Shark Week 2016, Pt. II: Shock and Maw!

[This is Part II of a three-part recap of Shark Week 2016. To read the introduction and Part I, click here.]

Tuesday, June 28
Wrath of a Great White Serial Killer -- As I mentioned in the prologue to this recap of Shark Week 2016, I disdain documentary titles that play off the shark’s image as nothing more than an unthinking eating machine or lurking monster. Equating them to a singularly human form of predatory slaughter is even worse. This series of docs is the worst offender in my mind, hosted by Brandon McMillan, who comes off (to me at least) as the John Walsh of marine biology, driven by personal near-tragedy to pursue the purpose behind a particular series of shark attacks. The lead case of interest here is a non-fatal (he says “nearly fatal”) great white attack on his friend, surfer Kenny Doudt, off the coast of Oregon in 1979. Kenny finally drowned off the same coast while surfing in 2010, but I don’t see Brandon trying to figure out why the same water that did eventually kill his friend continually returns to the same area with quite the same passion he brings to referring to a random shark at a random spot in the ocean as a “serial killer”. It’s been 37 years, Brandon… Lighten up already…

To be fair, beyond the too obvious CSI-style trappings of his specials, McMillan does make use of various interesting scientific methods to aid him in trying to find out why there seems to be an increase in the numbers of great white attacks and encounters in the colder waters of the Pacific Northwest coastline. He employs a neat laser system to determine shark size from a safe distance from either the boat or the cage. He uses dental wax to create what he calls a "bite-board" to measure and examine the chomp of a great white. In a diving trip to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, he and his fellow researchers tag several sharks to follow their movements. One tagged shark named “Gillrakers” eventually visits the Oregon coast for a couple of weeks and then returns to the Farallones. The reason may be tied up in whale migrations to the Oregon area in March.

Late in the episode, the fear implicit in the title is pumped hardcore into the narrative. In the Farallones dive, a predictable Jaws allusion is spouted when someone says something about needing a bigger cage (another Shark Week drinking game standard), and they even shout (without irony) the old South Park standby, “It’s coming straight for us!” To close the special, a trip to Guadalupe finds McMillan taking to the water in a two-man submersible. When the sharks get a little too inquisitive and test their barriers, he and his fellow diver make a quick exit. The final, leering great white closeup, combined with the rising, pounding music are meant to leave the viewer breathless and with a clear message of the filmmaker’s ultimate intent. I could use less of the hard-boiled detective stance and more of the science. While I will allow for the possibility that an individual shark (or a lion, tiger, or bear) could develop a taste for human flesh and prefer it over other more natural food sources, you cannot possibly equate shark behavior with that of the deranged, sociopathic mind of a human serial killer. This needs to stop for the sake of the sharks.

Air Jaws: Night Stalker -- Another hyperbolic title, but from a much more fun series of docs. The Air Jaws specials have long been the gold standard of shark entertainment, but they verge on pure shark porn at times. (You know, the kind that Chandler Bing might enjoy when Monica is not around.) By shark porn, I mean a heavy concentration on well-filmed footage of humongous South African great whites breaching full-bodied out of the water -- usually in breathtaking slow-motion -- to chomp onto their favorite snack: tasty, blubber-laden Cape fur seals. This special celebrates the tenth anniversary of the first nighttime breaching shots ever taken for the series, but filmmaker Chris Fallows is not content to do a mere clip show. Instead, he has brought the latest in camera technology with him back to the waters of False Bay, South Africa to film more breaches in high-definition, a far cry away from the fuzzy green imagery they first captured in the nighttime.

Fallows’ team uses seal decoys (outfitted with cameras of course) to draw their subjects to them for filming, but of two different varieties, each one at cross purposes with the other. One decoy uses sound and vibration to attract the sharks; the other tests their visual acuity in the darkness. The idea is to see which type the sharks prefer at night. While both decoys bring the sharks in, sound and vibration seems to be more popular one in the dark of the night. Fallows also tags several sharks to track them with a hydrophone, to possibly determine where great whites go when they are not in the immediate area for hunting. Going to an area about 300 yards off the island, Fallows uses a SonarCam to "see" great whites in the water at night. The green-tinged images of the sharks on the viewing screen, while distorted, are still pretty neat to watch. Following this, some seals nearby decide to use the distraction to make a break for it. One shark gives chase momentarily, but when the seals dive really deep, the white gives up the attack. Finally, we get the usual mention of it being the crew's "last night" on the expedition, and the filmmaker does a rather scary night dive in the open water. Night Stalker closes with its traditional flourish of final, slow-motion breaches by great whites, thereby living up fully to the Air Jaws legacy. Not the best of the series by a long shot, but still fun.

Wednesday, June 29
Deadliest Shark -- Now, here is something that I love to see: a shark special that gives the great whites a break and concentrates instead on an exciting species about which one doesn’t often hear in the media. The “deadliest shark” referred to in the title is the oceanic whitetip, and if you don’t know that name, it is still quite likely that you know what it can do. A tale told by a rum-soaked Captain Quint in Jaws (with a few of the details quite wrong, including the date), and in numerous documentaries and narrative films through the years (including a new one starring Nicolas Cage in September 2016), is the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (with 1200 men on board) by a Japanese torpedo attack on a route between Guam and the Philippines during World War II. Of the nearly 900 men that fell into the drink still alive, only 318 came out as survivors. While many of those in the water died from various causes such as dehydration, drowning, suicide, and saltwater sickness (many of whom were also eaten by sharks upon death), the main cause of the loss of so many lives is usually chalked up to the presence of the oceanic whitetip on the scene. (There were likely many other sharks, such as tigers, but whitetips were the most abundant.)  

While those who lost loved ones in that disaster might argue the point, man as a species has really gotten his revenge in this case, as oceanic whitetip populations are critically low, possibly down over 90% in recent years. The usual suspects are as expected: overfishing, longlines, and illegal finning operations. Dr. Michael Dormeier and his team wish to learn more about the whitetip, and dive off of Cat Island in the Bahamas, at a spot called “The Wall,” due to the way the landscape drops instantly from a hundred to a thousand feet deep. Having little luck in that area, the divers move to where the ocean reaches 2,000 feet deep, and not only attract an oceanic whitetip there, but a whole lot of its quite curious friends. Overwhelmed, the team retreats after an understandably nerve-wracking hour underwater. Dormeier and his fellow researchers next construct a makeshift raft, replicating flotsam from a shipwreck, to see if oceanics, known as “sea dogs” for their consistently inquisitive nature, will check out the fake “wreckage”. Some whitetips do show up, but little is done with the scene. 

We next see amateur footage of a surprising but nonfatal whitetip attack off of Hawaii (more of a taste really) on a diver filming pilot whales, and then we meet a pair of spear fisherman who are also studying whitetips. They make attempts to attract and tag oceanics to little avail (dolphins show up instead), until they deduce, from that amateur attack footage, that oceanics will quite often follow pods of pilot whales. Finding a pod in the area where they are filming, a single whitetip does appear on the scene eventually, but their effort in tagging the fish ultimately fails. (The whitetip gets a tasty snack, however.) Deadliest Sharks has some lovely footage and an interesting premise, but with the lack of real payoff in most of the sequences, the filmmakers really seems to be spinning their wheels in order to fill the allotted time. A bit of a disappointment.

Sharks vs. Dolphins: Face Off -- Growing up, it seemed the solution to being menaced by a pesky shark was to be friends with a dolphin. In Greek mythology and writings, in the Flipper movies and TV show, in cartoons and comic books, and in other TV shows and movies, I grew up believing as 100% fact the notion that dolphins always seemed to have the upper hand no matter what type of shark was involved. And also that if you wanted to be safe in the water, always swim with dolphins nearby and ready to protect you.

In Sharks vs. Dolphins: Face Off, everything is laid out in the title. This special compares the two marine animals, almost like a tale of the tape, but instead of resorting to obnoxious pseudo-boxing graphics, the show bounces back and forth between the creatures fairly evenly, and relies solely on scientific evidence and observation. We see researchers taking blood samples from bull sharks, the grisly autopsy of a dolphin that had been killed by sharks, a tiger shark pulled in and placed into tonic immobility so they can flush its stomach to find out if there are dolphins remains inside (the answer is no), and more attempts to place camera tags on various species of sharks, some successful, some not. We see footage of a rather well-known dolphin who swims around Turks and Caicos named Jo-Jo, who delights in torturing sharks to death and shows no fear of them whatsoever.

Jo-Jo is unique though, for it seems that sharks actually have the upper hand in this age-old battle, and will seek out dolphins distinctly as prey in a way in which the dolphins certainly do not reciprocate. We view a lot of footage of dolphin after dolphin bearing the scars of shark attacks, of a tiger shark actively hunting dolphins off of Australia, and amateur video of a mako biting a dolphin. There is a neat section where comparisons are made between the "superpowers" of each side: the lateral line and ampullae of Lorenzini of sharks that enhances their senses and ability to hunt versus the high intelligence and ability to even complete math tests that dolphins possess. (The sharks, too, are shown to be more intelligent than we give them credit, showing an aptitude for being able to differentiate between shapes in a series of scientific tests.) The speed and maneuverability of both orders is explored, and examples of strand feeding are shown. But then, near the end of the special, they mention the one member of the dolphin family that kind of tips the scales the other way (and previously unspoken of throughout the front portion of the special): the orca, who shows no fear of sharks at all and quite frequently targets even great whites as prey. A final shot of a great white catching a dolphin, however, leaves the ultimate answer to this war in doubt. As it should.

Sharks vs. Dolphins: Face Off is a fairly informative special with some rather gruesome footage for those easily disturbed by such things. (I am already disturbed, so it doesn't both me in the least.) Now, I want a remake of John Woo's Face Off, where a shark is given the face of a dolphin and vice-versa, and each disguised creature then infiltrates the society of the other. And if Syfy Channel (or John Woo) won't make that film, well... for that, I would allow and implore Discovery Channel to bring back their phony docudramas. That one I would watch.

Thursday, June 30
Nuclear Sharks -- This was my favorite special of the year, hands down. Produced by and starring Philippe Cousteau, Jr., grandson of one of my childhood heroes, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and his wife, former Entertainment Tonight anchor, Ashlan Gorse, Nuclear Sharks gets past its "shocking" title, and delivers a true gripper of a show. In what is certainly the topic with the most gravitas in a Shark Week lineup ever, the Cousteaus and crew head to Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, home to a series of regular atomic tests from 1946-1958, throughout the first major period of the American-Soviet Cold War. Their reasons for risking radioactivity? To make a formal study of reef shark activity in the area. Apart from testing certain places for radiation, a good chunk of the special is devoted to more shark tagging; it's just that the possible longterm danger to the divers, that of taking in radiation themselves in the area, is much, much bigger than any toothy shark. Portions of the area -- especially those where direct crater blasts occurred -- remain almost completely barren and lifeless underwater, which is displayed in a rather haunting dive to the floor of the Bravo Crater, a mile-wide hole with not a speck of visible life inside it, save for remoras that followed the divers into the crater.

But other areas are now thriving anew with a vast abundance of life, including wrecks of ships which were used as props in the atomic bomb testings. Part of this life has turned out to be a large, constant population of blacktip reef sharks, which is surprising since these comparatively small sharks are not known to cross large expanses of ocean, where they would be quite open to attack by larger, more powerful sharks (and other creatures). So, how did the reef sharks get to Bikini Atoll? Migration would seem to be the only way, but Cousteau tries to determine just how far away the primary source may be. A likely place may be Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands, which is 125 miles away from Bikini. While Rongelap was never within the blast radius, radiation did reach its shores in a quite devastating way, and much of its population gradually perished because of this. Jumping to more recent times, a dire modern problem in that area is that shark levels have dropped dramatically due to the finning by commercial fishermen, acts now illegal (but sadly under-monitored) in the area since the Marshall Islands Sanctuary was created in 2011.

We get a prolonged shark tagging sequence off Rongelap, and it all boils down to a "Last day -- one tag left" scenario. The tagging is done by Ashlan off the side of a boat using a pole, and while it may have been a big moment for her, it comes off somewhat forced on the viewer's end. (There seems to be an attempt to use her looks and assumed celebrity status to the show's advantage.) However, Nuclear Sharks has a massive downer of an ending, as we get the results of the tag tracking a full seven months later. Of the sixteen sharks tagged in the special, eight of the sharks ended up on illegal fishing vessels moving through the Marshall Islands Sanctuary. One of the vessels was followed to a port, but by the time the authorities were rounded up to arrest the fishermen, the boat was cleaned out and the tag was found four days later on a beach. The final minute of Nuclear Sharks shows U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announcing a new global initiative called Sea Scout, the intent of which is to stop the illegal fishing trade across the world. Good luck with that. I'm all for it, but I doubt much will really get done to stop the raping of our oceans.

Jungle Shark -- Dr. Craig O'Connell is back again and amusing the hell out of me (mostly unintentionally) in Jungle Shark, where he and cinematographer Andy Casagrande seek to learn more about bull sharks and their rather rare ability to penetrate freshwater rivers and lakes (one of the few shark species than can). It's a cool premise, and this special does a few things that I was not expecting in a shark documentary. While Jungle Shark does start out like many other shark docs with some diving off Bimini (which turns out to be a little too intense for nervous Craig), the vast majority of the show is centered in Costa Rica at Corcovado National Park. Craig and Andy fish for bull sharks at the mouth of one of the several rivers in the park, but end up catching a nurse shark instead. They head up river and then hike deep into the jungle to a spot where bulls are known to frequent, but they have no luck there. Going back to the boat, they spend a week patrolling the river but find nothing.

Back at the river mouth, they fish again for bulls, but the bait is taken, to Craig's great surprise, by a crocodile! As I mentioned in my recap of his previous show, Sharks Among Us, part of the fun was watching Craig's reactions to dangerous situations. While he is probably far more steely than he is letting on, he always seems like he is ready to turn tail and run, or at least puke his guts out from nervousness. Regardless, his reactions seem real and thus, relatable. Craig finally catches a juvenile bull shark, which they tag and then follow back upriver. Andy plans to do an immensely dangerous dive at night in the river, but with so many crocodiles surrounding the boat, he decides against it. (I love the cameo appearance by a rather confused tapir on the river bank!) They employ a SonarCam, and after first seeing clear outlines of crocs around them, we get the recognizable form of a shark on the sonar viewer. We then see a brief bit where a supposedly $10,000 bull shark decoy named Riley is used to test out whether crocs will go after bull sharks, and sure enough, Riley comes back pretty munched up after a croc attack. (Whether that is a proper use of ten thousand bucks is up to you.)

The coolest portion of the show is when Craig tries to find out if the immensely pungent pheromones from a crocodile are used by bull sharks to warn them when crocs are nearby. There is a scene where Craig, Andy, and several others hold down a captive croc in a zoo and extract pheromones from its scent glands. Back at the river mouth, they catch another bull shark and test the croc smell on the poor thing. Understandably, with a Q-tip loaded with croc stank shoved up its nostril, the shark freaks out like crazy. A final trip to Bimini finds Andy and Craig diving again, this time in a cage, where they draw in a lot of bulls with a bait box. Once they have maximized their sample size, Craig releases the tube of crocodilian pheromone scent into the water in a bright yellow cloud. Every single bull shark takes off and leaves the area. Is this proof of a new, reliable form of shark repellent? Time will tell, and more testing needs to be done. But once again, Craig O'Connell seems to be the one with a common thread -- safety, both for mankind and himself -- throughout his documentaries.

[To be concluded in Pt. III... click here.]

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