UAE-backed documentary on region’s sharks airs, seven years after inception

The documentary aired for the first time on the Discovery Channel this month after years of funding problems almost meant it would not see the light of day.
Jonathan Ali Khan, a local wildlife documentary filmmaker, set out to help improve the reputation of sharks in the region. Satish Kumar / The National
Jonathan Ali Khan, a local wildlife documentary filmmaker, set out to help improve the reputation of sharks in the region. Satish Kumar / The National

DUBAI // A documentary on the region’s shark species has finally been broadcast, seven years after production began.

Arabia’s Sharks: A Journey of Discovery features several sharks including whale sharks and zebra sharks.

Whale sharks, the world’s biggest fish, grow up to 12 metres and travel vast distances across oceans. The smaller zebra sharks, which are less than a quarter of the size of whale sharks, live near coral reefs.

The documentary was broadcast for the first time on the Discovery Channel this month after years of funding problems almost meant that it would not see the light of day.

At the beginning, a grant from the Emirates Foundation enabled filmmaker Jonathan Ali Khan to shoot footage during several scientific expeditions to Sudan and Oman.

Although the grant was substantial, it did not cover the full cost of the film, and the focus on shark finning put off potential sponsors, leaving the production without funds.

Shark finning is the taking of fins and discarding the carcass at sea.

However, Khan, who sought to improve the image of sharks generally, managed to complete his project with the support of Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo and Canon Middle East.

Sharks are feared by humans but the film maker thinks this bad reputation is undeserved.

“To a lot of people, these are still mindless killing machines, they are just ruthless predators,” Khan said.

“This is something that we are very keen to disprove because these animals are amazing.

“For 400 million years, they were pretty much the architects of a lot of the marine ecosystems around us as they managed the food chain from the top.”

This ecological equilibrium has been disrupted as humans fish sharks. Whale sharks are now endangered, and scientists estimated that their population in the Indo-Pacific has fallen by 63 per cent over the past 75 years.

Figures from 2009 estimated the number of whale sharks in the oceans at about 100,000.

Meanwhile, zebra sharks are listed as vulnerable and, although it is known that their population is declining, detailed numbers were not available.

Khan’s partnership with Dubai Aquarium was the catalyst for the completion of the 56-minute documentary. In many ways, the film and the aquarium have similar objectives.

Paul Hamilton, the aquarium’s general manager and curator, said: “Sharks are a feature animal here and making the public aware of the difficult times these species face is important.”

The aquarium, which has a collection of more than 400 sharks, could “connect people to the animal in the correct context and perhaps contribute to the change of opinion on sharks”, he said.

The film also shows details of the aquarium’s captive breeding programme for sharks. The scheme could serve as a safety net in the event that oceanic populations fall sharply, said Mr Hamilton.

Khan said he was frustrated by the film’s production delays, but the time helped him to give the film additional depth.

The production featured the work of several young scientists, who uncovered fascinating facts about the region’s sharks. For instance, For instance, Dr David Robinson was the fist to document large aggregations of whale sharks off the coast of Qatar, where oil platforms attract sea life.

Aerial footage shows about 100 whale sharks clustering in the area of the Al Shaheen offshore oilfield. The fish arrive around the same time every year to feast on abundant tuna eggs.

Another positive development since filming for the documentary began is the measures the UAE has taken to protect sharks. The country supported a key international initiative to regulate the trade of some endangered sharks and has also introduced tougher fishing rules.

Khan’s documentary will be broadcast again on Discovery Channel HD on October 20. Khan also plans to make it available for viewing online.

newsdesk@thenational.ae

Published: September 18, 2016 04:00 AM

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