How can a great white shark swim from South Africa to Australia – and back – in a matter of months? This is the captivating story of the now famous great white, Nicole. By Arnold Ras

Nicole: The true story of a great white shark’s journey into history by wildlife author Richard Peirce left me perplexed, astounded. Try and wrap your head around this: a great white shark swimming all the way from South Africa to Australia, AND BACK, using pinpoint navigation. What’s more, the shark covered 22,000km in less than nine months. Named after Hollywood actress and shark enthusiast Nicole Kidman, the female great white did the unimaginable.

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Start: Scientists tag Nicole on 7 November 2003 near Dyer Island, South Africa.

Pitstop: On 28 February 2004, Nicole’s tag releases itself 37km south of the Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia.

End: During August 2004, scientists positively identify Nicole yet again near Dyer Island, South Africa.

The book gives insights into Nicole’s mind-boggling migration and is hard to put down. I was dying to interview Richard, who has dedicated more than two decades of his life to shark conservation.

Richard explains why Nicole’s journey is so incredibly significant. “Her journey was the first proven and recorded transoceanic journey of its kind. She also travelled way faster than we ever knew these animals could. By doing what she did, we now know that these animals migrate from one country’s waters to another.”

Although great white sharks are a protected species in both South Africa and Australia, it’s what lies in between that proves problematic. “They are unprotected in the middle. Nicole’s journey allowed scientists, conservationists and campaigners to approach CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] and say: ‘Look, this animal actually proves that the species do travel right across oceans and therefore there’s a case for global protection rather than just national protection.”

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Richard writes: “Along the way, Nicole encountered – and feasted on – a dead southern right whale, replenishing her energy reserves for the journey ahead.”

The most incredible part of Nicole’s journey? “The pinpoint accuracy at which she navigated across 22,000km of ocean. She went from A to B, and back to A only a few hundred metres away from where she initially started. Now, can you imagine, we as humans cannot navigate 20km without GPS or compasses. This animal did it with just what’s in her head.”

To humans, the ocean often seems a wild, lonely, empty and dangerous place, but to a great white it is home – and full of life.
– Nicole by Richard Peirce

Richard exudes a deep-seated love for all of our oceans’ more than 500 shark species. “I must profess, I sometimes get annoyed at the amount of attention great whites get. I suppose great whites are the rock stars, top of the chain. When people think shark – I guess this is to a degree thanks to Jaws – the image of a great white immediately comes to mind. And there’s no doubt that the great white is the most impressive and awe-inspiring, but we should not forget that there are other extraordinary sharks as well.”

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The dorsal fin of Shark P12, later named Nicole, which positively identified her and placed her back in South African waters less than six months after being recorded near Australia. Picture taken from Nicole

I ask Richard about the message he wanted to convey through his new book and he pauses for a moment. “I suppose, in a funny way, it’s almost kind of subliminal. One of the things I tried to do, was to say to us, the human species: ‘Guys, in some respects, compared to what the animal kingdom can do, we’re pretty puny.’ We couldn’t even think about replicating something like Nicole’s feat. Think about swallows that fly from South Africa to Northern Europe to arrive at the same nest every year.

“We are endangering the animal kingdom at every level from insects right through to apex predators. I hope this book conveys the fact that we need animals and nature, and if we destroy the natural world, we are ultimately going to destroy ourselves.”

I can’t help but ask how Richard would react if he encountered Nicole for one last time. “If I was on a boat, let’s say, and that fin popped up, and I knew it was Nicole, the first thing that would go through my mind is huge gratitude and relief that she is still alive. She disappeared off the radar after her epic journey, but we just don’t know [what happened to her]. In terms of the lifespan of a great white shark, she could and should still be alive. I’d probably burst into tears.”

The most crucial thing of all is that we don’t know how many great white sharks there are. Nobody knows. And this is pretty terrifying.
– Richard Peirce

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Picture by Chris Fallows

Win a copy!

Wild is giving away three copies of Nicole, courtesy of Struik Nature. Email the answer to the below question to [email protected] (subject line: Nicole) before Monday 25 September 2017 to stand a chance to win. Remember to include your street address and contact details. Wild will randomly select the winners. Winners will be announced via email.

Question: After which actress was Nicole named?

Winners: Warren Curtis, Larissa Sparg and Anna Sawyer

Part of the book’s proceeds will go to the shark safety and research organisation, Shark Spotters.

Nicole: The true story of a great white shark’s journey into history. Richard Peirce. 2017. Struik Nature. R180.