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Wildlife Detectives

Unraveling the Mystery of the Sixgill Sharks

A Discussion with 'Wildlife Detectives:Mystery Sharks of Seattle' filmmaker Michael Werner

June 16, 2016
Wildlife Detectives documentary, Mystery Sharks of Seattle, will encore Wednesday, October 26, at 8:00 p.m. on KCTS 9. We recently sat down with filmmaker Michael Werner to talk about this exciting premiere.
What is Mystery Sharks of Seattle about?
Michael Werner: It’s about sixgills, one of the world’s largest predatory sharks. In the early 2000s, Puget Sound divers and fishermen started reporting sightings of the shark. As sightings became more frequent, marine biologists became intrigued and began to investigate. They found dozens of the sixgills roaming in the nearshore waters. It was an unprecedented opportunity to study these sharks up close. Researchers from the Seattle Aquarium, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, the University of Washington, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife mobilized the largest-ever study of sixgill sharks. But after several years, the sharks suddenly seemed to vanish from Puget Sound. Their disappearance left scientists with even more questions. This documentary tells the story of the researchers’ efforts to unravel the mystery of the sixgills of Puget Sound, what these large deep-ocean sharks were doing in the shallows around Seattle, and why they suddenly disappeared. 
What prompted you to help tell this story?
MW: Most people have no idea that when they’re walking along the Seattle waterfront, one of the world’s largest sharks could be lurking right underneath the surface just a few feet away. It was a surprise to me when I learned of this sixgill phenomenon years ago. The more I learned about what a mystery it was that these sharks appeared in large numbers and then suddenly disappeared a few years later, the more I wanted to tell the story as a mystery and help bring Seattle’s sixgill story to light. 
The fact that these animals are little studied and largely unknown was another reason I wanted to tell this story. Having sixgills swimming around Puget Sound was the equivalent of having grizzly bears roaming the outskirts of Seattle—and yet scientists knew almost nothing about them. 
Did you know anything about the Sixgill shark going into this? What did you learn about the species and the Puget Sound waters during this project?
MW: I’ve been aware of the sixgills of Puget Sound for years and have been wanting to produce a documentary on them for a while. Puget Sound is home to an amazing array of charismatic and colorful animals—the giant Pacific octopus, wolf eels, rockfish, seals, otters, orcas, etc. And the sixgill is one of the most fascinating creatures that lives here. Sixgills are a 200-million-year-old species—one of the most ancient species on the planet. Sixgills have been around since the time of dinosaurs, yet we know very little about them because they are elusive, spending most of their lives in the deep oceans, thousands of feet below the surface, avoiding shallow waters. 
What do you think will surprise viewers when they watch this film?
MW: Just learning that there have been and still are sightings of sharks in Puget Sound will surprise many viewers. Some people will also likely be surprised to learn that these sharks aren’t something to be afraid of. Yes, they are big sharks, but they aren’t man-eating monsters. There have been no documented unprovoked attacks on humans. In fact, scuba divers who encounter them while diving in Puget Sound often describe sixgills as gentle giants, docile and curious. 
Does this film solve the “mystery” or is there still more to uncover?
MW: Over the course of many years of studying the sixgills, scientists have been able to piece together some of the mystery surrounding the appearance of sixgills in Puget Sound. They also have theories as to why the sixgills disappeared, which are revealed in the documentary. But of course, there are always more questions to answer. Scientists are now waiting for the sixgills to return in order to continue their investigation and solve more of the mysteries surrounding these sharks. 
Wildlife Detectives: Mystery Sharks of Seattle encores on KCTS 9 Wednesday, October 26, at 8:00 p.m. 
Read our conversation with Seattle Aquarium biologists about sixgill sharks and other marine life in the Puget Sound. 
Image courtesy of Seattle Aquarium. 
Watch a preview:



KCTS 9 staff consists of experienced journalists and videographers, producing local stories on the issues that shape the greater Seattle area. More stories by KCTS 9