then mosaicking those together to get an ID on each animal."

Great White North (Tell Tale Media Inc.)
Great White North (Tell Tale Media Inc.)

While documentaries like Great White North and Discovery's Shark Week continue to attract audiences for being incredibly entertaining, Naworynski stressed that it's really the education component that's particularly important to him as a documentary filmmaker.

"This is something that matters, not just to me personally, but it matters to my kids, and hopefully my kids kids," Naworynski said. "The oceans are integral to our success and we've got to treat them with respect, and we've got to treat the animals that are in there with respect, but we also have to enjoy it, because it is a beautiful part of being human and living where we are lucky enough to live."

"So if an audience is interested in learning more about what's happening in the oceans off the East Coast of Canada right now, I'll be all for helping to document that and get the message and the story out, and do it in a way that isn't too sensational. This isn't a movie. This isn't scripted reality. This is a documentary. These are all real people. The sharks are real. The interactions are real. We don't manufacture anything."

Harvey-Clark added that he "couldn't be prouder" of the team for all their work, something that hasn't really been done before in Canada.

"None of this really started to happen till after about 2018, he said. "We were able to rise to the occasion and produce something I think really unique and important, educational and also entertaining."

"So we have high hopes that this is just the start."