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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
The shark's the star

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Reef sharks
Some sharks did not take kindly to their mystery visitor
The BBC's latest natural history star may give the veteran Sir David Attenborough a run for his money - even though it cannot speak a word.

Meet Roboshark, a remote control submarine in the shape of the sea's most feared predator.

Roboshark is equipped not with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth - but a movie camera.

And the fearless "camerashark" has brought back footage that would have been too risky for its human counterparts to take for a new shark documentary on the BBC.

Its handiwork will soon be seen on the BBC's latest documentary exploring shark intelligence, Smart Sharks: Swimming with Roboshark.

We had all sorts of problems - he crashed, his computer refused to work, he'd swim out and get lost
Smart Sharks producer
It has dived amidst whale sharks, the largest fish on the planet, as they glide up from the tropical depths to feast on anchovies and plankton.

It has rubbed fins with the bull shark - the most dangerous of all sharks - in murky mangrove swamps, and encountered the almost-as-fearsome tiger shark.


And - cue the famous Jaws movie tune - it has tussled with Great Whites, and only just survived to bring back the tale.

Smart Sharks producer Mark Brownlow told BBC News Online Roboshark had proved to be an invaluable tool in finding out more about the ocean's most notorious inhabitants.

Roboshark has retired to Plymouth Harbour since his deep water scrapes

Mr Brownlow had been planning a documentary on shark intelligence ever since producing one on shark senses.

Then he heard about sharks that had learned to identify the sound of a spearfisher's gun, and would then dart in to eat the speared fish.

"Sharks are not mindless, robotic killers," he told BBC News Online. "There was research done in the 1970s that showed that sharks were 80 times more intelligent than cats.

"We wanted to investigate whether there was a lot more going on than we wanted to believe."

What the new programme needed was a camera in disguise that could blend in with the sharks it was filming.

Natural behaviour

It took two years to come up with the design of the Roboshark.

"We wanted something that could be sent into situations that were perhaps too dangerous for cameramen," Mr Brownlow said.

A shark-shaped submarine, he felt, might bring out more natural shark behaviour than a human cameraman.

Roboshark was built from scratch by submarine designer Andrew Sneath. Mr Brownlow gave him the brief and he came up with the six-foot, shark-shaped housing.

Hammerhead shark
Can hammerheads "talk"? Roboshark found out

The Roboshark went through "endless modifications", Mr Brownlow said, before he was fit to swim with his real-life cousins.

But its voyage was still far from smooth.

"We had all sorts of problems," he said. "He crashed, his computer refused to work, he'd swim out and get lost. Andy was up most nights for hours, not sleeping, trying to get him to work.

"At one point we were on the Mozambique border, in 100% humidity with dodgy generators that didn't work all the time, and he was having to do quite precise work on its internal workings."


Not all of the footage is directly from Roboshark. Such is the documentary's pride in its new creation that it is easy to overlook the contribution made by Roboshark's human counterparts, who include former Cousteau diver Didier Noirot.

The combination of traditional and Roboshark footage has resulted in some knuckle-whitening moments.

In Bikini Atoll - the Pacific graveyard of warships sunk in atomic tests - Roboshark met a school of territorial grey reef sharks, a species that makes up in aggressiveness what it lacks in size.

And they did not take kindly to their mysterious visitor.

Elsewhere, said Mr Brownlow, there were some surprising encounters with Great Whites - one of which lived up to the fish's terrifying reputation, and another that was almost comical.

Andy Sneath with Roboshark
Andy Sneath (left) devised the Roboshark

It also found that Hammerheads - one of the most bizarre of all shark species - communicate with sophisticated body language, and live in schools of up to 500.

And how did Sir David react to his new colleague?

"He was like a little kid when we showed it to him," says Mr Brownlow.

"Sir David is the godfather when it comes to natural history and he wouldn't want to be involved with any gimmicks. But he was thought it was absolutely amazing."

With Smart Sharks warning of the massive overfishing and drop in shark numbers, the real-life sharks may have cause to thank it too.

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04 Mar 03  |  TV and Radio



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