KISS is playing a concert for our great white sharks

Super-band KISS rocks white sharks off South Australian coast.
By Dr Blake Chapman November 18, 2019 Reading Time: 5 Minutes

For the past two months, I’ve been living in a bit of an extended ‘pinch me because I must be dreaming’ haze. But finally, all of the excitement is about to come to fruition.

Today, I get to join a tour in Port Lincoln, South Australia, where I’ll have an opportunity view the underwater world from the comfort of an Aqua Sub tank, while great white sharks come around for a look. While I find the prospect of that, alone, very exciting – on this particular tour, seeing these sharks up-close in their natural environment is unlikely to be the most mind-blowingly amazing part of the day.

Instead, I suspect that honour will go to being able to simultaneously watch a live KISS concert. That’s right, KISS will be popping out to sea, too. And yes, I do mean the band. I’ve lost count of how many conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about the legitimacy of this. Ironically, it wasn’t until the story was run in Rolling Stone magazine that many people actually believed me.

While out to see, guests on the tour will have the opportunity to go shark spotting in a completely transparent, 360-degree view, fully submerged glass Aqua Sub. Then, of course, be in the front row for the concert, which is expected to include KISS classics, put on purely for the enjoyment of the eight lucky guests (and the lucky boat crew, who were equally as flabbergasted as me following the proposal of this tour, and this one very giddy shark researcher and science communicator). And maybe the sharks?

The whole reason behind this unfathomably crazy idea was to promote the launch of the new Animal Experiences category of Airbnb. In joining the animal tourism market, Airbnb wanted to set itself apart from the competition by raising the bar in terms of responsible animal tourism and have worked with World Animal Protection to define a strict set of industry-leading animal welfare guidelines that operators must abide by to be promoted through their site. While still providing a truly awesome, adrenaline-riddled experience, the Adventure Bay Charters Great White Sharks tour meets these criteria. Given the one-day addition of KISS to the tour, seeing a white shark cruise past me while I watch in awe from the Aqua Sub is pretty well guaranteed to be the most natural viewing activity of the day!

Matt Waller of Adventure Bay Charters uses music to attract sharks to the boat, instead of bait or berley attractants. As such, there is nothing to reinforce behavioural changes in the sharks, or create association between humans and food through reward. Instead, this operation simply projects music underwater through speakers and also deploys containers filled with things like nuts and bolts, which move around with the flow of the water and create additional (but very subtle) noise. And more often than not, sharks come around for a look. I must admit, I was a bit sceptical when I first heard about this. Okay, really sceptical. But it seems to work. Scientifically – I can’t tell you why. I imagine that the sound waves are piquing the sharks’ curiosity, or stimulating their desire to want to understand what else is in their general vicinity, so they come around for a look.

There are two possible ways that sound could be attracting the sharks. The first is seemingly the most obvious – and that is that the sharks are hearing the noises. While this might be the case, researchers still only have a rudimentary understanding of shark hearing. When I first started learning about sharks, I was told that they had excellent hearing, and could detect sounds from hundreds of metres, or even a kilometre away. This might be the case, and there are studies that support this idea. And again, this makes sense, given the great capacity for water to carry soundwaves. Sound can travel in all directions underwater and spread further than any other sensory cue, be it chemical, visual or electrical. But what this doesn’t consider is shark anatomy.

Although there is little external sign of them, sharks do have ears. If you look really closely, you may see two small holes on the top of a shark’s head. These holes lead to intricate labyrinth-like inner ears that are very capable of detecting the particle motion component of sound. Unlike most fish, though, sharks do not have air-filled swim bladders, which are used to detect the other component of sound: pressure. Studies on other fish species have shown that the inability to detect sound pressure results in reduced hearing capability. So the view that sharks can hear over really great distances may be greatly overestimated. Ultimately, we just don’t know.

What is more commonly accepted is that low frequency and pulsed sounds in general do attract at least some species of sharks. In contrast, abrupt, loud and irregular sounds cause some species to withdraw from an immediate area. The major caveat here is that results are not consistent between species, or even, interestingly, between individuals.

The second reason sharks could be drawn to the music is that they may be feeling the physical vibrations of the sound as it travels through the water using their ‘near-touch’ lateral line system. A shark’s lateral line is made up of surface pores that lead to canals under the skin. These canals have clusters of sensory hair cells that can detect vibrations, changes in pressure and the direction and flow of the surrounding water. We would have to be much closer (and the music much louder) for us to ‘feel’ the music on the same scale, but sharks can detect small vibrations in the water from at least a few body lengths away.

Given our lack of concrete scientific understanding as to why this tour has found such success in attracting sharks, I was very happy to hear some of Matt’s anecdotes about shark responses. My favourite was that some sharks show very strong preferences for certain songs, with individuals consistently returning to the boat over the course of a week or two whenever a particular song is played. In general, the sharks apparently love rock music (so KISS really better bring their A-game if they want to impress!). And importantly, according to Matt, South Australian great white sharks definitely don’t prefer ‘Baby Shark’. Or at least, that’s what he says. But I’d also understand if that is just what the crew tells guests to avoid listening to it routinely. After all, the tour needs to be humane to all animals, and that includes due consideration to the mental health of the crew!

While the whole day is looking to be a fantastically wild ride, I am also especially excited for the opportunity to start some discussions with the tour guests about sharks, shark conservation, and how we can be a bit better at coexisting with these rock stars of the sea. With quotes like, ‘When the sharks see what I’m wearing, they’ll be afraid of me’ coming from members of KISS (as reported by Rollingstone.com), it’s clearly not a minute too early to start having these conversations. Let the education begin, because I ‘Sure Know Something’, too! (Note: for those, like me who were previously unaware, ‘Sure Know Something’ is a fittingly titled KISS song; I’m not just being arrogant!)

The Airbnb sponsored tour will be donating all proceeds to the Australian Marine Conservation Society.