A Journey into History
Updated: Apr 27
It is very rare that a particular animal becomes a house-hold name around the globe, but sometimes an individual does something so special that the whole world takes notice... maybe a freed male lion recognises the men who were his owners years before, like Christian the lion... or perhaps a horse breaks all previous racing records, like Red Rum... what about when an animal migrates so far that they travel between continents and cross entire oceans? That is how the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) known as Nicole, became a celebrity in October 2005. An article was published in Science, documenting, for the first time, a great white shark migrating thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean... and back! Not only did her adventures massively advance scientific knowledge, but she also inspired many, many people around the globe. Nicole became the poster child for shark conservation and because of her, public awareness was massively boosted; completely altering the course of white shark conservation forever.
Nicole's story began in November 2003, when a group of scientists in Gansbaai, South Africa were studying the movement patterns of great white sharks. The researchers were using several different methods (including tags and photographic identification) to track white sharks, in order to learn how they use their habitats and where they travel to. They had no idea that the one particular shark, a 3.8 metre long female, that they had been seeing for years would one day make history... In fact, Nicole was originally just referred to as 'Shark P12', amongst several others that the scientists were studying (Bonfil et al, 2005).
The tags they used were relatively new technology and there was a lot of uncertainty about how well they would work. The tag, known as a PAT tag (pop-up archival satellite transmitting tag) was drilled into the dorsal fin of the shark, and its job was to constantly record location and environmental conditions before automatically detaching from the animal after a predetermined period of time. All the data recorded was stored in the tag's onboard memory and then transmitted back to the scientists via satellite when detached. Therefore, the researchers had no way to know whether their tag was doing its work until 3 months had elapsed...
Well, the tag was indeed successful... On the 28th of February 2004 the tag completed its mission and surfaced.... in the Exmouth Gulf of Western Australia! The scientists realised that their shark had swum 11,000 km in 99 days!
As if this was not impressive enough, 6 months later, on the 20th August 2004, Nicole was spotted again... back where she started in South Africa! This was possible because, even though she was no longer bejewelled with her tag, her dorsal fin was very distinct and the scientists could easily recognise their beloved Nicole (Bonfil et al, 2005). She had swum 20,000 km in less than 9 months... This was the fastest known return transoceanic migration ever recorded!
This gave scientists remarkable proof of "philopatry" in white sharks. This means that they return to a very precise location after travelling. Furthermore, as Nicole spent most of her journey near to the surface of the water, it also made scientists believe that white sharks use celestial clue to navigate around the globe. Yet, she also dove to incredible depths during the journey; reaching 980 metres, which was a record for white sharks. During these dives she experienced extreme temperatures, as low as 3.8°C, which made us realise white sharks were so much more thermally resilient than previously thought. She also taught us that the populations of sharks in South Africa and Australia are connected and might interbreed... We learned so, so much from this one shark (Bonfil et al, 2005).
And yet... despite all these astounding findings, what was most remarkable about Nicole's journey, was the effect in had on the general public. Nicole was renamed after the shark- enthusiast mega-star Nicole Kidman and her journey made headline news around the world; discussed on talkshows and reported in national newspapers. People became very excited and passionate about her travels, and it was remarkable that a creature so often treated with hatred, so feared and demonised, could be received with such enthusiasm and fascination (Peirce, 2017).
It seemed the tide of public opinion towards sharks might finally be turning.
The data that Nicole collected in her tag was submitted as part of a report for the CITES conference in Bangkok in 2004. The goal, was to have great white sharks listed on CITES Appendix II, which would mean that trade in their body parts would be internationally limited and controlled... and the proposal was accepted. This meant that these animals were now recognised to be threatened with extinction and strict measures could be taken to punish poachers. This significantly affected white shark conservation globally, forever (Peirce, 2017).
After the success of this tagging work, many other research groups have followed suit and today we have data about great white shark movements in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Mexico and South Africa, and our knowledge about these animals has vastly expanded. Symposiums have even been organised especially for white shark research and several academic text books have been produced (Peirce, 2017).
Whatsmore, public interest in these animals has only continued to grow. Shark cage diving trips have become increasingly popular in recent years and public awareness of their conservation concerns have become much more well-known.
Nicole will never know how famous she became and how much she changed the world, so we can only be grateful to her that we were lucky enough to join her on her travels. Thank you, Nicole, for allowing us a small glimpse into your wonderfully mysterious world!
If you would like to read Nicole's whole story for yourself, you can bag yourself a copy of the book on many of the big selling websites, like Amazon (ISBN: 978-1775845348).
Bonfil R, Meÿer M, Scholl MC, Johnson R, O’Brien S, Oosthuizen H, Swanson S, Kotze D & Paterson M (2005). Transoceanic Migration, Spatial Dynamics, and Population
Linkages of White Sharks. Science, 310.
Peirce R (2017). Nicole: The true story of a Great White Shark's journey into history. Struik Nature Publishing, South Africa.