Shark Week 2017: Day 1 (and More) Recap

Since there is a metric butt ton of stuff to cover right now in regards to Shark Week and SharkFest, I am going to stifle all of my normal preaching right here at the top about saving sharks and not using fear to promote these endeavors, blah blah blah... You know, the junk that I usually rant about to kick off these things. Instead, with so many episodes behind us now that Shark Week has actually concluded – and with me, despite what I stated was my intent over a week ago, getting started completely late in the game due to unforeseen personal circumstances – let's just dive right into the first night of Shark Week and let any further ranting flow naturally out of my thoughts for each special. (Not that most of the specials have set me off yet except the first one, but I always reserve the right to go nuts should an opportunity arise...)

#0 – Sharktacular 2017 (premiered on July 7, 2017)

Hosted by cult horror director Eli Roth, who has also held court over the nightly Shark After Dark talk show for the past three seasons during Shark Week (more later), Sharktacular is nothing more than a preview special designed to ramp up anticipation of this year’s catalog of Shark Week specials. For some reason, while I am always excited for another Shark Week to roll around each summer, I tend to skip the preview episode and generally don’t watch it until I have already viewed the rest of the event's episodes. Mostly, this is so I don’t judge the episodes before seeing them. And this is exactly what I have done this year, with the exception of the final night's second Michael Phelps episode, which I probably won't see for a couple more days.

While I run hot and cold with Roth’s films (while recognizing his clear talent behind the camera), he remains a pleasure for me in his continued involvement with Shark Week. A relative newcomer to scuba diving (only taking it up three years ago), Roth appears quite eager to find himself in further adventures in the deep with sharks, and that enthusiasm shines through in both Shark After Dark and this preview special. While no full special is built around his latest sojourn, in which Discovery sent him down to Tahiti to free dive with hundreds of sharks, the brief scenes of him diving here are a welcome, more leisurely respite from the usual slam-bang content of such previews: viral videos featuring sharks, a fairly specious Top 5 list which highlights close calls from Shark Week shows over the years, and clips from the new episodes.

Naturally, those short clips interspersed throughout the full hour of Sharktacular leave you with some sort of cliffhanger as they close, usually with a diver or divers in possible, implicit danger from their toothy subjects. It is not lost on me that it is rather appropriate that the producers of Shark Week choose to use fear to sell viewers on their wares when they have a man known for his theatrical horror efforts in front of the camera. But Roth seems to prefer to be open and friendly on the screen, and more content to share his own clear passion for sharks and science, and tends to not build up the selling point of fear any more than the clips (and the deep-toned narrator) do themselves. Having a horror guy as the face of their product on air, I do find it rather interesting that Shark Week doesn’t seek to exploit the possibilities of this connection since they have no problem using fear as the primary attraction to each year’s event. But instead, we get commercials with the singer Seal being eaten by a great white while singing on a dock to a crowd, and of course, we get swimmer Michael Phelps in endless promo after promo. I am glad, though, that they don’t use Roth’s horror talents for this, and I rather doubt he would want to do such a thing anyway. I hope that as long as he is involved with the event that he continues to not allow them to push such an agenda, and simply remains a steady, reliable host invested in his subject. As it is, this preview special is nothing really special, just the expected prolonged advertisement. TC4P Rating - 5/9

#1 – Great White Serial Killer Lives (premiered on July 23, 2017)

Attacks in Southern California off Surf Beach (that’s in Santa Barbara County for the uninitiated) over the span of nearly a decade lead a team of researchers to gather DNA and evidence in order to determine if the same shark is responsible for all of the attacks. While the backstory really begins with an attack in 2008, in which the surfer victim survived, the legend of a “serial killer” shark gained real legs two years later with the 2010 death of 19-year-old Luke Ransome. Following another fatal attack in October 2012, the first of the Great White Serial Killer series premiered during Shark Week 2013. Chiefly using Ransome’s death as a launching pad to investigate the attacks, Brandon McMillan posed the question of whether “rogue shark” theory, such as the shark behavior represented in the film Jaws, is a very real thing.

This latest show is now McMillan’s fourth crack at keeping his Great White Serial Killer franchise ambling along. There is nothing wrong with this, especially since science depends on repeated research to gather as much evidence as possible to either support a proposed theory or disprove it. Seeing another iteration of the same thing each year (or every other year) doesn’t bother me as long as there is enough care given to differentiate the new episode from all of the previous ones. I think my real problem with this series is the continued propping up of rogue shark theory, in title and in advertising, even when most of the evidence they collect tells us otherwise. The narrator even says the line, “Could it be the same animal that’s been hunting Surf Beach… every two years.” (Yes, there is the expected dramatic musical flourish to punctuate the question.) It is a problem with Shark Week in general, and with any other media based on sensation and heightened emotion (shark movies, news reports on shark-related stories): How does one promote the science behind studying sharks and other predatory creatures without coldly and cynically relying on outright fear? These specials don’t care.

Further installments of this series have sought to build up the evidence, heightened greatly by further attacks in 2014. Each time the question is primarily the same, but is it as simple as a single shark, which has developed a knack for attacking surfers (and possibly a taste for them), that migrates regularly to other climes and doesn’t return until two years later? Luckily for the series, McMillan has Dr. Michael Domeier and DNA expert Ralph Collier on his team to remain a little more level-headed regarding the research. While, in the downtime between attacks, McMillan apparently has plenty of time to work up yet another chapter raising the theory, Domeier is there to calmly point out that the bite marks from each year are off enough to say otherwise.

In an off-year from their initial “two-year” theory (2015), further attacks at different beaches in the same relative area as Surf Beach points to there possibly being the same shark attacking surfers and kayakers. “Maybe even two in one day,” they propose. The bite marks on different boards from different beaches measure out to possibly being the same shark. Domeier, to his credit, says the “rogue shark” theory is, “not that good,” especially as we know very well that the overwhelming majority of attacks on humans are based on misidentification or accident. He also points out that adult female white sharks have a two-year migration pattern, so it is not out of the realm of possibility that the same shark could return after time and provoke another surfer, but so far the evidence there points to different sharks. But elsewhere, Brandon is still absolutely happy to work in provocative lines such as this one, after discussing great whites biting off the tail of a massive elephant seal, “So, if an 18-foot great white can take a chunk out of an animal that large, then a human would be no problem.” Dum dum dah... Thanks, Brandon, for keeping your brand going.

It sound like there is nothing but ominousness and death in this episode, but there is intentionally funny dialogue along the way, such as when they make use of a line from Jaws, “Hooper drives the boat,” at one point. (Yes, they leave off the "chief" part.) The most hilarious but close to shocking thing in the show occurs when Brandon visits Guadalupe Island down Mexico way where he tags great whites with Jimi Partington, a charter captain in the area (who makes Brandon drive the boat using the Jaws line above) with immense experience working with the big fish. In fact, he is one of those guys who is able to put a shark into a brief state of tonic immobility by touching them on the snout. However, his touch is a bit off in the slow-motion example they show on their trip in the show, and comes about as close to losing a hand as one could wish. Reshowing the attempt a third time in slo-mo, the narrator says, “It’s taken them years to perfect this hands-on research.” (Further attempts at the same shark actually seem to rile the shark up enough for them to realize that if the railing weren’t there, they might “be toast”.)

Finding a tooth fragment during a gruesome otter necropsy to perform DNA tests, Collier also collects samples from kayaks and surfboards used in other attacks in the area. Matching the results up against the DNA taken from the Luke Ransome attack in 2010, Collier reveals near the end (spoilers allowed here, though I will not warn you about them any further than this) that nothing matches up the way they were hoping. Near the end, Domeier tells us that they recently discovered a “secret cove” with a surging elephant seal population just a few miles away from the attack zone at Surf Beach. Most great white attacks on humans are likely due to sharks confusing swimmers and surfers with their normal prey, which includes a great love for the blubbery taste of elephant seals. So, with these revelations pretty much closing the book on rogue shark theory in the area, does this mean an end to the Great White Serial Killer series? Well, Freddy, Jason and Michael seem to keep coming back time and again… I am sure Brandon McMillan will think of something. TC4P Rating - 6/9

#2 – Phelps Vs Shark: Great Gold Vs Great White (premiered on July 23, 2017)

"It's man against beast! Can the greatest Olympian of all time out-swim the king of the ocean?" 

That's the ridiculous hyperbole that leads into Phelps Vs. Shark, but before we get into the idiotic furor over this special that was borne on the Twitter-sphere over the past week, let me state that at no point does Phelps come off like an asshole in the show. In fact, he comes off about as likable as he has ever been, if not a little more human for his efforts against completely insurmountable odds that would sink most of us. From about the thirty-second mark of the show, both we and Phelps, and the people surrounding him, know that there is no earthly way beyond manning a jetski or being dragged bodily by a speedboat that Phelps will be able to overcome a great white shark in the water. The team that works with Phelps first show us what the average speed of his world-record shattering butterfly stroke was in the Olympics and he tops out at a mere 5.5 miles per hour in the water. They also show you how historically fast he is with composite video where he is matched up with fellow Olympic gold champions Mark Spitz from 1972 and Michael Gross in 1984. Phelps defeats the pair easily by at least two body lengths. 

There is no doubt that Phelps is the greatest male Olympic swimmer of all time, but even Phelps remains humbled when he hears his speed and then the team proceeds to go about measuring the average cruising speeds of several species of sharks, including the great white. They determine the GWS has a cruising speed around 15 mph, almost three times Phelps’ average speed, but this does not take into account the great white’s breaching speed, which the special states as being around 25 mph (though I have seen estimates of up to 35 mph on some shark sites). It is clear that Phelps knows there is no way he is going to win this race, even if they add a mono-fin, which cuts his world record time at 50 meters by four seconds in a simulated race at Bimini with a hammerhead and a gray reef shark. And even after they then modify that mono-fin to Phelps’ specifications and strengths. (They allow Phelps second place by .02 seconds, and this may be so they can continue to play with him for the rest of the show. Hey, I said he doesn’t appear to be an asshole, but c’mon, everyone has a fragile ego…)

Of course, Phelps will not win his 100-meter race against the great white, and this is because even if a modified mono-fin gets his speed up to at least 7.5 mph, he is only at the halfway mark against the average cruising speed they establish for the white. That they only have him lose by two seconds is probably another concession to superstar ego, when in fact he would probably lose by a hell of a lot more. Phelps also has an out due to the ultra-thin (only 1mm thick) dive suit he wears in the 58 degree water, when he is used to being pampered by swimming in heated pools well above 80 degrees. (He probably suffers an inordinate amount of shrinkage as well…) Cold water, speed, a micro-thin suit, not actually being a shark… with everything against him, Phelps is never going to win this race body for body.

So exactly why are people so pissed? Yeah, I hear a big chunk of the expressed grief is over the fact that Discovery used a computer-generated shark to complete the race. This only leads me to ask: did you seriously expect an actual race in the open water between a shark and a human being? Now, pre-2000, before the world got immeasurably more dull-witted, I might allow you some wiggle room in answering the question. But we are where we are at now, and yeah, I think a big cross-section of people in this country, and the rest of the world, are exactly dumb enough to believe they were going to see a real race. In the ‘70s, if they had thought of it, some enterprising huckster may have actually set up some sort of rig netting to try and have someone race a shark. After all, Evel Knievel was at large and, despite his successes at selling himself and his stupid daredevil ways (that we all adored as kids), he was failing to leap across canyons in a rocket. But what did he inspire? That’s right: jumping the shark, as the producers of Happy Days played off the inspiration of Evel to have the Fonz water-ski over a chompy fish in the surf. Looking back, it is actually amazing a man vs. shark race wasn’t attempted, but then again, Mark Spitz aside, they didn’t have someone as fast as Phelps, or his current competitors, who are all mostly faster than the champions of old. (And three decades from now, someone will be comparing the champions of tomorrow against Phelps’ times and possibly laughing.)

I think the real problem here is that Discovery Channel had only relatively recently washed their hands of the fake Megalodon documentary debacle of 2013 that left a lot of people questioning Shark Week’s scientific credentials. The current president of the company, Rich Ross, in 2014 swore off the Megalodon-style fiction programming going forward for Shark Week. However, I am pretty certain a computer-generated race pitting an Olympic champion against a shark probably fits squarely into the fiction category. No matter how much science they use to surround Phelps, the race itself is still nothing but a fiction, with the outcome left to the discretion of the animators and the producers. So, I completely understand why people as a whole are mostly pissed off at the show. But I am more pissed at humanity for believing this was a real thing. Stupid mankind (mostly the man part of it).

Sorry, idiots out there who can't tell truth from fiction anymore, this show just doesn’t piss me off, because it was completely obvious going in that it would not be a real thing. Logic and even the slightest knowledge of sharks and/or human limits should tell you that without even seeing a trailer for it. The race in the show is quite openly no more real than the medals for athletic achievement they give the celebrities in an episode of Battle of the Network Stars, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have some dumb fun with it. Even if I was slightly mad at Phelps vs. Shark for some real reason, it would not be nearly as mad as I can be at something like Great White Serial Killer Lives. As long as the goal of the show is not to play off fear of sharks and the basic science is sound, I am fine with approaching this special as a sort of play off the old Marvel Comics series, What If? It’s purely a look into a hypothetical that most of us would love to see. What if Michael Phelps raced a great white shark? I would love to see that in real life – obviously, we all would all like to see it, given the adverse reaction to a phony version – but I am also practical enough to know that there is no way Phelps could win such a race from the get-go, let alone think someone would stage such a race in real life. And the producers never let you believe you are seeing the real thing. They describe exactly how they are doing it and what you will get from it… from the very start. 

That said, there is still fun to be had watching this Master of the Water get into a shark cage for his first up-close glimpse of a great white, which then forges right ahead and chomps the bars and thrash about violently more than once right in front of Phelps’ face. (That’s a shark!,” he yells like an amazed kid when he gets out of the cage.) He (and us) get to meet several shark species as they test their various speeds, and we get glimpses at how sharks swim, including a look at how their caudal (tail) fins work to propel them. Good, clean fun and science… apparently we have forgotten what both are in this country. Let’s all get pissed because we don’t really want to take more than a second’s glance at anything before judging it.

My only real beef with the show is the close of the race, where they have the great white disappear briefly and then have it breach as if catching a seal, thereby giving it the added burst of speed it needs to beat Phelps by those two mere seconds. Also, since they have no division between the mismatched swimmers except for lane markers on the surface (something no shark respects), you’d think there would be a moment where the shark would glance over and say, “What is this creature swimming next to me? Maybe I should investigate.” Sharks are curious, after all. But the dead-eyed computer shark just forges ahead without personality, entirely dependent upon the whim of its creators. And that is really what makes me mad here, if anything does. In the end, it’s really Phelps vs. Whatever the Producers Decide.

Look, since the role of Aquaman is taken already by some actor (who already failed as a new Conan, though I am fine with the casting choice) and since Marvel has been taking forever to get around to Namor (one of my favorite characters, who may be guesting in the new Inhumans series on ABC this fall), I want Michael Phelps to appear in a remake of The Man from Atlantis. Yeah, it’s never talked about at all as a possible revival, but even with that, I hope this doesn’t set that dream of mine back. Judging from this special, he can swim like a dolphin just fine. TC4P Rating - 6/9

#3 – Shark-Croc Showdown (premiered on July 23, 2017)

Quite definitely the best show of the first night in my opinion. Shark-Croc Showdown may have a title that could easily double as a Syfy original movie (but probably needs a “Robo” or “Mega” or “27-Finned” to it), but it has some of the most riveting footage in it. Star diver Paul de Gelder wants to show us what happens when Australia’s ever expanding population of saltwater crocodiles continues to overtake more and more shoreline along the Aussie coast. De Gelder, who lost his right hand and leg to a shark attack years ago, wants to study how the local sharks take to this invasion. He also wants to get answers about how the crocs hunt in the ocean, which may require different skills from the ambush hunting salties use when living in rivers.

Using a fairly thrilling combination of nighttime photography (rendering much of the footage black and white) and probably the most extensive use of drone footage I have seen in a shark special to date, Shark-Croc Showdown has plenty of memorable moments. The tagging of a tawny nurse shark with a fin-cam gives us the sight of a shark moving fast through the waters of the night. A supposed first on the show is the camera-tagging of a large saltie so they can possibly see a showdown with sharks in close-up fashion. We see tawnies gathered around a baited camera trap feeding so violently near the bottom that they end up clouding the water almost totally. Photographer Joe Romeiro’s nighttime dive with a swarm of 30-40 sharks gets increasingly dangerous as more and more species join up to dart and dive about frenetically.

We get some cool footage of pilot fish feeding off the camera nurse’s back while it swims, and even cooler drone footage of nurse sharks following dolphins, not to attack them, but use the mammals to guide them to the same food sources. It almost looks like both species are working together, even if the sharks really are just taking advantage of the dolphins. While we never get footage from the croc-cam of a saltie’s encounter with a shark, we still get scene after scene from above the water of crocs meeting up with small gangs of sharks, all intent mostly on capturing whatever it is the croc has in its jaws (most often, a poor sea turtle). These scenes are the ones that really grabbed my attention, because it almost felt like I was playing some type of nature video game, so different the footage was from what I normally see on these shows. (These scenes were so prevalent in Shark-Croc Showdown that they really overrode anything else in my memory.)

We also get a great cross-section of shark life off the Aussie coast. At least 11 different species of shark – including tawny nurses, sicklefin lemons, blacktips, tigers, hardnoses, and even a giant hammerhead –  are counted in the dives and the filmed encounters with salt water crocs in the special. And, if anything, the show displays amply that saltwater crocs are really far more dangerous in shallow waters to humans than sharks are; many times more dangerous. (The whole running-up-on-shore thing kind of adds an extra element to their menace.) The simple, stark sight of a glowing white croc eye in the middle of nothing else but darkness is far more frightening to me than any of the shark footage on this first night of Shark Week. That might be “species-ist” of me, but hey, some of my best friends have been reptiles. (No, really, I hung out with this pair of bearded dragons at college…) TC4P Rating - 8/9

#4 – The Great Hammerhead Invasion (premiered on July 23, 2017)

All of the advance materials that I saw (and my DVR) had Devil Sharks – about the tendency for sharks to party down around various volcanic islands – in this slot on Sunday night. Since I was unable to watch some episodes on television, I instead ran into this episode instead on Discovery’s online site, where it was touted as the fourth premiere of the evening. (Devil Sharks premiered last Wednesday instead, which is when the schedule had The Great Hammerhead Invasion scheduled originally.)

The strength of The Great Hammerhead Invasion lies first in featuring a different species from the usual suspect (that being the great white), and secondly in that hammerhead sharks, great or otherwise, are so damn cool. And still so damn alien-looking. Nothing seems right about them, and that is to their credit. In the case of the great hammerhead, it is rare to see one as well, so an entire special devoted to why great hammerheads tend to mass in the waters off Bimini in the Bahamas every November is a real treat.

This episode falls into the “shark tagging” subgenre of shark docs, which may have taken over cage diving and chumming as the dominant activity in shark documentaries. Years ago, tagging seemed to almost be a postscript, devoted to a short chunk just before the end credits (“Well, we won’t be back here until next year, so let’s tag a couple of these suckers before we go”) or at most, confined to the last quarter hour of the show. Now, it is almost an unwritten rule that tagging is mentioned as early in each show as possible, and some shows even devote the entirety of their running time to the job. If you don’t like to watch shark tagging, skip Shark Week, because that is the norm now.

The Great Hammerhead Invasion’s narrator does indeed mention that they plan to tag as many hammerheads as possible in order to more fully determine the reasons behind their gathering, but another activity takes up the forward half of the hour. Since part of the possible M.O. of these sharks is that the females may be pregnant, the crew dives into the shallows and attempt to perform a live ultrasound on the hammer-ladies as they swim by them. Since the girls are sensitive at first to being touched up close by the tools the humans plan to use to test the sharks, the divers spent days attempting train a few sharks to get used to being touched about their abdomens. There was a show last year that performed an ultrasound on a pregnant tiger shark, but that does not lessen the impact when we see the developing pups inside the mama hammerhead. I certainly found it far more compelling than anything on my friends’ Facebook pages involving their kids.

A nice bit in the middle of the show is a visit with a stingray, which is a prime food source for the hammerheads (and many other sharks, including the juvenile great whites converging here in Southern California waters this year, who have been granted a high media profile). Another possible reason for the gathering in the Bahamas is that, if the female hammers are indeed pregnant, they are building up strength briefly by gorging on the local dinner fare – mainly stingrays – before pupping elsewhere, possibly to the north. To get us up close and personal with the creatures, the show's host, Dr. Tristan Guttridge, uses a net to capture a stingray to show us its venomous barb loaded with neurotoxic venom. Unfortunately, he ends up getting jabbed briefly through the glove on his hand when the ray squirms about to free itself. He winces briefly, but calmly continues talking without pausing. That's commitment. Or else a guy who has been stung a few times...

All in all, The Great Hammerhead Invasion is a pretty good special featuring a protagonist which is not seen nearly enough in shark docs. As with Shark-Croc Showdown, I would love to see a followup to the research in this one in the future. As I said earlier, if the science is sound and compelling enough, I don't mind return visits to previous shows. Just give me a decent update or a new twist on what came before. And give me more hammerheads... TC4P Rating - 7/9

Shark After Dark (nightly Sunday, July 23 through Thursday, July 27)

Host Eli Roth returns for another week of late night shark talk. It’s light, it’s silly, it’s frothy, and yet, Roth and his nightly shark “ringers” (as I term them), consisting of scientists, divers and photographers from Shark Week specials, are earnest enough in their love of sharks to not let a show go off the rails when celebrity guests are thrown in the mix. I am not going to recap each episode of Shark After Dark, as it is fairly disposable even with the fun, but this year’s premiere episode was a tad more interesting because it does indeed threaten to go off the rails from the start.

Emmy-winning actor Tony Hale (Arrested Development, Veep) displays a prime (and too common) example of fear over logic in his attitude toward sharks. Hale’s saving grace is that his irrationality (which seems quite genuine) is really funny, especially in how Hale keeps interrupting others to express his disbelief how people can even think about getting in the water with such creatures. I love Hale as an actor, so I more than willing to allow him his nervousness over the subject, and you can tell that Roth would love to make it his mission to change Hale’s mind. Which, as far as I can tell, is never going to happen. It is pretty clear that the thought of sharks terrifies him. (Kudos, though, for Hale discussing Buster Bluth’s loss of his hand to a loose seal, which does explain why his character would probably be even worse in the water with a shark.) Hale cringes at even the thought of getting in the water with sharks around him, and watching him squirm and chatter nervously through footage of Phelps cage-diving and Roth free diving in Tahiti is a delight.

Personally, I would love to see Discovery Channel bring on more people with such dissenting opinions, and not just have the show be a reservoir for whomever needs to promote a project that week. The week’s celebrity guests are a pretty good mix (Anthony Jeselnik, Regina Hall, Moby, and a couple of Naked and Afraid numbskulls), even if Hall only seems to be there on a press junket. Still, Charlize Theron (scheduled for the fifth night and there on a junket herself as she promotes Atomic Blonde) has got to be the best get on the show in its history yet, you know, being from South Africa and all. You know that girl probably surfed. Surely, she has a shark story or two. And, besides, she is Charlize Theron. She is all you really need, shark stories or not. (And it turned out, she did have a story about growing up and swimming at the beaches with her family in S.A. with sharks swimming about them.)

If Eli Roth moves out as host of this show after three years (they only kept original host Josh Wolff for two seasons), I don’t think that Discovery Channel needs to look any further than marine biologist Vicky Elena Vásquez. Vicky shows up as a guest with Jeselnik in Episode 2 of Shark After Dark, and just as she is in the Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins episode that aired on the second night (reviewed tomorrow), she is completely engaging. Cute, knowledgable, and clearly someone who relishes teaching others about sharks, Vasquez has a very bubbly personality and is so completely immersed in the subject of sharks that it is contagious. (She has even identified and named a rare shark species herself, the ninja lanternshark, Etmopterus benchleyi, and yes, the specific name is indeed after Jaws author Peter Benchley, and yes, this little black dogfish does indeed look something like a ninja.) Definitely not camera-shy, Vasquez almost overwhelms the Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins show with her outsized enthusiasm for odd shark species, and this is a good thing. I sincerely hope she is in at least a couple of Shark Week episodes next year (most likely, another Alien Sharks followup). Honestly, Discover Channel and Rich Ross, I think you have a Steve Irwin-sized find on your hands here. Maybe you could even pair her up with Roth next year to co-host the entire week. I am going to watch regardless, but it would be cool to see her in an expanded role.

That’s all for Night #1 of Shark Week. I will be back tomorrow with the next set of recap reviews.

Same shark-time, same shark-channel... 


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