Film Research

Big Fish, Little Person

This week two television documentaries I worked on premiered in the United States as part of Discovery Channel’s high-profile ‘Shark Week’.  My job on these shows was to track down and get permission to use any video footage or photographs that we wanted to include.  I don’t blog about my day (and sometimes night) job often but while working on one of these projects I came across an image that was too good not to share.

I was digging through several archives for old photos of fishermen posing with ‘monster’ sharks when I came across a fantastic photograph taken here in New Zealand.  It didn’t make the final show but the kind folks at Allied Press have given me permission to share it with you.

It shows what looks to be a little person posing next to the jaws of a shark to exaggerate its size.

Otago Witness, 23rd March 1904 Courtesy of Allied Press

Otago Witness, 23rd March 1904
Courtesy of Allied Press

In the same way that early twentieth century safari hunters used to pose for a photograph next to a tiger or elephant that they had slain, it was also common for fishermen to proudly show off the size of the ‘monster’ shark that they had caught.  New Zealand waters are home to many species of shark including the infamous great white – so photos like this are reasonably common.

Here is a similar photograph of fishermen posing with an 18 foot shark caught at Port Chalmers.

Shark caught at Port Chalmers. De Maus, David Alexander, 1847-1925 :Shipping negatives. Ref: 10x8-1669-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22580928

Shark caught at Port Chalmers. De Maus, David Alexander, 1847-1925 :Shipping negatives. Ref: 10×8-1669-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22580928

Note:  This photo was also circulated at the time as a postcard.

When in the water sharks look sleek and beautiful but when on land their bodies can contort grotesquely as seen in these images.  It was common for the proud anglers to prop the jaws open with a stick and position the body in a way that exaggerates the size.

It turns out that the southern fishing port of Bluff had a few ‘Shark Weeks’ of their own in the early twentieth century.  This report appears in the Southland Times on 9th February 1904.

“The recent warm weather has brought sharks south this year in unusual numbers and it behoves those who indulge in sea-bathing to be careful in choosing their water.  Last week sharks of large size were seen in Bluff harbour.  On Sunday a six-footer was caught at Fortrose jetty, and yesterday evening a lady who was fishing at the same place created a flutter by hooking a shark which was found to measure six feet six inches.”

Later that same month another large shark was caught and the following article appeared in the Southland Times on 27th February.

“For some time past the fishermen at the Bluff have had a hook ready for a large shark that has been prowling about and yesterday evening an opportunity was offered of using it for the brute came close alongside the wharf.  The hook was baited, dropped over, and accepted by the shark, which, when hauled up and killed, was found to measure about 15 feet in length.”

A few days later this advertisement appeared.  I’m not sure if this is referring to the same shark or yet another.

Southland Times, 29th February 1904 Papers Past

Southland Times, 29th February 1904
Papers Past

This account of the catch appeared in a Taranaki newspaper in early March.  The thought of concerned mariners throwing food to the shark in an attempt to placate it is rather amusing.  “Go away!  Here have this food……  I said go away!  Here have some more…”

Hawera & Normanby Star, 10th March 1904 Papers Past

Hawera & Normanby Star, 10th March 1904
Papers Past

The fishermen of Bluff aren’t the only ones to have tried to exaggerate the size of shark by having someone of small stature pose next to it.  The same trick was used during the filming of the most infamous of all shark movies – Jaws.

Most of the scenes were shot with a mechanical shark, but Spielberg also hired Australian underwater film-making pioneers Ron and Valerie Taylor to film a real one for some of the full body shots – including one scene where a shark was to circle a man in a diving cage.

To make the shark look as large as possible a miniature shark cage was constructed and a former jockey turned midget stuntman was hired to get in it.  However as he was getting ready to lower himself into the water the shark turned and confronted the movie makers, ripping the cage from the boat right before the terrified stuntman – who allegedly then locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out.  I don’t blame him.

Three decades later and thanks to Peter Jackson we all became experts on the clever use of different sized actors and props to give a false illusion of scale – but it wasn’t a new trick.  Spielberg had used it too, and so apparently had some New Zealand anglers.

Fortunately, despite the best efforts of fishermen the local population of great white sharks off Bluff wasn’t completely hunted to extinction.  I know this as over a century later I was fortunate enough to spend a little bit of time with them.

Great white shark swims alongside seal decoy © Lemuel Lyes

Great white shark swims alongside seal decoy
© Lemuel Lyes

Great White Shark takes the bait © Lemuel Lyes

Great White Shark takes the bait
© Lemuel Lyes

Great White Shark circling History Geek © Lemuel Lyes

Great White Shark circling History Geek
© Lemuel Lyes

Visibility in the Foveaux Strait was limited, so I’ll admit to being startled by the great white when it first appeared out of the gloomy water (in real life there isn’t any scary music to let you know they are approaching!), but once I adjusted to its presence it was a surreal and serene experience; and hardly as intimidating as I thought it would be.  In fact interacting with other humans can sometimes be a more daunting experience.

Great white sharks are now a protected species in many parts of the world including New Zealand, but commercial fishing in international waters is still a very real risk to them and unfortunately many other species of sharks don’t enjoy the same level of protection.  Shark finning (the unsustainable act of catching sharks solely for their fins) is banned in many countries but is still legal in New Zealand waters.  Lets hope that will change soon.

I hope my American readers (there are at least a couple of you!) are enjoying ‘Shark Week’ and my New Zealand readers can look forward to shark documentary goodness later in the year – you know, in summer.

© Lemuel Lyes

8 replies »

  1. Whew! That stuntman came close to having a major “thrill” in his life.

    As for the documentary making its appearance in the summer, if that cheesy movie “Sharknado” doesn’t scare people out of the water nothing will. 😉

    • ‘Sharknado’ was certainly a resounding success! Everyone is already talking about the sequel. I look forward to watching it when it hits these shores.

  2. Sharks are astonishing creatures – not least because they’ve been around since the Devonian period, pretty much unchanged as far as we can tell. No question that ‘shark attack’ injures and kills swimmers, but I think the incidence of it is much exaggerated. ‘Jaws’ (a movie I was forbidden to see, as a kid) has a lot to answer for.

    • You can certainly tell that they’ve put those millions of years to good practice – they are perfect at what they do!

      I think Jaws was such a resounding success because it re-introduced that very primal fear of being eaten alive. Incidents of course do happen (if I remember right, here in the 60’s there were three fatalities at Dunedin beaches) but when you look at how much time NZders spend in the water it is easy to see that the chance of it happening is very slim.

  3. Awesome article may I quote you in article Im writing – you saved me the hassel of looking for what i knew to be the case that big sharks came in the bluff harbour an oddly enough I also wanted to use the Jaws story. Oddly enough was diving with the beautys last weekend and was on Stewart island when the Discovery crew where – nice guys. ben Vidgen

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