For centuries, the animal considered to be the most dangerous predator on the planet was the great white shark, even though very few people had laid eyes on one. Even approaching the ’70s, Carcharodon carcharias was still a mythic property, a dragon of the seas with a lust for human flesh, especially after the infamous Jersey Shore attacks of 1916. There were images to be sure, but they were of corpses laying on the dock beside a triumphant fisherman, their swollen masses a grotesque sight compared to their beauty when seen in their natural environment. A monster to be feared and slaughtered.
Long before Shark Week became a religious holiday, Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb’s 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death was an attempt to show the great white as an animal; a dangerous animal to be sure, but one to be treated with respect and admiration. But before that, they would need to find it. Along with producer Stan Waterman, Gimbel and Lipscomb decided to film their search for “white death,” taking their borrowed whaling ship from Durban in South Africa to the coast of South Australia. Also on board were husband-and-wife underwater photography team Ron and Valerie Taylor (who would subsequently shoot the underwater footage for the first two Jaws movies) and Tom Chapin, brother of the late Harry Chapin, running double duty as assistant cameraman and folk singer. That isn’t a typo – with music running in the family, Chapin warbles along during the film to traditional ditties as well as his own creations, so if you wanted to know where Wes Anderson got the idea in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), now you know.
Along the way, there are encounters with several species of shark including grey reef sharks, dusky sharks, and blue sharks, and the tension in the narrative is kept up by the continual failure to attract any great whites, even with the filmmakers’ questionable methods. Their ship is initially accompanied by a whaling fleet, and one of the ships harpoons a sperm whale so it can be buoyed in the water to attract sharks. It may feel like a cliche to see Taylor, the leading woman of the group, expressing her disgust, but it’s in tune with how we feel. Ethically, it raises questions about the methods of what was supposed to be a scientific expedition, but contextually it’s worth noting that whaling was not made illegal in the US until 1971, the year the film came out.
Despite those methods, the shots of sharks feeding on the carcass are spectacular, a watery smorgasbord that illustrates the power these animals have as they thrash their heads from side to side, sawing through the whale’s thick blubber. Shark-proof cages are used to gain some underwater footage, but it’s when the decision is made to free dive that the stakes are raised and we’re treated to a stunning sequence where sharks outnumber the divers three to one. A notable fan of the dead whale is the Oceanic Whitetip, long considered by experts to be one of the most dangerous species, and it’s thought now that these were the sharks that took so many sailors in the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, as chillingly recounted by Robert Shaw’s Quint in Jaws (1975).
Further encounters include a trip to a wreck in Sri Lanka and giant turtles in the Seychelles, but there’s still no great white. Cue lots of slightly-awkward and probably staged shots of the men standing around discussing what to do before the crew reconvenes at South Australia’s “Dangerous Reef,” a popular spot for seals, the favourite meal of the great white shark. And it’s there where the film is given its happy ending.
It’s less a sigh of relief and more a celebration when the first great white is spotted, with the kind of whooping usually reserved for a touchdown. It’s immediately obvious the power that these sharks have, and it’s frightening to see just how efficient they are as they effortlessly tear huge chunks of bait to pieces. To get a true idea of the size and scale of these creatures, as well as how truly beautiful they are, we’re taken back underwater to be mesmerised by a stunning display of grace and power. They bash against the metal cages, displaying how fragile these undersea aviaries really are, and there’s a spectacular moment in evidence of this where one of the sharks gets entangled in a cage and threatens to drag it, along with its terrified occupant, into the open sea.
As the sharks disappear and the picture closes, it’s clear what getting such incredible footage of this animal means, not just as a rousing conclusion for the film, but for the shark. A monstrous killer from the deep interpreted through centuries of woodcut engravings and inaccurate paintings is finally laid bare for the stunning creature it is, hopefully leading to further understanding and a healthy respect for the shark. And it’s a credit to the film that, even though you can see crazy footage of white sharks on YouTube, what you see here is breathtaking, a sense of history in seeing these animals for the first time.
Blue Water, White Death was marketed like a precursor to the lurid magazines that would come out later to capitalise on Jaws, with “MAN-EATER” in huge type on the poster, along with the tagline “The hunt for the Great White Shark.” Despite the link with Jaws, it’s never been an easy film to see, although it’s recently been issued on DVD as well as on streaming services. Nevertheless, it’s the type of film that The Criterion Collection would do well to license, as you can see the gigantic influence the film has had on natural history documentaries, a worthy successor to Jacques Cousteau.
The film ends with Chapin crooning American humourist Wallace Irwin’s 1904 poem “The Rhyme Of The Chivalrous Shark,” and it’s hard to deny its suitability. The shanty’s light-heartedness is the perfect tonic for the triumphant end of the film, with the credits sharing the screen with various shark species and ending with the great white who, according to Chapin and Irwin, is the “prince of the ocean.” After seeing these animals close-up, who would ever disagree?