Shark Week 2017, Pt. 4: Days 6, 7 and 8

OK, I have kept quiet about it until now, but since this is my last section of Shark Week reviews for 2017, I need to say something. There is something going on with Shark Week that is really off this year. This is the actual 30th anniversary of Shark Week right now, but Discovery Channel is pretending that it isn't. That's right... 2017 is the 30th straight year of Shark Week, and no one is celebrating until next year. Except for me, that is.

Now, hear me out, because the details don't lie: The 20th anniversary celebration and DVD set for Shark Week came out in 2007. The 25th anniversary celebration and DVD set for Shark Week came out in 2012. (You can still find reviews online from those years for both DVD sets, and those reviews are dated.) So, using that knowledge, and counting 5 more years, when should the 30th anniversary be? Can you even count, Discovery Channel? Because you have already announced that 2018 is the 30th anniversary, but when you air your first show in midsummer next year, you will have actually begun the 31st edition of Shark Week. The first year was 1988, so the tenth year was 1997, and so on. Every ten years puts us at 2007 and then 2017. And no years have been skipped since 1988.

You have dropped the ball again, Discovery Channel. I love that you do Shark Week each year, but to paraphrase Daffy Duck, "What a bunch of slop artists." This has been the 30th anniversary of Shark Week! Period. Done.

And now, for the last batch of Shark Week reviews and recaps for 2017...

#14 – African Shark Safari (premiered Saturday, July 28, 2017)

Madagascar Sharks could almost be the title of this episode, but just barely. They probably went with the proper title, since the opening half of the show takes place down in the waters off Gansbaai, South Africa on the western Cape coast. But the second half involves a surprising excursion over to Madagascar, and therefore makes it the more interesting part of this adventure.

Once more, we have Dr. Craig O’Connell leading a show. (He is all over the place this year.) This time, he and photographer Andy Casagrande (who is even more all over the place) start out hanging around Shark Alley and Dyer Island, home to the most famous breaching great whites in the world (all that Air Jaws stuff). Their purpose is to suss out the location to which great whites in South Africa migrate in the off-season. Craig and Andy dive with seals, who get increasingly aggressive and make it harder for the divers to look out for sharks in the murky vicinity. In the end, they see no sharks there so they move over to Shark Alley, and come up with nothing once again. A few miles down the way, a dead great white has been found and so a team pushes the corpse in to shore to remove it from the water. It is thought that the putrid smell of the shark’s rotting flesh is probably keeping other sharks away from the area, a common occurrence with great whites.

Who says that great whites can't be adorable?
Craig's team moves to a nearby spot called The Dam and try their luck again at hopefully tagging female sharks to eventually retrieve information on their respective migration treks. They lay out a decoy seal and attract a lovely, 14-ft. female, but when Craig cage dives to take photos of the shark, he runs into all sorts of problems. The water is too murky to see her at first, but as she does get near him, the excitable Craig snaps his backup camera off his rig when it smacks into the cage bars. Still, he gets the images he needs for identifying the big girl later. They tag her, along with some other sharks (unseen) and eventually, she (and another big female as well) will transmit information that tells them she is all the way on the other side of the African continent… over 2000 miles away in Madagascar, to the surprise of everyone.

"I'm not quite dead!"
Madagascar is not known at all for great whites, but it is known that humpback whales frequent the area. Dead whales are a favorite, fatty food source for big sharks. Could that be the reason these two females moved there, or is it because the island is being used for a breeding or pupping ground? Craig and Andy travel there and visit a small village marketplace, where Craig finds a wide variety of shark jaws on sale. Craig identifies many species, but is pretty torn up when he realizes that one set of jaws is that of a great white. Andy points out that the great white is protected in many places, including South Africa, but not in Madagascar. If Craig can prove that the white shark is frequenting the area more than previously thought, it could help lead to getting the species protected in Madagascar. Craig’s team takes to sea to try to locate the spot where their tagged female's tag popped off and transmitted her information, but come up empty. There is a neat moment, however, when a spy-cam they had placed on the ocean floor upon arrival does pick up a rather boisterous visitor attempting to steal some of the bait. The visitor is a honeycomb moray eel, which I don’t remember seeing in a shark documentary before. (Honestly, apart from the visit to the marketplace, it is my favorite part of this episode.)

The boys head to a village to ask the fishermen there what would be the best place to find great white sharks. “They need a bigger boat” is said by the narrator as Craig and Andy head back to the sea to dive in the open water. Craig scrapes a knife against a tuna carcass to hopefully attract a shark. He sees something down below, a large dark shape lurking underneath them but never coming into view. After what the narrator says is “weeks of negotiation with marine authorities,” Craig is given a small portion of humpback whale oil, replete with blubbery chunks. He pours it from its industrial bag into a large bottle, all the while coughing and seeking to maintain stability in his stomach region. Craig and Andy build a chumsicle covered in whale oil with a camera attached to the rigging, and drop it in the water. They also drop in a seal decoy rigged with another camera, but even with the oil and everything, nothing shows up at all to their boat except for a large stingray.

"Hey, don't tell anyone I was here!"
Finally, they take to the water and dive 50 feet to the ocean floor. They see a big remora which usually signals that sharks are about, but they only find some small whitetip reef sharks hiding underneath the coral, as if something bigger is out there. Heading to their bait trap, they find gray reef sharks all over the bait, which means the whale oil is working its spell, but no great whites are showing up whatsoever. Or so they thought. When they review all of the footage from the seal decoy camera, there is a shot that shows a huge female white shark swimming up towards the camera, just off center, and only seen for a few seconds. They dive for two more days there but come up empty at first, and then run across a humpback whale family. It at least proves, tenuously, that the migration patterns of the whales and sharks may cross at this point.

While the scenery, the underwater sequences, and the show overall are gorgeously filmed, such quality is kind of the standard of Shark Week specials today. What separates each show is what actually happens inside of each hour. African Shark Safari has some interesting moments, but none of it really involves great whites, because this episode may have the lowest shark quotient in all of Shark Week 2017. I am certain O’Connell felt this as they were putting the show together in post. As I have mentioned elsewhere in this series of reviews, O’Connell is a pretty emotional guy – not in a temperamental way, just more “heart on his sleeve” – and this includes revealing himself and starting to sweat and huff a bit when things start to go awry for him. It’s completely a part of his charm as a host for these shows. (His voice, the more I hear it, reminds me of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from the Rankin-Bass animated classic, as if he is wearing a false nose over his real one.) When the shark’s presence is revealed in the late camera footage, his excitement would seem overboard from other hosts on Shark Week but absolutely sincere from him. That said, while African Shark Safari is a lovely looking show with some neat moments, it is a bit of a letdown that more sharks aren’t seen off Madagascar. Can’t be helped when sharks are usually so elusive in the first place, I know, but I’m not the one producing a documentary about sharks. – TC4P Rating: 6/9

#15 – Lair of the Sawfish (premiered Thursday, July 28, 2017)

OK, some of you out there might ask why rays are given an episode during Shark Week. Well, how far do you want to take it? Shouldn’t there be a Ray Day for specials about mantas, stingrays, and sawfish (which is actually in the ray family)? Rays are still in the same categorization with sharks, and have many of the same characteristics and senses, including lateral lines and cartilage instead of bones. And just how far would you want to take this in regards to this class of creatures? If you demand separate events for each specific type of creature in Chondrichthyes, would we then need Discovery Channel to create a Chimaera Era event? Because, let me tell you, eras usually last far longer than weeks or days.

As soon as I saw the schedule for this year’s event and noticed that Lair of the Sawfish was a title, I was overjoyed. I have wanted to learn and see more about these creatures for a long time. Honestly, until relatively recently, just a few years ago, I did not realize there was a difference between the sawfishes and sawsharks. (For more on that, refer back to my review of Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins earlier in this year’s reviews.) Because I didn’t know the difference, I thought for a long time that sawfishes were actually sharks as well. You see, you can learn things from Shark Week. It’s not all about great whites breaching.

Lair of the Sawfish takes place entirely off the coast of Florida, at a variety of spots both off its northeastern coast and also down off the Keys. The show starts out in the waters off Jupiter, FL, where marine biologist Luke Tipple and dive expert Greg Mooney enlist the aid of a local diver who has learned of an area a few miles offshore where he has found groups of small-tooth sawfish, a critically endangered species that can grow up to 25 feet in length. (That’s right, you heard it…) The sawfish are near a particular wreck at the bottom of the ocean, so the divers use DPVs (diver propulsion vehicles) to descend to the wreck quicker. First, they meet some lemon sharks about 7-8 ft. in length, and see some rays and other creatures all over the wreck. No sawfish, but Tipple sees an outline in the silt on the sand at the bottom that shows where a sawfish had been resting earlier. Near the end of the dive while they are taking a decompression break, they are met by a curious tiger shark, whom they must convince by bumping it with their cameras and equipment that they are not on the menu. They then review the video that the local diver shot earlier on his dives and notice that a couple of the female sawfish are probably pregnant. This is a good sign.

Sawfish rostrum with teeth along both sides.
I must say at this point, Lair of the Sawfish has hands down the best graphics of any special on Shark Week this year. The primary colors of the graphics are red, black and blue, and they make a pretty stunning display. It seems the producers are aware of how great the design looks, because they take every opportunity to drop in maps, graphs, closeups of sawfish body parts throughout the show with great frequency. Frankly, there were a couple of times that I wished the graphics would just continue, because I wanted to see other species displayed and discussed on the screen in the same manner. Whoever the graphic designer was for this show, he needs a raise.

The scene shifts to the Charlotte Harbor Estuary on the other side of the Florida peninsula, where they visit a mangrove-heavy area (but converging too closely with land being developed too quickly right next door) where baby sawfish spend their early years learning how to be sawfish, along with other species that seek the protection of the mangroves. Tipple meets Dr. Greg Poulakis, who works with smalltooth sawfish in the area, and helps him to measure and collect samples from some of the baby sawfish.

The late filmmaker/diver Rob Stewart
The show takes a minute or two to mention the late Sharkwater director Rob Stewart, who died in January this year in a shocking diving accident that made the national news as searches for his missing body took place over several days. Frankly, I was amazed that there wasn’t a retrospective special about Stewart during Shark Week since he was one of the biggest voices out there promoting a more positive image for sharks over the past few years. (Seriously, watch Sharkwater and you will be astounded by the guy’s work as a filmmaker.) The real reason for the Stewart callout in Lair of the Sawfish is because Tipple’s team will be attempting a dive in the same area where Stewart lost his life: the Queen of Nassau shipwreck, a 200-ft. patrol cruiser that sank in the Straits of Florida in 1926. The wreck sits at the bottom, 235 ft. deep and was not discovered again until 2001.

The preparation for the dive at the Queen of Nassau takes almost a full segment of the show, as the team of divers explain about the rules of decompression, how they will be using trimix in their tanks to dive. Trimix adds helium to the usual oxygen-nitrogen mix to offset narcosis from the nitrogen, and help reduce the chances of decompression illness (DCI). When they head down to the wreck, there is a nifty scene where they train lasers from the camera to measure a huge stingray in the sand. They only stay down for a short time, see no sawfishes, and have to decompress on the way up, and then wait 12 hours to try to dive again. The next dive also shows them nothing, but when they come up and decompress, the safety diver with the extra tanks keeps getting swept by the currents past them. Finally, he makes it to them after multiple attempts, and all is well. Several more days diving takes place, and it appears we are getting to a classic “last chance” scenario again on Shark Week. Sure enough, “one more dive” is said, and you know at the commercial that when they come back, we are going to see a sawfish. (Or saw a sea-fish?) Which they do indeed, though Tipple and Mooney go up before the other diving team without seeing one. The other team manages to get a last minute video of a 15 ft. male sawfish, which helps them at least prove another area the fish are frequenting in the area.

I make jokes about things like “last chance, last dive,” but this was a pretty neat special from start to finish. Exciting dive sequences, some haunting shipwrecks, those stellar graphics I mentioned earlier, and a lot of information about diving techniques and a species of which I knew relatively little going into the show. The only real concession to true sharkiness was the cameo by the aggressively curious tiger early in the show, but mostly it is all about this truly captivating and odd-looking species. I want more on the sawfish in the next Shark Week. TC4P Rating: 8/9

#16 – Sharkmania (premiered Saturday, July 29, 2017)

An annual event inside of an annual event, Sharkmania is nothing more than a clip show, albeit a fun enough one, that airs on the Saturday just before the end of Shark Week. Comprised of highlights from most of the current year’s programs – usually the most exciting bits – it’s the perfect show if you are someone who doesn't really want to put in 16-17 hours during the week to watch the latest episodes.

For me, since I watch everything during the week, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity. I understand not wanting to put a truly new episode on a Saturday night, which is now a deep sea ratings hole since nobody in the most cherished demographics (18-49) are even at home most of the night. So, I get it. And I don’t mind a Shark Week Greatest Hits show now and then, especially when this one tucks in brief glimpses of shows from past years that still rank as some of the series most exciting. Seeing a great white take out a rubber raft out from under the host or making Paul De Gelder’s would be splash-about in a kayak more trouble than it is worth are still fun to see. A neat section right in the middle of the show is called Gadgets and Gizmos, digging briefly into the ever-more technologically advanced cameras, signal tags, and other equipment being employed on these shows. (The laser-cams used to measure shark and fish size the last couple of years are still pretty cool to me.)

Also, if you don’t have the time to watch everything during Shark Week, but would like to catch up with a few episodes On Demand or on the Discovery website, you could use Sharkmania to point you to the ones you really need to see. Generic but still with some use. – TC4P Rating: 6/9

#17 – Shark School with Michael Phelps (premiered Sunday, July 30, 2017)

In some ways, I am surprised that this special didn’t air first during Shark Week, and then have a slow buildup to the Phelps vs. Shark racing special at week’s end. Instead, they did it the opposite way, with the race episode on the very first night of Shark Week, and then this episode a full week later on the opposite Sunday.

So, which scenario would have worked out better for Discovery Channel? Keep in mind going into this that there are still a lot of people pretty pissed off about the fake Megalodon documentary from four years back, a move so calculatedly wrong that, two years later, the incoming president to the organization had to swear they wouldn’t do something like that again. Then they did do something like that again... this year, based on the opinions of many online babies. On the first night of Shark Week 2017, with a fake race between the greatest Olympic champion of all time (by this I mean the highest medal count ever, if you are one who wishes to argue my point uselessly) and a great white shark, computer-generated and never actually in the water with Phelps. I have yet to see the ratings, but my question is whether they would have done better by having this Shark School thing first and then allow a slow-buildup to the big fake race at the end of Shark Week, or was it better for Discovery to just get the race out of the way, let the Twitter-verse blow up exactly as it did as people lost their minds, and then allow the rest of Shark Week to occur?

As it happens, the Shark School with Michael Phelps special is quite literally a couple of shark scientists running Michael Phelps through his paces as he attempts to get comfortable around sharks to learn more about them. The show starts with Phelps standing on a beach on Bimini with stingrays cruising inches from his feet in the water in front of him, after which, Dr. Tristan Guttridge of the Bimini Sharklab snorkels with Phelps as they visit some bigger stingrays. Guttridge calls this part of Shark School "elementary school," and then they move up to a dive with gray reef sharks. The dive team jumps into the open water with the sharks, but they start their star pupil inside a shark cage as he observes the sharks for a while and gets used to their movements. For the first chunk of time after he starts out of the cage, he holds one arm above his head and hangs on to the cage. I started to wonder if he would ever let go, but he finally relaxes enough to try it and is just fine. Soon enough though, he pretty much has 5-7 ft. sharks right in his face, and his reaction is pretty genuine, too… sheer joy, even if he still seems a tad tentative.

After this adventure, Phelps graduates to diving with bull sharks, which to me, is pretty much the equivalent of hanging out at Buffalo Wild Wings with testosterone-obsessed, wannabe jocks. (You know it’s only a matter of time before one of them gets a little too handsy with the wait staff and says something borderline rapey.) I would much rather jump straight to the great hammerhead and great whites later in the show than hang out with these puffy-headed assholes, but it turns out to just be a cage dive. (I had been wondering if he would do that, since bulls are notoriously ornery.) The water chosen for the dive is murky enough that Phelps cannot see the bull even from a few feet away, and they give up pretty early on messing around with them. For a brief change of pace, rather than put Michael in the water with a potentially dangerous tiger shark, they have him help handle and tag a captive baby tiger pup instead (it’s only about three feet long). It’s cute, but we want to see him in the water with or near the big guys.

Next comes the great hammerhead, and this is without a doubt the grooviest segment of the show. Phelps, Guttridge, and the rest of the dive team, still in the Bahamas, drop down to the ocean floor. Phelps, the most inexperienced of course, lies down flat on his back with his arms at his side as a couple of 10-11 ft. great hammerheads cruise about collecting handfed samples from the other divers. A bunch of nurse sharks arrived earlier than the hammers to check out the bait box and so they are interspersed with the divers on the ocean floor. (The sight of this is pretty swell.) The big hammers mill about and one even soars about a foot or so above and parallel to Phelps’ prone body. The joy he emits is palpable, and he gushes about the experience when he eventually swims back to the boat.

Finally, they take to South Africa where Phelps is given a seal dummy with a bite gauge inside of it to test the crushing power of a great white’s jaws. A big white takes immediately to attacking the fish-head bait attached to the end of the seal dummy that Phelps is dangling over the water. The first few passes only lose the bite, but in one of those Shark Week moments where things seem to be perilously close to getting out of hand, the white makes its biggest attack yet. It breaches from the water slightly to jab its head at the dummy and then pulls the ropes that Phelps is holding around the back of the boat. Guttridge yells about being wary of the propellers as crew members scramble to get hold of the ropes. One crew member is almost pulled over the edge of the boat, where he could potentially run afoul of either the motors or the great white just a couple of feet away in the water, still thrashing about with the fake seal and the bait. It’s a pretty thrilling sequence with some great shark action.

Again, Phelps comes off like someone who is genuinely interested in being taken to “Shark School”. I feel like this special really was intended to be shown first in the week, well ahead of Phelps vs. Shark, especially since the ultimate graduation for Phelps would be to cage dive with the whites, but by the end of this show, he only gets to feed one by rope. In Phelps vs. Shark, he does go cage diving and meets a great white as a preliminary to his phony race against one, so all of this Shark School stuff most likely happened first. The race episode feels like it is the second hour of a two-hour special. It really does seem to me like Discovery switched their plans around and decided that the race should go first to build up the social media buzz about Shark Week. That may have backfired on them at least a little bit, if only in their reputation. But they have dug their way out holes before; a Megalodon-sized hole, in fact.

Shark Week ratings must be substantial enough to warrant a special week of programming all to its own for 30 straight years. That's right... 30 straight years. This year. (There I go again). Since Shark Week is going to grab big ratings no matter what they do, does Discovery really need to rely on trumping up these fictionalized events, or even rely so much on celebrity cameos and hosting? I’m fine with the celebrity angle, especially if it is someone who has (had) a commitment to marine science like the late Paul Walker, or someone who seems to have a growing interest in their preservation, such as Eli Roth. Having a high-profile guy like Phelps hanging around isn’t a bad thing at all, if it will get just a few more people to tune in and learn something about sharks. Sure, they may have mishandled things a bit this year – and may have turned off a whole new stretch of possible or (now) former viewers – but I think Shark Week will be fine.

Maybe next year, they should convince Charlize Theron, a guest on Shark After Dark this year, to be the face of Shark Week for 2018 and have her film a special in her homeland of South Africa. She talked about swimming around sharks as a kid there, so maybe she could do a homecoming and also show off her action chops, maybe get in a knock-down, drag-out fight with a great white. She is the Atomic Blonde after all. Since the shark would obviously be computer-generated, no one would get hurt. The important thing is that Charlize is in the water.  Now, that would be appointment television for me for sure...  – TC4P Rating: 7/9

Well, chums (nyuk, nyuk), that’s Shark Week for 2017. All in all, it was a pretty good mix of shows, with a couple of episodes that rank among the series’ very best. Of course, the downside of Shark Week is that it ends eventually. Discovery gets back to its mostly crappy programming, and we have to wait an entire year for a solid concentration of shark shows. And next year, we have to pretend that it's the 30th anniversary of Shark Week when it is really the 31st instead. I can't wait for that to blow up on Twitter. Maybe I will throw in the direction of some real conspiracy nuts on there to see what they can do with it.

So, Happy 30th Anniversary, Shark Week! It was a lot of fun... for me. Too bad no one close to you will hold your party for another year...


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