Great White Sharks in Australia Get a Concert from Kiss. But Will the Sharks Care?

Kiss members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley perform in the band's trademark costumes and makeup.
Kiss' underwater concert off the coast of Australia is a long way from Detroit Rock City. (Image credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

Veteran rock band Kiss has played for millions of people around the world, over more than four decades. But today (Nov. 18), Kiss performs for a new type of audience in waters off the coast of Australia: great white sharks.

The band will take the stage on a boat in the Indian Ocean and blast their music through underwater speakers. A small group of eight humans will rock out on a second boat with a glass viewing panel, so they can see the sharks that swim up to investigate the concert.   

The concert, presented by Airbnb, is part of a 12-hour tour to an offshore location near Port Lincoln, Australia, that is known as a feeding ground for great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), an Airbnb representative told Live Science in an email. Rather than using the traditional "chum" —  fish parts and blood strewn in the water to attract the sharks — organizers hope the music will draw the ocean predators in, the representative said.

Related: 7 Unanswered Questions About Sharks

This admittedly "over-the-top experience" was created "to educate people and show them that sharks are worthy of respect, empathy and protection," according to Airbnb. Throughout the day, concertgoers will observe sharks and other marine life in their natural habitat, guided by shark researcher and conservationist Blake Chapman, an editor-at-large for Australian Geographic. 

Studies have shown that sharks can learn to respond to music cues; great white sharks have even demonstrated attraction to heavy metal, according to a documentary broadcast on the Discovery Channel in 2015. But how do sharks hear music, and will they acknowledge Kiss' invitation to rock and roll all night and party every day?

Wall of sound

Unlike humans, sharks don't have outer ears; they listen to their environment through a hole on each side of their head that opens into an inner ear, said Catarina Vila Pouca, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. 

Sharks also have an extra sensory system that mammals lack, known as the lateral line, Vila Pouca told Live Science in an email. This system, found in most bony fish, consists of a canal that runs through the shark's body and is connected to pores in the skin. 

"Both the inner ear and the lateral line have modified sensory hair cells that detect vibrations in the water surrounding the shark," Vila Pouca explained. "These vibrations can come from water turbulence, fish swimming near them or sounds, because sound is produced and propagated by vibrations in the medium — in this case, water." 

Large sharks are especially sensitive to pulsing, low-frequency sounds, possibly because these sounds mimic the noise made by prey in distress, scientists reported in the journal Science in 1963. 

Related: 5 Scary Shark Myths Busted

In 2018 research published in the journal Animal Cognition, Vila Pouca reported that Port Jackson sharks (Heterodontus portusjacksoni) could recognize the sound of a jazz song. Five of the eight sharks the researchers tested learned to respond to the music by swimming to a corner of their tank to receive a food reward, Vila Pouca said.

The relentless, driving beat of rock music — especially the dense, bass-thrumming beats of hard rock and heavy metal — can even attract wild sharks in the open ocean, as Matt Waller, shark tour operator and owner of Adventure Bay Charters in Australia, discovered in 2011.

Waller had heard from a shark tour colleague who experimented with underwater speakers that the sharks behaved differently in the presence of music — particularly rock music, he told Live Science in an email. Waller decided to test his own underwater sound system, and a shark appeared near the boat within the first 10 minutes. 

"When AC/DC's 'Back in Black' was on, he kept rubbing his face on the speaker — and we knew we were onto something," Waller said. Over time, Waller tried many types of music, with varying degrees of success in attracting sharks. "What worked one week didn't always work the next," he said. And some sharks responded differently than others to certain tracks. One shark, a female, would swim up and leap from the water whenever the crew played the Talking Heads song "Sax and Violins," Waller recalled.

"We started paying more attention to the different sharks," he said. However, the crew's observations were only anecdotal, as they were not working in a controlled environment. In 2015, when the Discovery Channel filmed Waller playing heavy metal underwater (tunes by the band Darkest Hour, from Washington, D.C.), the music attracted the attention of two great white sharks; one was 12 feet (3.7 meters) long, and one was 14 feet (4.3 m) long.

Shout it out loud

Now, Waller is partnering with Airbnb to broadcast Kiss' music to great whites. Guitarist Paul Stanley guessed that the apex predators would prefer the Kiss songs "Lick It Up" and "I Want You," he told Rolling Stone.

Sound travels easily through water, and sharks' sensory systems are fine-tuned to detect faint vibrations, raising the possibility that the loud rock music will be stressful for them, and for other marine life near the concert, Vila Pouca said.

"But, of course, this concert is an isolated event and pales in comparison with the extent of sound pollution that we have in the ocean," she added. While the Kiss show is certainly an unusual approach for bringing people and sharks together, perhaps the common ground of rock and roll will encourage a greater awareness of sharks as creatures that are vital to ocean ecosystems and deserving of respect rather than fear, Vila Pouca told Live Science.

"Sharks are very smart and complex animals, capable of learning and remembering associations, with distinct personalities and with complex social lives," she said. "Big events like this concert should encourage a positive public opinion of sharks, which is vital in changing public and political will towards appropriate shark conservation and management strategies." 

Originally published on Live Science.

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Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.