Shark Week 2016, Pt. I: Shark n' Awe!

Like many people, I've had my philosophical and political differences with Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week over the years. A couple of years back, when the channel decided that making their own fictional movies -- called "docudramas" -- was the new direction for Shark Week, I almost checked out for good. But, last year, Discovery seemed to have sworn off the fake Megalodon crap (I am not saying Megalodon was fake, just the fictional films that Discovery Channel made about the beast existing in modern times that that they disguised and hid among their actual documentaries), and made a full dive back into real science, or at least as close as you can get to real science when what you are really doing is selling advertising still at least partially based around the public's irrational fear of a naturally occurring sea creature. And despite my own emotions over the programming ranging from disgruntled (over the barely disguised fishing shows that would sneak in during the event's early years) to outright pissed off (the docudramas), I cannot help but continue to tune back in each and every year to see the latest batch of shark-stuffed specials.

My chief gripe is with how Shark Week is promoted. While it seems there is a focus on Discovery Channel helping the general public to learn more about sharks, and the cutesy/psychedelic advertising campaign used this year aside, it is quite evident that the motivational device for getting that public to tune in to this event each year (and to a great majority -- but not all -- of the specials, in individual ad campaigns) is FEAR. Plain and simple. They employ increasingly provocative titles, where sharks are called "monsters" and "serial killers," when in fact, neither of these terms, in the popular parlance, are appropriate when matched up to shark behavior throughout the superorder. But I do understand the reasons behind this: ratings and money. It is hard to get people who aren't already obsessed with sharks to tune in to something called Normal, Everyday Fish with Naturally Large, Sharp Teeth Capturing a Meal Using Instinctual Behavior. This is especially so with the expansion of cable competition out there today. With sharks -- as it is with lions and tigers and bears (oh something!), and most certainly wolves -- there is a built-in goosebumps factor from thousands of years of primal human fear of their very existence in our waters, let alone sporadic and rather rare attacks on people. Oh, yeah... and some species, like the great white and the mako, just happen to look really scary (to some people).

As a result, sharks just can't win the publicity battle on any turn. It is hard to promote them, or even use them in a film, without focusing in on their more salacious points (and not just the teeth). As much as I love sharks, Steven Spielberg's Jaws, is in my Top Ten films of all time, and I have seen it easily over fifty times in my life. And yet, I must simultaneously acknowledge the massive damage the film did to shark populations in the mid-1970s when the popularity of the film, publicly perceived as a horror film, inspired worldwide panic and led directly to the wholesale slaughter of sharks by anyone inclined to go out and attack any of the over 500 species that weren't great whites that they happened upon in the water. Jaws comes with a lot of baggage, and I totally understand why there are some quite vociferous shark fans out there who blast the film every chance they get.

But... it is also very much a fact that Jaws and the aftermath of its release to bookshelves and theatres turned a tremendous amount of people, myself included, into huge shark fans for life. Even the author of the original novel, Peter Benchley, was horrified at what he had inadvertently caused and turned to very public shark and ocean conservation for the remainder of his life. (Spielberg? It would have been nice for him to have said anything at all, so I get why people are still mad at him.) It is hard to prove precisely, but in my opinion, Shark Week doesn't exist without the hold that Jaws created, and it is also likely that the current shark conservation movement, at this level, wouldn't either. You can damn Jaws all you want, but it happened, and we are at this moment in time. Would we care as much about illegal fishing operations where millions of sharks are hacked up for just their fins and their bodies unceremoniously dropped back into the water, and where sharks (along with many other species of dolphins, whales, and sea turtles) are long-lined or caught in nets that drown them, without being shocked and riled up in the wake of Jaws?

You can also damn Shark Week all you want for various perceived slights from year to year (as I have), but if the positive public perception of sharks is the desired effect, I guess sometimes one has to use the more negative or fearful aspects to build to that effect. Using music better suited to a straight horror movie over footage of sharks is exceedingly annoying, but hell, they do the same thing on Food Network every night, stacking grinding, screeching noises over the top of a chef's flawed entree to add supposed suspense to a competition that should already have enough drama merely from the fact that top-level culinary skills are being judged by experts for large cash prizes. Such music and effects are truly grating to the senses, but they haven't turned me off from eating food (yet). So, I suppose that I can ignore it (at least for short periods) in a shark documentary.

What was refreshing about many of this year's Shark Week specials was that the element of fear seemed to have been downplayed within the actual shows themselves. True to Discovery's stated intent, the past couple of years has definitely shown a return to more scientific focus, or at least the appearance of such focus. Gone are the Syfy-style fake documentaries (hopefully for good, but don't cross your fingers), but some of the fearful, horror movie trappings continue to be used in many cases. Still, they decided to have the subtitle tag Shark 'n Awe attached to the event this year, a place off of "shock and awe," military terminology for the use of a display of extreme force and power to literally shock the enemy into complacency and possible surrender. So, even though the punning title seems silly and fun, it is still based on a place of fear. As I said, you can't win when trying to promote sharks.

Shark Week 2016 - "Shark 'n Awe"

Sunday, June 26
One of my biggest complaints is that there are simply too many specials each year that concentrate almost exclusively on the great white shark. It's not hard to figure out why. They are crazy cool and crazy scary at the same time, and Discovery capitalizes on this identification as much as possible for maximum ratings. (And don't get me wrong... great whites are my favorite ocean-going animal as well.) But with 500 species of shark out there, including some other big name "man-eater" species, I love it when episodes come along that give other sharks their own spotlight. For the opening night of Shark Week 2016, two of the three shows were about other species: the tiger shark and the short-fin mako, both as cool as the great white and both equally worthy of deeper investigation.

Tiger Beach -- Dr. Neil Hammerschlag of the University of Miami leads his team to Nassau, Bahamas to a spot known as "Tiger Beach". In mostly quite shallow water, their intent is to find out why such a large congregation of tiger sharks have been gathering here more frequently. Reasons such as the free meals given out by shark-diving operations (possibly, but the sharks are opportunistic and move on quickly when the chum runs out) or to feed on loggerhead turtles (not enough of a turtle population to drive such numbers of sharks) are given, but what is the real drive for this migration to Tiger Beach? Hammerschlag's team, many of them students, seem rather at ease bringing in large tigers to the side of the boat and stepping right in (and sometimes almost falling in) to take blood samples and measurements, while also tagging each shark. Hammerschlag has set up a series of 34 hydrophones around the area that are triggered when each tagged shark swims into range, allowing him to study their movements and determine what their purpose is here.

Tiger Beach has several "Aha!" moments that make it a very intriguing special. In an early dive sequence, Hammerschlag is so taken with teaching us about his hydrophone system (narrating directly to us in his mask) that he fails to see a large tiger coming right at him from behind. Soon, the divers are surrounding by a great many sharks, all growing bolder and therefore more dangerous with each pass, even though no food is being handed out to them. The team makes a break for it before things get too dicey. The key portion of the film is where they employ portable ultrasound and use it on the sharks that they pull in for tagging. We get to see the first live ultrasound images of the beating heart of a male tiger shark, and the eggs developing inside a female. But, if anything is going to make me love a show instantly it's the prospect of seeing baby sharks, even if they haven't been born yet. Tiger Beach started the week off wonderfully for me, as the team lures an extremely pregnant female to the side of their boat. Putting her upside-down into tonic immobility while they pump water through her to allow her to continue breathing, the team uses the ultrasound to reveal at least twenty pups, about two-thirds developed, inside her. When the ultrasound footage is shown on the screen, graphics are superimposed to show us a clearer idea of what the pups would look like. Unborn sharks! (Were I a fangirl, I would "Squeee!" I may anyway...) A pretty good start to Shark Week for me.

Return of the Monster Mako -- This special is a sequel to a previous show entitled Monster Mako from 2015, where two teams of scientists from the Harte Research Institute in Corpus Christi worked with makos around a series of oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to determine how fast makos could actually swim and if the sharks were approximating the same breaching behavior when making kills as some collections of great whites do. While I do have problems when people, especially scientists, employ the term "monster" in describing animals who are readily identifiable and well-known, to a certain extent, the name is arguably appropriate in this year's special. The makos that are being studied in Return, in two different locations -- Catalina Island and Black Rock in Rhode Island -- are especially large specimens, exceeding half a ton, known as "granders." The most common site in Shark Week this year and last, apart from sharks, are the now omnipresent camera tags that are employed by researchers to film shark movement underwater and collect research data. It was the very rare special this year that didn't have scenes of researchers attempting, sometimes hilariously and often dangerously, to attach the camera tags onto the dorsal fins of their subjects. 

While the basic plotline of the show was interesting enough, I really liked the added details that cropped up: the finding of a baby mako shark (28 inches long), that was pretty adorable in all of its toothy cuteness; dolphins feeding off a "bait ball"; and underwater visions of masses of jellyfish, marlin, and a smooth hammerhead crossing the paths of the filmmakers. The most impressive scene is when a large female grander is hooked and she tows the boat backwards briefly. I did have a problem with what I perceived as overacting for the cameras by a couple of the divers. Late in the show, yells of "What the hell is that!" and "That thing is terrifying!" are heard... just before cutting to commercial. The yells were probably natural -- you try diving into dark waters with a thousand pound mako; everything will be terrifying -- but they seemed forced, like the director told them before they dived, "Hey, we've got nothin'... let's punch this up a bit!"

Isle of Jaws -- This special starts off at Australia's Neptune Islands, where the usually large group of great whites seems to have been disappearing as of late. A few possibilities are given: attacks by pods of orcas (one of the great white's few predators), climate changes brought on by El Nino, or simply sharks migrating to feed or hump in a different area. Andy Casagrande, a photographer and filmmaker who will appear on many of this year's Shark Week specials, sets out to find out where they have gone. There is an early scene where his team places underwater speakers to use "acoustical attraction" to see if they can draw any of the normal sharks in the Neptune Islands area. The song is Morphine's bass-forward (as usual) Sharks (Patrol These Waters), and if that song can only bring in a single great white, then you know they have definitely gone elsewhere. Due to numerous reports of great white sharks being in the area where they hadn't previously, Andy and his team, including captain Matt Waller and Dr. Jonathan Werry, go to a spot in "uncharted waters" (yeah, right) that, at least for this show, is called the "Isle of Jaws". Diving in to take a census of sharks in the area, Andy and Matt see eight in two hours, all of them males, six of them juveniles who hang in the shallower waters, while the two older sharks loom in the deep below. Later, they find ten more males over a 24-hour period. Where are the females? Well, the Isle of Jaws is just a few miles away from some well-known great white pupping grounds. So is this a male great white waiting room, or could it just be a gay shark nightclub? (And there is nothing wrong with that at all...)

There is a sequence in Isle of Jaws where the team employs a motorized mobile cage unit into which Andy and Matt climb to dive down relatively safely amongst the sharks. My naturally skeptical self rather scoffed at the moment when Matt's tank gets caught in the structure and he accidentally triggers the side door of the craft to pop open, leaving them dangerously exposed to the circling sharks. (My notes even read "looks phony".) I am always trying to find the seams in these shows, but in watching the sequence again and again, it looks more and more to me like a true accident that could have turned out to be fatal for either of them. Dr. Werry comes in to camera tag a big shark (see?), but when the tag detaches days later, they don't locate it until the next day. What results though is some really cool POV footage of the shark making its way through the blue waters around the Isle of Jaws. While the show never gets close to fully answering the questions it poses, the POV footage is a satisfying conclusion to the adventure. I am hoping there is a sequel to this story next year.

Monday, June 27
Shallow Water Invasion -- This title seems rather forced, coming off like an almost obvious marketing tie-in (though I can't say if it is intentional) to the release of the theatrical feature film, The Shallows (itself a pretty groovy good time at the movies -- review later). The fact that there are commercials for the film and Save the Sharks spots featuring The Shallows star Blake Lively in between segments (and all throughout Shark Week 2016) makes it seem even more so. The increase in recent years of large sharks patrolling the shallow coastal waters which humans frequent is the subject of this special, where two separate teams -- one off Guadalupe Island in Mexico and the other switching between South Florida and Bimini in the Bahamas -- study and tag sharks to discover just what is attracting them to the shallows. The Atlantic-bound sections have Dr. Sam Gruber and his team employing a combination of helicopters, drones, tags, and a pretty neat eagle ray decoy to locate and study hammerheads that are infiltrating the coast. It turns out, at least in one example, that the hammers are attempting to feed off a shiver of much smaller blacktip sharks (estimated to be in the number of 2,000 sharks) who are converging near the beaches. The Guadalupe sections find Shark Week perennial Mauricio Hoyos and his team taking to the water for more tagging activities and diving in a submersible named Explorer. Previously tagged sharks revealed new information about more frequent excursions into the shallows, but the emphasis in this section is really on the Explorer, which gets attacked by one great white in a nifty scene. In the final section of the show, the Explorer drives about in the dark of night, which allows for some very atmospheric shots of the whites swimming alongside the craft, where the conclusion is that they are using the full moon above to hunt their prey from the shallower water.

Jaws of the Deep -- This special is "all Guadalupe, all the time," which is just fine with me. The water is beautiful and blue, and the great whites are going to huge. Dr. Greg Skomal, along with the ever-present Hoyos and the REMUS SharkCam team. A previous special featured SharkCam I, which was effective but was attacked in a cool POV shot by a great white. Jaws of the Deep is pretty much that first show multiplied. SharkCam I gets attacked in this new episode right at the start by a shark named "Scarboard," and so -- TAH-DAH! -- SharkCam II is introduced. SharkCam II can dive many times deeper than the more limited original version, but it still has the same propensity for getting tasted by rather large sharks. SharkCam II finds Scarboard around 500 ft. deep, and a first is recorded on film: the act of a shark using "gliding" behavior, where the shark stops moving its tail and body, and uses its own weight to dive down deeper while still progressing forward, thus conserving energy and using its fins to control its descent. It is one of the more impressive moments that I have seen captured on Shark Week thus far. Another fine sequence is where a large female, Emma, is filmed while possibly napping at night, apparently in a catatonic state while still moving through the water. 

My favorite cliché of Shark Week is one that I had not seen in the various permutations of Shark Week drinking games that I have found online (probably because most drinking games are invented by people who just need any excuse to drink more, and not by people really concerned with accuracy). It is what I call "Last Day" Syndrome. Any year of Shark Week can be counted upon to provide a few examples of "Last Day" Syndrome, often employing narrated lines like "It was their last day out on the ocean, and their last chance to get so-and-so," and this year was no different. (Such statements are the "In a world..." or shark documentaries.) Jaws of the Deep gets the first crack at this cliché by quite literally telling viewers it is their "last day" on this excursion. Had I been a small mass of people upon hearing this stated, we would have all raised our hands simultaneously and shouted, "Hooray!" As it is, I calmly made a notation of the occurrence while smiling and shaking my head. Shark Week documentaries may not always achieve their goals within a 42-minute timeframe, but I got what I wanted out of this one.

Sharks Among Us -- There have been numerous Shark Week specials through the years where the drive behind the episode to figure out forms of repelling sharks to make diving, swimming, surfing, and beaches safer for everyone. Sharks Among Us falls into that category. Such documentaries are usually my least favorite of any Shark Week, but not when Dr. Craig O'Connell is involved. O'Connell, a marine biologist and founder of the O'Seas Conservation Foundation, has a very likable personality, but that is not what makes me enjoy his specials. Despite his obvious experience in dealing with marine animals, there is still a very apparent awkwardness and palpable fear when he takes to the water in dives and explorations. I rather like other regular hosts in these specials like Chris Fallows and Andy Casagrande, but those guys seem like hardcore, unshakable veterans compared to O'Connell. While O'Connell is every bit the researcher and scientist as anyone in these shows, his quite discernible discomfort in certain situations adds a very human element to the proceedings. He quite reminds me of either a less blustery Beau Bridges or a long-lost Wilson brother (of Beach Boys fame).

O'Connell's drive is discovering new ways to make the water safer for his fellow humans when encountering sharks, at least from what I gather from this special and a later one this year titled Jungle Shark. Sharks Among Us concerns his work will studying the effects of large, barium ferrite magnets upon the senses of sharks. Specifically, O'Connell is testing a new form of underwater barrier, consisting of long shafts of PVC piping and intermittently placed magnets. When his early design proves to not work so well against ocean areas with heavier swells, he dives into the kelp forests off of South Africa to study how sea lions use the kelp as a visual deterrent against great whites, and how the kelp moves in the water. He reconfigures his design. Eventually, for testing purposes, he creates a "Square of Death" (probably not the best name for marketing something that may eventually benefit the public, but of course, this is just a test version) made up of his pipes-and-magnets combo but with a solid bottom to keep interested sharks from popping up unexpectedly underneath. Still, if they aren't deterred by the magnets, there is the very real danger they could just glide into the cage through the waving pipes. His first attempt becomes too much for O'Connell, for when they are stalked by a very curious great white, he has to get out of the water to gather himself for awhile. Luckily for O'Connell and team, the next shown attempt -- wherein the "Last Day" Syndrome is used, this time as a "last chance" to try out his experiment -- he finds success when several great whites test out the barrier and are seemingly repelled each time by the magnets. After this fun documentary employing some interesting science, I will be pleased to see further developments along this line in the future. And more O'Connell, of course.

[To be continued in Part II... click here.]

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