Set against a teal canvas of undulating ocean, a shark effortlessly slices through the water. From above, the dark outline of its body is distinctive but it’s only when the camera zooms in that a sprinkling of white and blue dots clustered nearby start to come into clearer focus: surfers, bobbing on their boards, directly in the predator’s pathway.

If this were a horror movie, those humans would be done for. The footage – captured by 14-year old Zachary Berman who took up drone photography as a “lockdown hobby” a few months ago when South Africa’s stay-at-home regulations kicked in – is certainly hair-raising, but it also helps highlight that sharks are not the ruthless murderers they are so often portrayed to be.

“If ever there was clear confirmation of these animals not being mindless killing machines and not simply rushing up and indiscriminately attacking non-normal prey items, then this is it,” says Chris Fallows, an experienced tour guide and respected shark expert based close to Cape Town. "I am amazed at just how little attention it shows in the surfers,” he adds.

The shark – a subadult great white of about three metres – was filmed in the waters off Plettenberg Bay on South Africa’s eastern coastline. It’s fairly common to find the predators roaming just behind the breakers, particularly juvenile and subadult individuals that spend the majority of their time close to shore. The Robberg Marine Protected Area in Plettenberg Bay holds even more appeal for white sharks as it lies close to a seal colony, a species that forms part of the great white’s diet. In waters across the globe, from Cape Cod to Port Stephens, white sharks are known to roam the fringes of the backline and it’s likely that the bulk of our interactions with these animals go unnoticed, particularly if the water is murky.

But a handful of encounters are documented and some, regrettably, end in tragedy. Sharing space with any large predator is not without its risks and South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) was quick to draw attention to the footage last month, issuing a warning and urging swimmers and surfers to be vigilant.

“The behaviour seen in this drone footage shows that the shark is aware of the surfers,” Sarah Waries of the City of Cape Town (CoCT) Shark Spotters programme told the NSRI. “It is important for people to remember that white sharks are naturally inquisitive, apex predators and that although shark bites are rare, water users must understand the inherent risk associated with sharing the ocean with these animals and change their behaviour accordingly to avoid encountering sharks.”

“If ever there was clear confirmation of these animals not being mindless killing machines ... this is it.”

Shark expert and marine biologist with South African National Parks (SANParks) Dr Alison Kock agrees that the behaviour of the shark in the video is more “investigatory” than anything else. “We can’t know its intent, but it could be motivated by hunger or curiosity,” she told us over email. The fact that the great white opted against sampling the surfers suggests that it was motivated by the latter. “Given the distance between the shark and surfers, it is primarily using its hearing and vision, and the excellent water visibility likely played an important role in its decision making,” Kock explained. “One thing is clear: it decided they weren’t something to eat (or socialise with) and moved on.”

Not even 24 hours after filming the now-viral incident, Berman was barely done chatting to media outlets like CNN and the BBC (both of which ran his footage on their websites), when he captured a second clip of a great white patrolling on the edge of the breakers. Again a group of oblivious surfers floated within striking distance. Again the shark opted to ignore the board-riders and peacefully moved off.

“NSRI was immediately notified and all surfers exited the water safely, Berman wrote on Instagram. “Just another beautiful ‘Johnny’ passing by and I am very fortunate to have gotten the shot.”

For marine conservationists and tour operators, great whites are a welcome sight. While populations along the east coast have remained fairly stable, white shark sightings off the Western Cape coastline have been declining since 2015. Areas like Gansbaai and False Bay were once hotspots for great white activity, but last year, annual sightings dropped from an average of around 200 (in False Bay, at least) to zero. To date, just a single sighting has been confirmed this year, leading to concern that the animals may be gone for good. “It would be a massive loss for Cape Town,” Gregg Oelofse, head of coastal management for the city told the Guardian. “They are such a big part of the environment, of our sense of place and identity here, it would be a tragedy if they never came back.”

Experts remain somewhat divided over the reasons for the great white disappearance, but two predominant theories have developed. “The first is fear from a pair of killer whales who have started predating on large coastal sharks in this region,” Dr Kock explained to us via email. The orcas, known as Port and Starboard, have been sighted repeatedly around False Bay. Killer whales are known for snacking on sharks and show a particular affinity for the animals’ nutrient-rich livers which they tear out and eat leaving the remainder of the shark to wash ashore. Carcasses of "liverless" great whites have been turning up in the area and orcas are most likely responsible.

But killer whales may not be the only factor contributing to the absence of white sharks in False Bay. The second theory is that the predators are running out of food. Bottom-dwelling shark species form a large part of the great white’s diet, but these once-abundant animals are being overfished. Fallows is convinced that this is the primary driver of the change in numbers: “these smaller shark species have been fished to the point of collapse,” he tells us via email. Several demersal shark species are processed in South Africa, many of which land up on plates in Australian fish shops where the meat is sold as “flake”. The shark-fishing industry Down Under is unable to keep up with demand, so South Africa has stepped in to supply the market.

Fallows describes the situation as a “ticking time bomb for the great white.” In an effort to curb the killing of smaller shark species, he teamed up with others in the marine tourism industry to create Shark Free Chips – a conservation initiative that he hopes will spread awareness of what he considers to be the white shark’s biggest threat. “If you stopped the demersal shark longlining then there is every chance [the white sharks] will come back, but not in a hurry. The marine ecosystem has been intact for millions of years and in the space of five we have laid it to waste,” he told the Guardian.

Dr Kock is more reserved in her assessment of the threats facing great whites and acknowledges that several factors could be at play. “We can’t exclude the impact of ecosystem changes as a result of climate change. For example, changing water temperature could influence the sharks physically or cause changes in various prey distributions,” she points out. “We also can’t exclude the effect of the life-history stage because juveniles and sub-adults tend to be more coastal. In contrast, adults tend to spend more time away from the coast. What is clear is that we need to pool information from scientists, tour operators, fishers and members of the public to answer this critical question.”

For local residents who fear the often-maligned sharks, a reduction in numbers is only too welcome. But these animals play a vital role in the ecosystem and are a big drawcard for many tourists visiting the Mother City. Their absence will have broad and potentially devastating effects. Like all large predators, they can be a threat to those in the water and demand respect. But, as Berman’s footage so beautiful illustrates, an encounter with a great white is not a death sentence – it’s a chance to appreciate and marvel at these magnificent creatures.