Dr. Peter Klimley is a man who has held his breath and dived down 100
feet to hand-tag hammerhead sharks with a dart gun. He has even dressed up
as a killer whale, complete with towering black dorsal fin, to gauge the
reaction of lemon sharks (one tried to bite him). An associate research
behaviorist at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, University of California at Davis,
Klimley has studied scalloped hammerheads at an underwater mountain, or
seamount, known as El Baho Espiritu Santo in the Gulf of California off Mexico
for two decades. If you want to know something about hammerheads, you ask Pete
Klimley. We did, and we did. Here's the result.
NOVA: What's it like to swim amongst hundreds of hammerheads?
Klimley makes a breath-hold dive among hammerheads.
Klimley: Oh, it's great. The first time I did it the water was kind of murky. I
could barely see them and then suddenly I was smack in the middle of them. I
was close enough to reach out and touch their skin. At that time, sharks were
all thought to be man-eaters, so diving down to see them was against the grain,
very iconoclastic. I don't know why people thought that sharks, most of which
are about our length, would be eating us, but that's what they thought. And
there they were all around me, and they were beautiful. The sun was reflecting
off their sides, and they were kind of rippling as they moved.
There have been times since at the seamount when I wouldn't even have to dive.
They'd be swimming so close to the surface that all I had to do was tread water
with my feet down and I'd be touching them. I'd be filming them and all their
elaborate behaviors—such as the reverse flip with a full twist that a female
will use as a signal to other females to move away, that she is the dominant
female—and they'd be looking at me. I'd be thinking, "God, they're
intelligent. What do they think of me?"
NOVA: Are there any reports of hammerheads attacking humans?
Scalloped hammerheads on the move.
Klimley: Yes. The U.S. Navy, in fact, once considered the hammerhead the third
most dangerous species after the great white and the tiger shark. (There are
nine species of hammerheads, but the Navy was considering only the largest
ones.) Today, the bad guys are the white, bull, and tiger sharks. The bull and
the white do occasionally take people whole, though the white shark tends to
spit them out. Being a cold-water species, it forages preferentially for fatty
foods, I believe. So it spits out birds and sea otters and humans and just eats
seals and whales.
Hammerheads are among the majority of sharks whose attacks on people, if they
happen at all, are defensive in nature. Almost all sharks will show an
aggressive display if cornered, as will most animals. If you corner a raccoon
or a cat, it will attack. The consequence of such defensive attacks in the
marine environment have frightened people. Now, the hammerhead has that really
unusual head. Everybody remembers that head. So, when there is one of these
defensive bites, victims can identify the shark quite easily. Whereas if it's
just a gray-colored reef shark, there are lots of different species and they
all look alike.
NOVA: Have you ever felt in danger while working with hammerheads in the
Klimley: I'm a real enemy of that whole mindset of sharks and danger. The
majority of sharks that you'd encounter—blue sharks, silky sharks, pelagic
whitetip sharks—all these are not dangerous. What happens is filmmakers go
out there and throw a lot of bait in the water, and then they see this very
unusual hysteria of sharks biting at anything. It would be the same if you
threw meat to a pack of dogs that hadn't eaten for a long period and filmed it.
It's unfortunate that cinematography has given sharks this narrow image—it's
the five percent, not the 95 percent. I've tried in my life to fight against
NOVA: Would you recommend young people pursuing a career in shark research?
Klimley often takes an underwater
video camera with him on dives.
Klimley: I don't ever tell anybody to become a shark researcher. Better to
become interested in some biological facet or discipline. You want to
understand how animals behave or how do they navigate or how do they
communicate with one another. Then you pick your species.
However, I must admit that I started studying sharks because I thought they
were scary and little was known about them. I loved animal behavior—Conrad
Lorenz, Desmond Morris—and I wanted to be like Diane Fosse, who I saw in
"National Geographic" among mountain gorillas. I wanted to go among the sharks.
Few had done it.
Then there was the great white shark. Nobody knew anything about it, or very
little. There was something about studying your possible predator that
intrigued me, so I went up to Northern California and started to study the
white shark. The feeling that sharks are bigger and badder than we are and live
in an environment that we're not comfortable in gives you a kind of morbid or
forbidden fascination with them.
Continue: What do you think has made you a successful shark researcher?
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