Shark scientist on Paul Walker's passion, finishing new special
During last year’s special Spawn of Jaws, Shark Week fans watched Dr. Michael Domeier tag a pregnant great white named Gil Rakers in hopes of eventually locating the pupping grounds, which need protection. He was helped by his friend Paul Walker, the actor who’d studied marine biology in college and had a passion for sharks and marine conservation. When Walker died in Nov. 2013, production had only recently begun on part two of that journey, Spawn of Jaws: The Birth, which premieres Aug. 13 at 10 p.m. ET on Discovery. As Domeier tells EW, he struggled with whether to finish the project: “Honestly, I really didn’t want to keep working on the film. But after a few months went by, I decided, ‘Okay, Paul would want us to finish it, let’s finish it.'” Seeing Walker’s smile in the exclusive clip below, it’s clear Domeier made the right call.
EW: What was it about Paul’s passion for sharks that you appreciated, that made you take an actor seriously?
DR. MICHAEL DOMEIER: You know what, there’s a great story there that I’ve never told anyone. Paul and I were not what I would call a match made in heaven. When I was working on a series based upon my research on National Geographic Channel [2010’s Shark Men], a production company brought him on to the scene. For me, it was an obvious ratings grab. I didn’t like it. [Laughs] I was not a fan. But I had no control over it. I’m just a scientist, right. Paul was my roommate on this boat, in a very small room, and I was hard on him. My attitude was, “We don’t need this guy. It’s a distraction to my research. My research is important.” But then Paul impressed me. We had to spend 10-12 days on this boat in a little tiny room, and we became friends. I also got to see firsthand his passion for the ocean. We shared interests in surfing, in fishing, in spearfishing. He would come and go: His schedule was such that it was hard to ever really make him a part of the team, and it probably wasn’t until the second trip when I went, “Okay, this guy’s for real.” It wasn’t like he just disappeared. He would then continue to email me. He was a big texter. He’d text me all the time, call me because he wanted to do more. He would call me in the middle of the night and say, “Hey, I want to quit acting. I want to go back to school. Can you help me?” And I’d talk him off the ledge and go, “Paul, that’s a really bad idea.” [Laughs] I said, “You can have much more of an influence on these topics as a celebrity. Let’s work together. I can help you, give you talking points.” So we kept in touch over the years, even after we both stopped working on [Shark Men]. He kept calling me: “Hey, let’s do something again. When can I come with you again?”
It was about three weeks after our first shoot for [Spawn of Jaws: The Birth] that he passed away. He did intend to be a part of it for the whole program. So it was just a shock to me. Paul was much happier in his life than I’ve ever seen him before. Sometimes I see people on social media that can be very mean: “Oh, he’s only there for ratings.” The irony is that’s how I felt at first, too. But at the end, it wasn’t true. He was doing it because he loved it. And I appreciated his company.
Let’s talk about the mission: Why has it been so difficult for scientists to find great white pupping grounds?
To track a female to a pupping site takes two years basically, because the gestation for white sharks is 18 months. So it’s taken quite a long time to develop the technology to track a shark for that long. The baby white sharks are the most vulnerable. So if you’re thinking about protecting them, you need to know where they are. I’ve been studying white sharks at this location in Mexico, Guadalupe Island, for 15 years. We’ve learned a lot about them in that amount of time. I actually know where they’re mating, and that’s where we go to put these tags on. I also know when the pupping season is. All up and down the coast, from California to Mexico, there’s a certain time of year when commercial fishermen accidentally catch baby white sharks. So I knew approximately, within a span of like three or four months, when this shark would be returning to the coastline.
Once the mating is over, these adult females head out into the middle of the deep ocean, and they don’t return. They spend the entire time out in the deep blue sea, which is shocking to a lot of people. They think of white sharks as coastal predators that eat seals—well they are, but only for a short amount of time. They spend most of their time in the deep ocean, and what they do out there, we still haven’t figured out. But since I knew about what time of year they would be pupping, I was able to prepare and then just start watching. I have an app actually, Expedition White Shark, and on that app, I can track the sharks in near real-time. In fact, any of the public can track the sharks using that app—the same time I’m seeing the data, the public’s seeing the data.
When was go time?
Go time was starting around April, we saw her heading towards the mainland but we didn’t know where she was gonna go. It started to materialize where she’s going, and then we had to organize. I’m trying not to spoil the ending, leaving some of it a mystery so people will watch the program. [Laughs]
Was there ever a moment when you were worried you might lose track of Gil Rakers?
A couple of things happened: First, she went into an area where there’s been a long history of adult female white sharks being killed at that time of year. So once I realized where she was going, I was very concerned. And then also, [Laughs] in order for us to get a signal from a tagged shark, she has to be at the surface with her dorsal fin out of the water. And once she got near the coast, she stopped doing that. She was giving us tons of information about where she is when she was offshore, and then when she came near the coast, she just went down and was hugging the bottom. So that was a bit nerve-wracking, going weeks without knowing where she is.
Walker’s Fast & Furious franchise costar Dwayne Johnson taped a message honoring Paul that will be shown as the intro to Spawn of Jaws: The Birth. Here’s the link to Walker’s charity ROWW (Reach Out WorldWide).