URI alumna Christine de Silva goes in search of sharks off South Africa with Shark Week

‘Alien Sharks: Strange New Worlds’ airs Monday, July 24, on Discovery Channel

KINGSTON, R.I. – July 20, 2023 – Growing up on Ryder’s Cove in Chatham, Massachusetts, Christine de Silva was a big fan of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. For one, her birthday fell during the annual all-shark festival, plus there were the sharks.

“Shark Week is such a great chance for people to get a view into something the vast majority of people have little to no experience around,” said de Silva, who graduated last spring from the University of Rhode Island’s Blue MBA program with master’s degrees in business administration and oceanography. “They get to see people interacting with animals that we’ve been taught are terrifying, and yet we see the same people coming back every year. So obviously that isn’t the case.”

De Silva holds off a puffadder shyshark.

As Shark Week, which starts Sunday, July 23, celebrates its 35th season, de Silva will be appearing in her third Shark Week episode since 2020. A research assistant on previous shows about tiger sharks and great whites, de Silva, chief executive officer for the ocean technology company Juice Robotics, served as co-host and photographer for this season’s “Alien Sharks: Strange New Worlds,” which airs Monday, July 24, at 10 p.m. EST.

In February, she joined host and wildlife conservationist Forrest Galante and the crew for a month to film the show, tooling around the waters off South Africa in search of the strangest sharks they could find. High on their list was the sevengill.

“Most sharks have five gills. The more prehistoric types will have six or seven gills,” said de Silva, who lives in Jamestown. “In False Bay, South Africa, the sevengills are typically found in kelp forests and get very large, about 10 feet. They can take down seals – they are sharks – but they’re thought to be pretty docile.”

But the sevengill sharks were nowhere to be found. Two orcas – killer whale brothers named Port and Starboard by locals – were wreaking havoc, de Silva says. They had killed scores of great whites – actually flipping the whites over on their backs to dine on their livers – off South Africa, especially around Cape Town, known for its cage diving with great whites. Eventually, the more-transient whites smartly moved on, leaving the orcas to feast on the sevengills, which aren’t able to migrate from the area like the whites.

“When we were there, there were a couple of days when about two dozen sevengills washed up dead with their livers missing, proving they were killed by Port and Starboard,” she said. “Those are just the ones that washed up.”

De Silva sits with a couple of African penguins.

While the sevengills aren’t transient, they seem to have disappeared. But many people in the area thought they must be somewhere in False Bay, south of Cape Town. So, the Shark Week crew went looking. They found about 15 of the sharks in a harbor, under a shipwreck. 

“The sharks were hiding from the orcas in the dark, in about 15 feet of water with the worst visibility,” she said. “I couldn’t see my fins when we were diving. It was crazy. We were swimming through them, bumping them.”

But filming the sharks at depths of about 2,000 meters mostly meant deploying her cameras – BRUVs (baited remote underwater video), which her company, Juice Robotics, develops, sells and rents – and coming back in six hours, hoping for a bite. 

“The cameras were not attached to the boat so we were unable to see what we were filming in real time,” she said. “St. Lucia is a popular sport fishing area. So, we’d go out early in the morning, drop the cameras and go fishing. We’d catch dinner, take a nap, pick the cameras up and then, over beers and dinner, watch the footage and see what we got.”

What they found were numerous shark species in the deep seas around Cape Town and St. Lucia that have seldom been seen before, or not seen at those depths, in those areas. 

“Deep-sea animals in general are often very dark colored so they can hide better,” she said. “They often have really big eyes that seem to glow green when you flash light at them. You also get a lot of really slow-moving sharks. While there is food down there, there’s less food. So, they act very chill to conserve energy until all of a sudden they have to use that energy to go after prey or, if they’re lucky, scavenge.”

Along with the sevengills, one of her favorites were the lantern sharks, which she captured on film attacking bait attached to the camera. (To see footage that de Silva shot of the lantern sharks and other species, go to her Instagram account.) 

“People think of sharks as solitary, but lantern sharks actually school,” she said. “They only get about a foot and a half long and they’re so cute. They actually bioluminesce themselves. They create their own light. In the videos I’m posting, you can see a shimmer along their body. That’s the light they’re creating. The thought is that maybe males and females have different patterns so they can identify each other.”

Along with the fun of filming sharks, de Silva, who does research for the nonprofit Beneath the Waves, collected data on such things as abundance, diversity and behavior, and plans to publish her findings. Also, through her work with Juice Robotics, her role in Shark Week helps her promote her view of ocean research, which includes innovative, democratic, rugged equipment like the BRUVs that are easy to transport and deploy.

“For me, Shark Week is such a great chance to represent the future of what I hope ocean science looks like,” she said. “I really was excited to do my first episode because I not only got to do the science, but I got to educate a large audience.”

On Thursday, July 27, de Silva will give a talk on sharks at Innovate Newport’s “The Blue & You” summer speaker series. The free, public talk starts at 8:30 a.m. at Innovate Newport, 513 Broadway, Newport.