According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an apex predator is “a predator at the top of a food chain that is not preyed upon by any other animal”. For decades, the great white shark has been considered the most fearsome apex predator of the oceans. In actuality, great white sharks come in second after orca whales, their only known natural enemy. Since orcas hunt in groups and are the only marine species that will attack and kill a great white, they are the true apex predators of the ocean. However, because of their drastic differences in appearances and travel behaviors, great whites are far more feared. Orcas have rounded, gentle looking faces and tend to hunt far from shores. Sharks have pointy, menacing looking faces and enjoy spending time in shallower water near the shore, often bringing them in close contact with people.
Shark sightings have increased in coastal waters lately, much to the delight of marine biologists. Great whites are no longer endangered but still considered vulnerable. Great white females can take up to 30 years before being able to reproduce, males needing upwards of 25 years. This combined with over fishing saw great white populations greatly decline. But now that conservation measures are in place, great white numbers have grown. On the California coast, shark season runs roughly from May to October. Professor of Marine Biology, and Director of the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach, Christopher Lowe explains that the sharks gather in the nearshore areas of California to have babies and gather strength before heading to the warmer waters along the coast of Mexico.
Carlos Gauna, a professional drone pilot and photographer from Southern California, has been turning heads with the drone footage he captures of great white sharks in the Malibu area. His footage proves that there are far more sharks in the waters than previously believed, it just wasn’t until drones came along that we were able to see just how prevalent the sharks are. In the videos Carlos posts on his YouTube channel, The Malibu Artist, you can see giant great white sharks languidly swimming dangerously close to surfers, paddleboarders, and even swimmers. In one video, Carlos even captures sharks feeding on the carcass of a dolphin.
It is nerve-racking to see just how close the sharks come to the unsuspecting people in the water. “These types of encounters have always been happening,” Carlos said. “Which shows you really just how low the number of attacks are.” Even though sharks are apex predators who come in close contact with people, unprovoked shark attacks are very rare. With drone footage, shark behaviors can be studied in new ways. “Drones have become such a valuable tool for us scientists now,” said Professor Lowe. “It gives us that bird’s-eye view that we didn’t have before.” Carlos makes it very clear that he is not a scientist, but someone who wants to share the natural world around him for people to better understand it.
Even though Carlos is far from a scientist, he is very aware of how beneficial the footage he gets with his drones is to researchers. Besides wanting to study shark life cycles, researchers have been very curious as to how sharks perceive humans. Carlos’s natural reaction when he sees a possible shark/human encounter starts in awe of the natural beauty of it, but quickly turns to worry. You just never know if the shark is going to attack or not. Luckily, every encounter Carlos has filmed with his drones has been one of simple curiosity, ending with the shark moving on.
Carlos goes back and forth between two drones when filming. He toggles between DJI’s Phantom 4 and Mavic 2Pro. He explains that he finds the Mavic takes better still photographs, but the Phantom’s flight ability is best when capturing cinematic images. Carlos began using his drones to capture wedding photographs and videos. But all of that was put on hold because of COVID-19, so he started focusing on wildlife purely out of a way to fill the boredom of lockdown. Now he is completely devoted to using his drones to film wildlife. Amazingly, he has come to recognize certain sharks and whales that he sees through the camera of his drone because of distinctive markings. With his drone soaring over the ocean, Carlos said, “I learn something new about these animals just about every day I see them.” That is one of the greatest things about drones. Drones help us better understand these apex predators, realizing just how amazing they can be.