Great White Sharks and Humans: Hunting, Swimming with and Eating Them

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20120518-great white Montauk shark.jpg
Great white caught off Montauk
It is not unusual for great whites to bump boats with their heads and thump them with their tails. They are powerful enough to lift a 32 foot boat out of the water. No one has ever experienced a boat attack like the one in the film “Jaws” though. Great whites, some have said, are drawn to boat engines by the electrical signals they give off. Charter boat captains in Australia that take documentary film makers to places where great whites are found use barrel's full of tuna, blood, kangaroo meat and horse meat to attract the great sharks. Fishermen say that large great white are not seen as often as they once were. Great whites used to be killed just for their teeth and jaws which can sell for thousands of dollars. Sometimes long lines even snag great white sharks.

According to Animal Diversity Web: Humans hunt great white sharks primarily for sport and for body parts. Great white sharks have developed a reputation in the media as being aggressive and ferocious and as a result they have become a highly prized sport fish. A fully intact jaw of a great white shark can be sold for thousands of dollars. Great white sharks are never abundant because they are at the top of their food chain. [Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

In 2015, a diver gave a massive great white shark a high five off Guadalupe Island near Mexico's Baja California peninsula. CNET reported: “The footage first appeared on the Facebook page of a diver named Mauricio Hoyos Padilla, the director-general of a marine-conservation group called Pelagios-Kakunjá. The video features a group of divers in shark cages who capture the attention of a massive shark. Some of the divers probably started freaking out when they saw the massive creature headed their way, but one of the divers who ventured out of the cage got close enough to the shark to touch its fin, and the shark simply swims around him and doesn't appear to be bothered by his "finshake" or the divers' presence.[Source: Danny Gallagher, CNET, June 11, 2015]

I remember glancing through an Esquire magazine in the 1970s and seeing an article about an Australian crocodile wrestler that was going to battle a great white shark in swimming pool...but I never did find out what happened.

Captive Great White Shark

Humans have had relatively poor luck keeping great white sharks in captivity. Before the early 2000s the longest any great white had been held was 16 days. Then in 2004, the Monterey Aquarium got a hold of great white youngster and kept in one of their tanks for 198 days before releasing it into Pacific. During its time in the tank, the shark responded to cues for food and swam amicably among tunas, barracudas, turtles and other fish in the tank without trying t eat them.

The young great white shark was was caught accidently by fishermen off Huntington Beach, California in August 2004. It was kept in an ocean pen for 25 days and then transferred to the Monterey Bay, where it was kept in the million gallon tank. The shark ate salmon offered on a pole, didn’t crash into the walls of the tank as other of her kind have done, didn’t get sick, avoided injury and grew much larger, breaking all records for great white activity.

Peter Benchley and Great White Sharks

Peter Benchley

“Jaws” began as a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley. The book was a bestseller. By the time movie version debuted in June 1975 the novel had sold 5.5 million copies in the U.S.. The number would eventually reach 9.5 million copies. “Jaws” was inspired by a story about a massive great white harpooned off Montauk, Long Island in by New York shark fisherman Frank Mundus in 1964. Benchley knew of the famous 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that left four dead but that event wasn’t an inspiration for the book as is sometimes claimed. [Source: Wikipedia]

Peter Benchley, the author of “ Jaws”, said that he regretted the bad rap he gave great whites. "I couldn't write “ Jaws” today," he told Time in the early 2000s. “It used to be believed that great white sharks did target humans; now we know that except in the rarest instances, great white shark attacks are mistakes.” Until his death in 2006 Benchley devoted himself to ocean conservation and was an advocate for shark’s rights.

Describing his encounter with a great white in the Bahamas, Benchley wrote in National Geographic, "The shark was as shocked to see me as I was to see it. It stopped dead in the water, braking with its two pectoral fins, voided its bowels, and fled. The movie was filmed in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. In July 2008, two beaches in the area were closed when a real great white shark was seen swimming in the area.

Frank Mundus — the Great White Shark Hunter Who Inspired Jaws

Great white sharks are sometimes pursued by sports fishermen. One shark boat operator told Smithsonian magazine, “The great white shark is one of the easiest of fishes to catch,” the sharks will follow bait right to the boat.

Frank Mundus, a legendary shark fisherman and guide that worked out of Montauk, Long Island, was the model for the character Quint in book and film “Jaws”. Some even say he was the inspiration of the book and the film. Peter Benchely, the author of “Jaws” went out with him several times and was enthralled by the way he harpooned huge sharks with lines attached to barrels to track the shark while it ran to exhaustion. Benchley was also fascinated by the 1,450-kilogram great white shark he harpooned in June 1961 off the beaches of Amagansett, New York, sparking a wave of fear along the shore there. [Source: Corey Kilgannon, New York Times, August 10, 2007]

Nicknamed the Monster Man, Mundus continued to wear a gold hoop earing in his left ear and a gold chain with a shark tooth around his neck in to his 80s. He sailed out of a boat called Cricket II and was as famous for his stories as he was for his expertise on catching sharks. The tooth he wears comes from a 3,427-pound great white shark he caught in 1986, the heaviest fish of any kind caught with a rod and reel.

Frank Mundus at Montauk Point, Long Island, New York

Mundus, who retired to Hawaii in the 1990s, is little bitter about he way he was treated by Benchley, he told the New York Times, “If he just would have thanked me, my business would have increased. Everything he wrote was true except I didn’t get eaten by the big shark, dragged him in.” Mundus’s sport has changed a lot since its heyday. The biggest sharks caught now, around 300 pounds, would have been considered minnows in his day. Also there is a ban on killing several-ton pilot whales, which Mundus tied next to his boat to attract sharks.

Describing an out with Mundus Corey Kilgannon wrote in the New York Times, “The first of six large buckets of chum, a bloody soup of ground up fish, was ladled into the water to attract sharks. The belly of a four-foot brown shark was slit and its dripping carcass was strung on a rope with a half dozen striped bass bodies. The rope was lowered into the water...Soon there was a mile-long slick of meat, blood and oil — Mr. Mundus calls his special mixture monster mash — whose smell in the water attracts sharks. The men prepared hooks with a smorgasbord of baits — whiting, squid, mackerel, tuna and chunks of blue shark — and lowered them to various depths.”

There was some waiting. “Suddenly one of the poles set in holders of the side of the white 42-foot fishing boat doubled over as something strong down there pulled the line out fast. ‘Somebody take the pole,’ Mr. Mundus barked. Somebody did and soon a nine-foot thresher shark was splashing off the stern. Its long narrow tail slashed through the water and smacked Mr. Mundus in the shoulder, sending him reeling backward...But the Monster Man struck back, planting his large gaff — a giant fish hook on a pole — through the shark’s back and hauled it into the boat. As the decks ran scarlet with the blood of the flopping 150-pound shark. Mr. Mundus seemed happy for the first time all morning.”

Abalone and Sea Urchin Divers and Great White Sharks

But commercial divers and shark researchers worked among great whites for many years, as have untold surfers and swimmers who never knew they were being checked out from below. Abalone divers in southern Australia swim in great white territory all the time, and have more-first hand experience with them than any other group of people. Neil Williams, a full time diver, had a Great White come at him head on in 1983. To save himself he shoved his bag of abalone shells into the monsters mouth and was able to escape with only a lacerated finger. Another diver, Damond Edmund, was diving with an air hose and pinned by a great white for three hours in a trench until another diver arrived in cage to drive the shark off.

Divers collecting abalone today either swim with a backpack consisting of a series of metal bars that run the length of their body, or work near a mobile shark cage, specifically developed for abalone gathering. The divers don't actually work in the cage but it always nearby in case there is a shark in the area. Abalone divers in southern Australia needless to say make pretty good money. Some make $385,000 during the 80-day season.

Off the Farallones islands near San Francisco, a seas urchin diver named Joe Burke has swum with great whites for more than a decade. He earns as much as $2,000 a day and swims with a backpack consisting of a series of metal bars that run the length of his body. He said seven great whites have passed within 10 feet of him. He told Sports Illustrated, "Some of the sharks are so fat and huge, they look like freight trains. It gets your heart pumping and makes you feel alive. But after a couple of passes they decide you're not food and don't come back. If they did, I wouldn't be diving there.”

"Most of the time they're pretty wary," Ron Elliott, a sea-urchin diver, told the Los Angeles Times. He has worked in the cold, rough waters of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge, for 15 years.The islands are a feeding ground for great whites, and Elliott encountered one on about every other dive. "They don't want to get injured. They're all scarred up by elephant seals. They're kind of the sneak-attack type. Sometimes they come up at you exercising their jaws. You got to go around and poke them. Usually, if you show some aggression, they back off. "I had one instance where there was going to be a serious attack. He was going to speed-rush me. But I looked at him and he broke off." Elliott accepted them as a manageable hazard of doing business in their world." [Source: Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2011]

Michael Phelps Versus Great White Shark

In July 2017 — as part of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week — retired competitive swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with a total of 28 medals, “raced” a great white shark in a television special the disappointed many as Phelps did not actually swimming alongside a shark. [Source: Kimberly Nordyke, Hollywood Reporter, July 23, 2017]

Describing what transpired, Kimberly Nordyke wrote in the Hollywood Reporter: “Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White found Phelps and a group of scientists working to record the speed of, first, a hammerhead shark and then a great white shark. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” Phelps said of his interest in taking on the challenge. The team developed a special device to record the sharks’ swimming speed. Dubbed a “cutting-edge water vehicle prototype” featuring lightweight carbon fiber, the “pontoon bike” was trailed by bait to entice the shark to follow quickly behind as its speed was measured.

First tested was a hammerhead whose top speed was measured at 15 miles an hour; it traveled 50 meters in just over 15 seconds. Compare that with Phelps’ speed of just over 5.5 miles an hour when he broke the world record in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2009 World Championships. “Honestly, my first thought when I saw the shark was, ‘There’s very little chance for me to beat him,'” Phelps said.

Wearing a monofin to simulate a shark’s movements — and to maximize his speed and the volume of water he was able to push with each kick — Phelps swam 50 meters in the ocean off the Bimini coast and came in at 18.7 seconds, with the team comparing his time to that of a hammerhead and a reef shark. While he didn’t beat the hammerhead, which swam the distance in 15.1 seconds, he was able to beat the reef shark by 0.2 seconds, swimming at 6 miles an hour. Phelps “raced” the great white in South Africa. He was given a modified monofin in an effort to improve his speed. He water in South Africa was cold — 13 degrees C (56 degrees) much colder than the water in an Olympic pool.

In case you were wondering, Phelps did not race side by side with the sharks; rather, images of the sharks were displayed alongside Phelps as he swam using CGI technology. Some viewers expressed disappointment on Twitter that he wasn’t actually swimming in the water with the shark: “Michael Phelps is racing a CGI shark. The world is yet again a meme,” wrote one. Tristan Guttridge, a scientist leading the effort, explained: “Clearly, we can’t put Michael in one lane and a shark in the far lane. We have to do simulation. We’ll use our speed data that we’ve [collected] in all our testing.” Phelps himself had said in interviews leading up to the broadcast that he wouldn’t actually be swimming in the water at the same time as the shark. Meanwhile, Phelps worked on a new stroke as he practiced for the race. “I’m gonna have to swim, and act, like a shark,” Phelps said ahead of the race, as he was seen swimming what looked like a sideways butterfly stroke.

So what happened. Phelps swam the 100 meters in 38.1 seconds, while the shark did the same length in 36.1 seconds, beating Phelps by two seconds. At the start of the race, Phelps reached a speed of 8.8 miles an hour, swimming faster than the shark, but then the shark took the lead at the 25-meter mark, and Phelps was unable to overcome the creature’s lead.

Chinese Food Blogger Fined $18,500 For Eating Great White Shark

In January 2023, a Chinese blogger was fined $18,514 after illegally buying, cutting up, cooking and eating a two-meter (six-foot) -long great white shark, Bloomberg reported, and posting a video of it. One image shows blogger lying next to the shark. [Source: Joshua Zitser, Business Insider, January 30, 2023]

According to Business Insider: The blogger, identified by officials only as Jin, and known as Tizi in her videos, broke wildlife protection laws in China when she bought and consumed the shark in April 2022, officials in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan. The blogger is well-known for posting mukbang videos, where influencers film themselves taking part in extreme-eating challenges. She has previously streamed herself eating crocodiles and ostriches, and had 7.8 million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

According to the media outlet, Jin paid 7,700 yuan ($1,141) to buy the shark on Alibaba's Taobao shopping platform. She then posted videos on Douyin and Kuaishou, another video-sharing platform, according to Bloomberg. The videos show her picking up a roughly 6.6-foot shark from a store before slicing, cooking, and eating it. The videos went viral in China, but were swiftly met with backlash. Great white sharks are legally protected in China. Illegal possession and the unlawful trade of wildlife products in China can lead to fines or a prison sentence.

Authorities in Sichuan Province started investigating the food blogger in August 2022. At the time, Jin claimed that she had bought the great white shark legally and said she was looking for a lawyer. "These people are talking nonsense," she said, per the South China Morning Post. Two individuals involved in catching and selling the animal have also been arrested, according to Bloomberg.

Swimming with Great Whites Without a Gage

Joe Mozingo wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In the last few years, divers...have been debunking the sinister reputation of the so-called man-eater.Certainly, a great white might take a taste of you if you're not looking, which might in turn kill you. It happens once in a while. But face-to-face — for the rare person with the disposition to desire such a meeting — they are wary and shy, if not a bit curious. Once comfortable with you, they might let you touch them, even hang on to their dorsal fins and ride them. They'll show you when they're angry by head-bumping you, or hungry by rushing you, but usually a good thwack on the nose will send them reeling in shock. [Source: Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2011]

A South African named Andre Hartman is often credited as the first diver to leave the cage to interact with great whites. He swims among great whites in chum-filled waters off South Africa without a cage. If the sharks get too close he taps their nose with a spear gun. He told National Geographic, "They're interested — but not really to eat me, just to see who I am. They think I'm feeding off the same thing they're smelling." From a boat Hartman occasionally pets great whites on the nose.

Mike Rutzen perhaps has spent more time in the water with great white sharks than any other person. He runs a cage-diving business in Gansbaai, South Africa and has taken actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (three times) and Britain’s Prince Harry out on cage trips and was shown on an “Animal Planet” program swimming among eight great white sharks without a cage. In the footage he is shown stroking one on the nose, prompting it to open its mouth just a few centimeters from his face. The sharks scatter when a large 15-foot female shows up. The female swims around Rutzen a few times. He grabs a hold of her dorsal fin and rides her for about 100 meters.

Rutzen told Smithsonian magazine, “The first time I was really scared. I was right up near the boat and she came close to me. I nervously prodded her away with a spear gun. She swam away a few yards, turned and surged back at me. She thrust her face at mine and opened wide her enormous mouth to show me her teeth, and swam away, She was saying, “Don’t do that again.” Filmmaker Malcolm Ludgate, petted some great white sharks from within a cage told National Geographic, "If you avoid the bite bits, you can pet some of them quite nicely. You wouldn't believe something that big could come in that close and be so quiet."

Great White Sharks and Tourism

Reporting from off Cape Cope, Massachusetts, Erik Vance wrote in National Geographic: “One bright August morning I board a two-seater plane with Wayne Davis, a veteran spotter pilot for tuna and swordfish who now helps scientists track down white sharks. The water here is so shallow that sharp eyes can spot them from the air. In just 30 minutes of flying we see seven, all patrolling beaches where gray seals are foraging in open waters. On the way back Davis and I fly past several beaches a mile or so to the north packed with vacationers. [Source: Erik Vance, National Geographic, July 2016]

“So far locals have embraced their new neighbors. There are stuffed animals, T-shirts, posters, and a community art exhibit called “Sharks in the Park.” Even the new high school’s mascot is a great white. Most of the time the sharks are shown from the side — cheerful, buffoonish. Experts warn, though, that at some point someone here will meet the other version — the one with teeth.

“Attacks on people are incredibly rare. In waters off California, the chances of a surfer being bitten by a great white shark are one in 17 million; for swimmers, it’s even rarer — one attack in every 738 million beach visits, according to a recent Stanford University study. On Cape Cod, fatalities may not be a question of if, but when. The last lethal shark attack off New England was in 1936, but there have been several close calls recently. A swimmer there was bitten on both legs in 2012, and two paddlers in Plymouth were knocked from their kayaks in 2014, although they escaped unscathed. If a more serious attack happens, Massachusetts will join the other hubs in weighing the benefits versus the dangers of sharks in their waters.

Great White Shark Cage Tourism

In areas that contain great white sharks, boaters and dive operators can earn a living from “shark tourism”, which consists mainly of allowing visitors to see great white sharks up close from the safety of a steel cage suspended in the water. Tourist and divers in boats and cages seeking great white shark has become a big business, particularly in South Africa, where boat operators know where and when to find the big sharks. To attract great whites many fishing and tourism operators throw chum made of sardines, tuna and fish blood into the water. Great whites can smell this a mile way, thinking there’s been kill.

There are some ethical concerns with shark-cage diving though. According to USA TODAY: While shark-related activities such as cage diving can help break the stigma around great white sharks, there are some who are concerned about the ethics and impact on the sharks themselves. Some say the bait or targets used to lure sharks has changed sharks' behaviors, which can be dangerous for the shark and people.

Many scientists oppose the practice, Marine biologist George Burgess told Smithsonian magazine, “Sharks are trainable animals. They learn to associate the humans and the sound of the boat engines with food, just like Pavlov’s dog and the bell, so what we really have then is an underwater circus.”

Great White Shark Cage Diving in South Africa

Describing his experience doing a cage dive with sharks in Gansbaai, about 160 kilometers from Cape Town, South Africa Paul Raffaele wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “I scrambled into the dive cage with three other shark watchers. We duck our heads underwater to watch the shark as it chases the bait.” The shark had been attracted by a chum thrown in the water and a tuna head that is pulled onto the boat before the shark can get it.

“As it swims by us, its snout bumps against the cage. I stand up on a bar across the middle of the cage, my body halfway out of the water. Rutzen yells ‘shark!’ and the great white break the surface with its snout and looks directly at me. For a few moments I feel real terror, Hardenberg flings the bait again, and the shark follows it to the boat, coming so close that I can reach down and touch its rough skin. The shark doesn’t notice it’s focus is on the tuna. Three more great whites arrive, attracted by the chum. They follow the bait, ignoring the bigger and tastier meal — me — just inches from their giant jaws.”

“One shark bucks the system. For the fifth time it follows the tuna head toward the boat, When Hardenberg takes the tuna aboard, the shark body-slams the small cage, almost knocking me off my perch. As I cling to the bars, it swats at me with its enormous tail barley missing my head....I stay at the top of the cage as the great white makes ten more lunges at the boat. It’s a thrill. It’s terrifying?”

New Zealand Town Fears Great White Sharks Lured by Cage Divers

In 2018, New Zealand banned shark cage-diving activities at least in part because what happened to Oban, a town on Stewart Island near where cage-diving with great white sharks was a popular tourist activity. Eleanor Ainge Roy wrote in The Guardian: Sixty-two-year-old Richard “Squizzy” Squires runs La Loma fishing charters. A few years ago, after the introduction of cage diving in 2007, Squires says he was followed by a six-meter (20-foot) great white shark, which swam alongside his 12-meter boat for an hour and a half. He has also had his boat attacked on two occasions, when a great white (he suspects it was the same one each time) lunged at the float attached to the stern of his craft. “When [the operators] say they don’t follow boats, that’s a crock of shit,” says Squires. “The last few years those sharks have shown an unhealthy interest in boats, and they are acting more aggressively. No other shark cage-diving operations operate this close to a tourist resort that is involved with the sea.” [Source: Eleanor Ainge Roy, The Guardian, January 29, 2016]

Stewart Island — Rakiura — is New Zealand’s third largest island. It is located 30 kilometers south of Bluff, at the bottom of the South Island. Phillip Smith, 72, a Rakiura Maori elder, says the sharks have “always been here”, but in his boyhood they were rarely seen, and largely kept to the north-west corner of the island, far from the modest township of Oban in Halfmoon Bay.

“On the day we meet, Smith has just spotted an 3.5-meter great white swimming alongside his boat in Paterson Inlet, with a significant wound on its head. “It is quite amazing the level of interaction between humans and sharks now. We see them all the time and not just one, sometimes three or four surrounding our boats,” he says. “The sharks’ behaviour has changed since the cage diving started, no doubt about it. Now when they see a boat, or a float, the sharks associate it with food. We are being targeted, and it’s only a matter of time before they get someone.”

“In 2008 two shark cagediving businesses began operating — unregulated — off Stewart Island, mostly dropping their anchor near Edward Island, eight kilometers across the water from Oban. Initially, many locals were excited about the new venture and the prospect of extra tourist dollars. At NZ$450-630 (US$290-410) a dive, the hope was that the high-end tourist market would spend their money in Oban, too. But according to a significant number of Stewart Islanders who spend their days in or on the sea — paua (abalone) divers, fisherman and charter boat operators — when cage-diving began, the sharks’ behaviour changed dramatically. Where once they were rarely seen, and shy of boats and humans, now every day there were reports flooding into “the office” — as South Seas hotel is known — of sharks following boats for hours on end, attacking floats and buoys, and swimming uncomfortably close to divers.

Guadalupe, Mexico — Best Place for Cage Diving with Great White Sharks — Bans It

Isla Guadalupe, a volcanic island 241 kilometers (160 miles) off the western coast of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula, is regarded as "the best places in the world for white shark cage diving". The giant great white Deep Blue was filmed there. According to USA TODAY: The clear waters surrounding the small island are warm and flourishing with seals, bluefin tuna and other diverse marine life, making it an ideal environment for great white sharks. Over the past two decades, the great white population has increased around the island, with males returning annually and pregnant females coming every two years during the fall and winter. [Source: Kathleen Wong, USA TODAY, February 9, 2023]

In 2005, the Mexican government categorized the island and its surrounding marine area as a Biosphere Reserve. In 2019, about 2,800 visitors participated in some sort of shark cage tourism at Isla Guadalupe. From 2014 until 2019, the number of shark cage diving vessel operators increased from six to 10. This activity has become one of the top economic drivers in the area.

In January 2023, the government of Mexico permanently banned shark-related tourism activities around Isla Guadalupe. The National Commission of Protected Natural Areas announced the permanent suspension of shark-watching activities, sport fishing and the use of non-scientific drones. "In the Reserve, it will not be possible to carry out the observation of white sharks for tourism purposes, to avoid altering their habitat, behavior and feeding sites, and thereby preserve and conserve the species," the new Management Program states.

This isn't the first time the government has tried to limit shark tour operations around the island. From last May until the end of 2022, sport fishing and shark-watching were suspended so the government could gather information on "best sustainability practices."

Due to the indefinite ban, tour companies have been forced to shut down operations. In a Facebook post, San Diego-based MV Horizon Charters said, "Unfortunately, the closure of Guadalupe Island has left us financially tapped out," adding that it will refund any deposits to customers and has a new operator taking the company in a "new direction" by the end of the month.

Others are fighting back against the ban. Another shark tour company, Be A Shark, posted online that "the cage diving boats have been the most practical means of monitoring, allowing constant cost-effective access to independent observers and researchers." The company said it will "negotiate with the authorities to implement policies and procedures that will ensure the continued monitoring of white sharks at this critically important location."

Image Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2023

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