Shark Week 2016, Pt. III: Sharkin' 'n Jivin'!

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

Friday, July 1
Shark Bait -- More great white shark action (though really just standard great white shark action) this time on a research trip to Cape Cod, where Dr. Greg Skomal (a Shark Week regular) and crew seek to learn more about out why white sightings in the area have become more and more prevalent in recent years. The obvious factor is the resurgence of seals along the coast, with a population bulging to more than 20,000 in the last decade. Skomal and his crew take to the water to tag some great whites, but the visibility in the water -- described as "pea soup" -- makes it not only difficult to work with the sharks, but infinitely more dangerous. Skomal has to rely to aerial support, using helicopters to sight the fish from the sky above. Then, the team attempts to tag the spotted shark by the highly technological method of having a guy lay down on his stomach in the bow pulpit of the boat while holding out a pole with a camera tag on the end while the vessel bounces up and down in the swells of the choppy water. It seems a fairly dangerous method for the tagger, who gets slapped into and under the waves a few times, and there is a slight air of irresponsibility to the proceedings. There is eventually a point where the boat nearly capsizes when the entire crew finds themselves standing hard to one side. (We expect better of our shark experts.) Luckily, they realize their danger and disperse to even out the weight.

After some oft-viewed amateur footage of a small great white that got stranded on the beach of Cape Cod, we are told of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that has allowed the seal population -- once critically endangered -- to swell to today's numbers, and how the great white sharks are likely lured to the area by the unmistakable scent trails emanating from the mass of seal defecation in the water. The aftereffects of the seal growth are also discussed: the fishing numbers that have gone down dramatically for locals due to the preponderance of seals in the area, and the increase of great white attacks on humans along the coastline as well. It is also claimed that the large shark population on the Cape Cod seaboard is the only such congregation in the Atlantic Ocean. 

One highlight we get to witness is the first camera tag ever placed (or so the narrator claims) on the dorsal fin (after much trial and error) of a Cape Cod great white.The tagging efforts continue, but a tag upon an extremely large white named Mary Ann gets placed too high on the dorsal fin, which means it is likely to fall off as she swims, so researcher Taylor Chapple makes a bold attempt to adjust the tag by hand. When the tag eventually comes off days later, what results is some pretty stunning POV footage of the shark slicing through the murky North Atlantic water. Another tag on a different shark comes loose, but after these mishaps, the team tags enough sharks to collect the necessary data they required. Shark Bait has some nice moments and is informative, but really wasn't summed up in a satisfactory way for me.

Blue Serengeti -- This special is so focused on the Monterey Bay area and the history of shark conservation and study efforts in the area that I would not be surprised to find it on DVD in the gift shop the next time I visit the incredible Monterey Bay Aquarium. In fact, I also wouldn't be surprised to find that the film was created for exactly that purpose and not so much for Shark Week. (This is merely uninformed and instinctive speculation on my part.) From the title alone, and the opening narration by famed marine biologist Sylvia A. Earle, Blue Serengeti seems to be an attempt at a more poetic vision of the ocean and its famous denizens. However, all pretension is put aside just before the title appears, when Earle playfully describes this area fed by the strong California Current as "one of the sharkiest places on Earth".

Beautifully filmed, Blue Serengeti is a pretty fidgety affair, and jumps between numerous shark-centric places in the area around Monterey Bay and San Francisco, including Año Nuevo Island, the Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Tomales Point at Point Reyes. But there is true purpose behind this jumpiness: an attempt to relate to the viewer the full importance of a rather vast area in what is considered to be the longest continuous great white shark study ever undertaken (begun in 1987). History plays a larger part in this film than is usually seen in Shark Week docs, as we get a quick detour to the impact of the release of Jaws in the mid-1970s, and then view some rare footage of the work undertaken by the study's founder, Frank Carey, and his efforts to learn more about great whites and their behavior, while also increasing the public's awareness of sharks to the positive. 

As with most of the other specials this year, attempts to place camera tags on sharks becomes a focus, but the researchers in Blue Serengeti -- who include Barbara Block (at one time, the late Carey's assistant), Taylor Chapple, and Tim White -- also show us efforts in placing suction cup tags (with both front and back facing cameras) on the sides of whales, thereby increasing their shark data gathering from other species and angles. The eventual results of all this tagging show worrying signs that many great whites who have been recorded as regular visitors to this area have gone missing as of late. There are fears of the impact that illegal finning operations and longline fishing are having on shark populations, and even squid fishermen are seen as a threat when it is discovered that they often slip into the Monterey Bay Sanctuary to practice their trade. (Sadly, sharks get taken there, too.) The film carries us along through the full great white season, and while the researchers do get reunited with some of the missing sharks, not every one is accounted for by the end. Along the way though, we get a real sense of the lives and commitment of these shark researchers, and what a huge job (and area) they have inherited from Dr. Carey. For me, I look forward to returning to Monterey Bay to see if my guess about this film was correct. And I will buy that DVD to help support their important work.

Sunday, July 3
The Killing Games -- This doc was a surprise for me, since I didn't record it and had to watch it On Demand, chiefly because I thought Shark Week ended on Saturday, July 2 when they aired their Sharksanity 3 clip show (see more about this below), and so I never thought to record it. Andy Casagrande and Dr. Jonathan Werry are at it again, this time starting out at Kangaroo Island off Australia. The purpose of this special is to study how great white sharks seem to be able to change their attack strategy when confronted with obstacles that confound their initial approach. After an opening dive sequence where a white gives up its first attack on the bait that a cage-bound Andy offers, and then comes up from underneath on a second approach, we then see some footage of a large bait ball (a swirling mass of fish), which a large great white uses to camouflage itself from some nearby seals. We get a very clear understanding right off that perhaps the great white is not just a taster and grabber, but capable of thinking its way through a situation and of plotting its approach.  

So, I am not one to fall for just any ol' shark researcher, but when Andy travels to the Bahamas to work with Swiss marine biologist, Dr. Ornella Celine Weideli, well, my heart went "boom boom" (as the Trio song goes...) Ornella shows Andy some strange behavior that nurse sharks have taken up when the tide comes in and covers the docks with up to a foot of water. As soon as the water starts to rise even a couple of inches, the nurse sharks affix themselves with their mouths to the docks in an attempt to gather any leftover scraps that the fishermen left behind. It's a truly marvelous and unexpected sight to see Andy and Ornella stroking the backs of the nurse sharks as they forage upon the docks. They then head to a nearby beach where beach sharks will climb onto the sand briefly to gather bait snacks. Even a larger lemon shark gets in on the fun. The show then shares footage of other predation activities. While orcas grabbing seals off a beach and dolphins purposefully stranding fish while gliding through the surf are no surprise, I was not expecting a clip of a catfish leaping onto a bank to hunt down pigeons! (I must have missed that one on Youtube.)

Instead of staying happily with Ornella in the Bahamas, Andy returns to South Australia to learn from a local fisherman that he had witnessed a great white bursting out of the water and briefly onto the rocks to nab a seal. Andy and Jonathan go to the scene of the supposed kill to tag some whites in order to hopefully capture such behavior on camera. They also have a cameraman named Jeremy Ashton station himself up on the rocks to film the breach should one happen. When they fail to tag their target shark, the camera falls to the bottom, so Andy has to retrieve it in a submersible mobile cage. However, the cage gets stuck at one point on the bottom (they never find the camera), so they have to blow the tanks and ascend more quickly than they wished. There is some ramped up drama when their attempt to bait a great white near the boat to tag it results in their believing that the shark "stopped just short of leaping into the boat". From my angle, it looked like the shark actually thought better of (or wasn't interested in) leaping into their boat, but who really knows? Whatever they need to do to sell their story, I guess. According to the show, Jeremy spent an entire month trying to film a great white breach onto the rocks but to no avail. 

Finally, the fear card is played in the closing seconds of Shark Week 2016, as the narrator says that the great whites have "taken their game to the next level, leaving nowhere to hide!" It's a bit ridiculous when we have watched a full hour of great whites pretty much just swimming around and nurse sharks sucking fish scraps off a dock. At least Ornella was there to make the hour a delight for me.

BUT WAIT! WE'RE NOT DONE! Shark Week 2016 was promoted both before and during its by a couple of compilation specials and a late night talk show.

Specials:
Shark Week Spectacular -- Getting airtime in the weeks leading up to Shark Week 2016, Shark Week Spectacular is hosted by horror film director and Inglourious Basterds actor Eli Roth, who also hosts the Shark After Dark talk program. This is the second year in a row that Roth has served as host, and I have to admit that I enjoy him in the role. While I have liked (but not loved) a couple of his films (Cabin Fever and Hostel), his film interviews had led me to believe him to be rather an irresponsible and rather full of himself douchebag. This means that I was predisposed to not like him in his appearances on Shark Week and on comedy shows such as @Midnight. Guess what? It turns out that Roth is pretty agile as a host and has a quick wit, and I have turned the corner on him. I may be critical of him as a filmmaker, this is mainly out of disappointment because I believe he set up some expectations for his work that he has not quite lived up to in the long run. [See my review of Roth's relatively recent "cannibals in the Amazon" film Green Inferno here.] But I am able to separate his film work from his hosting work, and I will say he does a decent job in the latter.


Eli Roth hosting Shark After Dark
during Shark Week 2016

As for Shark Week Spectacular, it is mainly a preview of things to come, which I enjoy in the same way that I used to devour those specials on Friday nights in early September when I was a kid, when the networks would preview their Saturday morning television lineups that were set to premiere the next morning. It is merely an appetizer for what the main course, but Roth also has some fun throwing out various facts about sharks and also showing a couple of sections of viral shark videos created by amateurs on Youtube. Frankly, I could watch a couple of hours of viral shark videos (and have), and so combined with the clips from the upcoming shows, Shark Week Spectacular did its intended job smoothly and humorously. It certainly made me ready for more.

Shark After Dark -- Fusing late night hi-jinks with Eli Roth and a series of odd duck pairings throughout the first five nights of Shark Week, Shark After Dark was back for the fourth consecutive year in 2016, the second with Roth as host. As is to be expected, the show walks a balance between reinforcing anything of importance learned in each evening's documentaries, often from one of the filmmakers involved in their production, but also allows for a celebrity guest to help keep the tone lighter (and sometimes incredibly silly in the case of a couple of comedians).

The first night saw researcher Joe Romeiro paired with comedian Kevin Hart, who kept the crowd amused with his true life diving stories, one about a baby shark in Fiji and the other about swimming into (literally) a large manatee. A fun game is played called "Found in a Tiger Shark" and then we see footage of Roth diving with tiger shark in Tahiti, when he is hit by a defecation cloud from a female tiger during filming. The first episode is probably the high mark of the week as far as pure entertainment. Succeeding nights had Chelsea Handler (ugh) paired with shark expert Dickie Chevell (with a viral video game); famously acerbic comic Anthony Jeselnik (a bit off his usual snark) next to filmmakers Brandon McMillan and Jeff Kurr; Candace Cameron Bure and shark attack survivor Paul De Gelder; and finally, a surprisingly fun combo in Ashlan Gorse Cousteau and Andy Casagrande, in possibly the most informative but still lively episode of the five. The last third of the show has Eli, Ashlan, and Andy testing out wetsuits in tanks of freezing ice water while still attempting to carry on their normal discourse. Quite amusing.

Speaking just for myself, I would watch a regular late night talk show centered around sharks and their study, but then again, I would also watch Shark Year instead of Shark Week if presented with the opportunity. So, until Discovery starts a fully shark-centric network, I guess that I will just have to wait for Shark After Dark next year. Hopefully, Roth will be back.

Sharksanity 3 -- The show that made me believe that Shark Week 2016 was over after Saturday night instead of on the following Sunday, Sharksanity 3 was really the most unnecessary special in the lineup. It is merely a clip show, consisting of the best bits from each documentary aired during the week. They attempt to take things a bit further by given us a recap of the greatest moments in all of Shark Week history, but honestly, I had just watched all of the shows so I really didn't need to revisit everything immediately. Maybe seen in the middle of the year in the gap between Shark Week events, this might be entertaining to me (sort of like Christmas in July, except that the notion of Christmas in July is inherently stupid). But as it is, Sharksanity 3 just sort of drifted across my TV, my mind went elsewhere completely, and the show just ran across my eyes and departed without my given it any thought at all. Pretty useless in the position where it was placed, but that was mainly because the lowest ratings are usually on a Saturday night nowadays. It's a good thing that The Killing Games was lurking on Sunday (though, as I said, I forgot to record it) to close out Shark Week in a slightly more successful way for me. 

(And yes, you can bet I looked up Ornella on the interwebs.)

RTJ

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