Wait! There's More... SharkFest 2017 Review

Yes, there was more shark stuff going on during Shark Week. Not willing to fully step on their neighbors’ toes nor put that much money into competing against them, Nat Geo Wild loves to promote themselves as having the “#2 week for sharks” in television. SharkFest has been matching up against Shark Week for a few years now, and it is decidedly a lesser beast in terms of number of shows. If you don’t count previews and recaps (and I don’t) Shark Week tossed out 16 new hours of shark documentaries for 2017. SharkFest has just four. But the quality, thanks to being part of National Geographic, is of equal measure to anything on Discovery (some might even argue more quality, but I see them being pretty equal, considering that some of the same people work on shows for both networks).

Where Nat Geo Wild has Discovery beat is in being self-effacing. Discovery likes to use humor to talk about their shows, especially on Shark After Dark or in their promos using Seal the singer being devoured during an oceanside concert, but Nat Geo Wild comes at the viewer with tongue firmly in cheek. (They do call themselves “#2” after all…) In 2015, standup comedian Rory Scovel did humorous promos and interviews for SharkFest. They have also sent a guy in a shark outfit out on the street to interview passers-by, and used those in promos. This year, knowing that all-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps had been corralled by Discovery to promote Shark Week, Nat Geo Wild got his “#2” guy, fellow gold medal champion Ryan Lochte – infamous for things we won’t discuss here – and put him in a series of promos for SharkFest in a small rowboat, with a guy mixing chum in a bucket and three shark fins circling them in the water. They had no intent of using Lochte in the same way that Discovery did Phelps; they just wanted whatever pull they could get of viewers from Shark Week over to their side.

However, thanks to DVRs and online streaming (legal, of course), we can haz both, along with a cheeseburger. You can watch both Shark Week and SharkFest, and everyone can play nice alongside each other because if both channels are not just paying lip service to protecting sharks, then we all have the same goal here. Me, I am never going to gripe if someone is going to throw even more shows about sharks my way. I would even invite a third network to start some other shark programming, but we also had Sharknado Week on Syfy over the past week, so I guess we will have to invite a fourth…

How about A&E siccing a bunch of sharks on the abhorrent family on Duck Dynasty? Or Animal Planet could do the same with the ridiculous cast of Finding Bigfoot? Or maybe the one who wins the heart of the next Bachelorette is the one who manages to swim away from Shark Alley in South Africa dressed in a seal costume? Sure, you think at first that none of these will help the public image of sharks, but if you really ponder it, they can only be doing humanity a favor...

Shark vs. Predator (premiered Sunday, July 23, 2017)

Right off the bat, I have a bit of a problem in watching this episode. I have seen a couple of previous editions of Shark vs. Predator, but I would be hard-pressed to be able to differentiate it from the others. My attitude towards any edition of this series is pretty much the same. I see them mostly as shark snuff films. Nothing against the show, though; I realize this is mostly collected footage of sharks in danger, sometimes taken by fisherman or tourists, and sometimes from other docs where something unexpected happened. The tables get turned on sharks and we see a variety of other predatory species taking on the toothy wonders and getting a meal out of it (in the case of most of them) or even some weird kicks from doing it (in the case of orcas). Shark vs. Predator shows turn out to be a little more shocking than most shark docs, where the main concerns are mostly tagging and being safe while diving with sharks. Here, the attacks usually lead to blood and almost always death on the part of the shark.

Sometimes even by other sharks… A blacktip that gets on a fisherman’s line grabbing bait is attacked from below by a much larger bull shark and bitten right in half, blood pouring out of its body into the water. A small whitetip reef shark patrols a reef looking for a meal, but is almost turned into one itself by a huge moray eel. Whitetips often feed on moray eels, but in this case, the bigger eel manages to grab the shark by its head and attempts to swallow it headfirst. However, the shark is still too big to swallow and is let go mostly unharmed.

We are shown examples of saltwater crocodiles and their hunting methods. We then see a saltie meeting up with a bull shark in a river in northern Australia. A famous three-legged, 18 ft. saltwater croc named Brutus is caught on camera grabbing a bull shark, pushing the shark up onto the bank of the river where it can’t breathe or swim away. The attack is only caught with still photography, but the series of photos captures all of the action.

Amateur footage shows a hammerhead caught on a fisherman’s line, which is then attacked by an even bigger tiger shark. It wrestles with the hammer for a bit while it tries to get a decent grip, and then finally drags the hammer down into the depths. Next, we meet a pod of orcas off the coast of New Zealand who decide to take on a sevengill shark. Working as a team, one orca delivers a tail slap on the surface that stuns the 10 ft. shark enough for another orca to deliver a death bite. Then the rest of the orcas, including their calves, bite the shark. There is different footage of a similar orca attack on a sevengill, but this time one of the adults clearly presents the shark to the calves, perhaps teaching them how to hunt sharks.

Off Costa Rica, three orcas are filmed forcing a large tiger shark to the surface over and over to tire it out, taking nips at it along the way. Surprisingly, the orcas may be attempting to turn the shark over to put it into tonic immobility to put the shark to sleep. A giant Pacific octopus off the Northwest coast of the U.S. takes advantage of a passing spiny dogfish, itself about 4 feet long. There is a brief struggle, but the dogfish gets away this time. Not so lucky is a similar dogfish in the Seattle Aquarium, who meets his fate against another large Pacific octopus, who gets a death grip on his tank mate and won’t allow it to breathe.

A sea lion off California – usually the target of great whites there – takes out a young thresher shark and thrashes its body back and forth, tearing the body apart in gruesome fashion. In South Africa, a cape fur seal rewrites the usual script there and go after a blue shark, one of the fastest sharks in the ocean. But cape fur seals are just as fast. In some stunning photographs, a fur seal grabs the shark around the gills, pretty much taking out the shark’s ability to breathe in one bite. In the last section of Shark vs. Predator, we get to the most surprising entry: the Goliath grouper, which can grow to 500 lbs. in size. We see video footage of a fisherman taking a photo of a small shark that he has on his line, but then a Goliath rises up and grabs the shark away for his own. The closing footage is of a pod of false killer whales ganging up on an unknown species of shark, surrounding it and mostly likely using sonar to trap and overwhelm it. (The overhead video seems to be from either a drone or chopper.)

All in all, an interesting grab bag of a show informing us that sharks aren’t always quite at the top of the food chain in some cases. For the same reason that my wife has problem with Planet Earth episodes – death, death, death, mostly of small cute critters – I am too shark-positive to want to watch an hour of just sharks being killed too often. But once in awhile, I guess you need to be reminded of how things look from the other side. – TC4P Rating: 6/9

Tiger Shark Terror (premiered Monday, July 24, 2017)

Tiger Shark Terror takes us to the Bahamas, where pro diver Eli Martinez wants to learn if tigers are more aggressive and opportunistic at night. (Um… aren’t most sharks?) In summer of 2014, a photographer disappeared at night from Tiger Beach, a sandbar area 20 miles north of Grand Bahama Island, and from the name, obviously well known for tiger sharks. Thrill-seekers diving at Tiger Beach often feed tiger sharks by hand. After setting up a bait box on the shallow ocean floor, Eli meets up with a couple of sharks early, one of them a large female tiger named Dirty Girl, a fairly new shark to the area. She moves right in on him and the bait box, and he has to deflect her with his hand pushing her nose away firmly. She turns back around and comes at him again slowly, and he smoothly and deftly handles her to push her away again. Finally, she circles the bait box as two other tigers arrive. He works with the tigers for an hour but has to leave when his air gets low. As he swims with one tiger, one brushes his leg from behind and startles him.

But Eli wants to test them at night, not in the day. He dives again in the darkness to see how much more aggressive they will be. Using floodlights from the boat and flashlights to provide the only illumination on the sea floor, he finds no tigers in the water, just a lemon shark. Eli goes into the darkness on his own (this is getting a little bit cuckoo), and eventually runs into a rare hammerhead at Tiger Beach, the first he has seen in 10 years here. However, he sees no other tigers, not even the three he saw in the day. So, where are the tigers?

Eli travels 80 miles to South Bimini to visit the Shark Lab institute, where Dr. Matt Smukall helps him understand even more about tiger sharks. They visit a juvenile tiger that Smukall caught and placed in a special pen the night before. Smukall plans to release it after tagging it with a backpack tag which is outfitted with an accelerometer. After they release the backpack, 24 hours later, they locate the tag after it released itself from the shark’s body and review the data. It shows that the juvenile was far more active at night than during the day, with short bursts showing it was possibly involved in either hunting prey or even fleeing from bigger sharks.

The backpack probably won’t fit a large tiger, so Matt plans to use a bungee cord with a hook to strap the tracker around the tiger’s tail when he next meets one. Eli takes Matt with him on his return to Tiger Beach. There are a lot sharks in the water, mostly tigers. It is mentioned that a female tiger that they name Jitterbug stands out from the rest. Keeping them completely busy on pass after pass at the divers and bait box, and they decide she is the perfect candidate for the accelerometer. But she is too feisty to get the tag on her tail, so Eli puts her in a state of tonic immobility to calm her down enough for Matt to swim up behind her to place the tag. It is a success.

Later, on a night dive on the reef, Eli and Matt swim through the darkness but see no tigers, just Caribbean reef sharks milling about the reef. They are surprised by something in the dark, but it is just a lemon shark. Its eyes glow green in the glare of their flashlights, and the narrator tells us that some sharks – including the tiger sharks the divers are seeking – have a special layer over their eyes called tapeta lucida – the same that cats have – that allows them to see better in the darkness.A southern stingray, a favorite tiger snack, is seen resting on the bottom. They are certain tigers come here, but the dive is over for the night.

To get proof that the tigers are hunting there after dark, they need a visual trap. Eli and Matt plan to attach a camera to a tiger’s belly, which will probably require a team effort to get it around the very large shark, with one diver on each side (the average waistline of an adult tiger shark being more than six feet). They direct a tiger over the open camera belt on the ocean floor but the shark tries to eat it, and the camera is damaged by tiger.

Just like on Shark Week, one of the biggest cliches of shark docs is encountered when we get to a “last chance” scenario. The narrator tells us that there is “less than an hour of daylight left.” Back on the boat, they use zip ties to rig a second camera into a fin cam, which will allow them to hopefully retrieve footage of nighttime hunting. The big female tiger, Dirty Girl, returns and they attempt to attach fin cam. The captain of the boat sends Eli a message that he has only “5 minutes left; 5 minutes ‘til sunset.” Other tigers get rambunctious, but they are able to corral Dirty Girl long enough to attach the fin cam and accelerometer.

The next day, after the galvanic releases on the tags detach from Dirty Girl, they find the two devices and check out the info. The fin cam footage shows Dirty Girl engaging in yo-yo diving, which usually means that the shark is using the method to rest, but Dirty Girl seems to be more active in her speeds. They theorize she may be heading up to the surface to hunt sea turtles and seabirds, and then diving really deep (tigers will go up to 2000 feet deep) to look for stingrays. The camera had popped off first, but the accelerometer failed 3 hours later and finally popped off. It is possible that its failure means it may have eventually been crushed by water pressure. What they do know is that the deepest Dirty Girl went was at least 1000 feet.

This is a really marvelous special, one of my favorites this year. Tiger sharks are pretty much my second favorite shark species – I think they are beautiful creatures and possibly the classic shark design – and I love specials that concentrate on them. The scenes of Eli interacting with the sharks and seeing his ability to keep control on most situations is awe-inspiring. As I said earlier, crew from Shark Week specials also work on Nat Geo Wild shows, so it is not surprising to learn that the fine underwater footage of this doc was filmed by cinematographer Andy Casagrande, who has been pretty much ubiquitous, both onscreen and off, on Shark Week the last few years. – TC4P Rating: 8/9

Shark Swarm (premiered Tuesday, July 25, 2017)

I mentioned during my Shark Week 2017 post for Nights 4 and 5 that the episode titled Shark Storm could have just as easily been called Shark Swarm except for a rival special on Nat Geo Wild. Well, this is that special.

Just like with Discovery Channel, Nat Geo Wild specials are prone to statements like “No one has ever travelled this far south in the Pacific Ocean to study a pelagic shark swarm and the social interactions of a forced feeding event.” Wow… could you be a little more specific, please? I kid, but it sometimes seems like every special has to find that one thing they are doing first or best, and then stresses it as much as they can.

In Shark Swarm, Dr. Riley Elliott is a New Zealand shark scientist who theorizes that blue sharks and makos may swarm together peacefully due to a particular catalyst, such as a rare feeding event like a bait ball or sea lion congregation. Setting up a small test situation, as Elliott chums the water with tuna chunks and oil, he mentions how remarkably hard it is to actually get sharks to come to you in the open ocean, even if you are chumming the water. Elliott gets into what appears to be a half shark cage with an open top, in which he stands to observe the action. Eventually, a shortfin mako arrives, and Elliott mentions that is rare to find one this close to the shore. The mako has a series of gashes around its head area, and Elliott notices that the mako has absolutely no concern or fear about anything else in the water and attacks the chumsicle bait without hesitation. Next a large blue shows up, and then a second, to join the mako in feeding.

The show moves to Malpelo Island, 300 miles off Columbia’s coast, which locals believe has a magnetic source (most likely volcanic, which would explain it) that draws huge swarms of scalloped hammerhead sharks. Together with the Cocos and Galapagos Islands, the area formed between the three island groups is sometimes known as The Hammerhead Triangle. The sharks seem to gather together throughout the day, but disperse at night to feed on their own, joining up together again in the early hours of the morning.

Back in New Zealand, Dr. Elliott continues to study the interaction between makos and blues in the area, to see them gather together in a swarm when presented with a rare food source. He chums a half mile area again, slicking the water with fish oil to attract even sharks in deeper water.  This time blues are first, and then finally a mako arrives. It takes the bait and disappears, but a second mako arrives, and then the first one comes back again. The sharks swim in parallel fashion to establish dominance. 

In the islands of French Polynesia at Tatu Manu village, blacktip reef sharks are shown being handfed from shore by local villagers. But six hundred feet away on the coral reef, gray reef sharks have to fend for themselves. They slowly build into a feeding frenzy as the annual spawning population of camouflage grouper builds above the reef. Once the spawning starts, in which the grouper tend to go into a trance-like state leaving them unaware of their surroundings, the sharks strike.

Elliott is still running his chum line in New Zealand, and sees an adult female blue shark start to compete with a juvenile male over the bait. Suddenly, a massive, experienced mako arrives, and Elliott observes the younger male blue hold tight to its territory and send the mako away. Another mako arrives and is again sent off by the young blue. The numbers of sharks continue to grow, and even after Riley gets out of the water, more arrive. The blues and makos have grown into a small swarm, seeming comfortable thus far with each other’s presence. The immediate group is 4 blues and 2 makos, but there seem to be more sharks on the periphery, possibly 10 blues and 3 makos altogether.

In Tatu Manu, the gray reef sharks compete with each other over 15,000 camouflage grouper for the next two hours, but then the grouper suddenly disperse. Over the next 11 months, five to ten other fish species will reproduce in the same area, leading to continued swarms of gray reef sharks at Tatu Manu. Back at the mako/blue swarm off the Kiwi coast, at first it seems there is hierarchy to the attacks on the chumsicle, but it slowly gets thrown out the window as the intensity ratchets upward. Eventually, the blue sharks start to turn on one another in competition.

There is some crossover with Shark Storm as both shows handled the same subject. The Cocos Islands off Costa Rica are mentioned here (and shown in a map) in discussing The Hammerhead Triangle, but Shark Swarm only covers hammers swarming near Malpelo, while in Shark Storm, its team of scientists went directly to Cocos and used both a submersible and diving to study hammerheads and other species. Other than that, Shark Swarm forges its own identity in different places like New Zealand and Tatu Manu. Kiwi scientist Elliott is an affable host for his segments, explaining his efforts quite clearly. We get some terrific, slow motion feeding moments with that giant mako that could surely inspire nightmares in those of less stern natures. Best of all was the section on the grouper spawning, something I do not recall seeing before, which took the special up a notch at least in being informative and different. – TC4P Rating: 7/9

World’s Deadliest: Shark Frenzy! (premiered Wednesday, July 26, 2017)

World’s Deadliest is another series with which I have some limited familiarity, but it's only because I have tuned in on a spur of the moment decision to scope out from cool snakes, spiders, tigers, and other creatures. The series has aired shark-centric episodes before, and just like with Shark vs. Predator, it is hard to tell how much of this supposedly new episode is simply recycled from the other ones without watching them anew as well. This time around, World’s Deadliest checks in with Shark Frenzy. (To the previous point, this title is a bit confusing because they also had an older episode called Shark Feeding Frenzy.)

I suppose that if someone said to me, “Hey, I know absolutely zero about sharks. What would be a basic primer documentary that I could watch?,” then I guess Shark Frenzy might do in a pinch. If such a question were really posed to me in real life, I would just tell them to batten down the hatches, order pizza for 8 days, and studiously watch a full week of Shark Week, reruns and all. That would learn ya… but let’s work with Shark Frenzy because it is the show under discussion right now.

It is indeed mostly a recap of shark scenes pulled from other sources. There are no scientists or hosts, or anybody with a name, hanging about telling us what they are trying to solve or tagging anything at all. There is some old footage of groundbreaking shark photographer Valerie Taylor (she and her late husband Ron filmed the live shark shots for Jaws and other movies) as her leg is torn up on a dive by a passing shark, a wound for which she received 300 stitches. However, Taylor is never directly named in the show. So, the show is free of human names. The divers are anonymous; only the sharks get names.

We first get a fairly explicit scene of a tiger shark hunting a green sea turtle off Hawaii, as he tears the flippers off the poor reptile and then tears its head off as well, leaving just a tasty morsel inside a shell. We briefly see white sharks hunting cape fur seals off South Africa, and are then given a basic rundown of the physical highlights of great whites that make them one of the most successful predators. The show returns to tiger sharks and how they will eat nearly anything that crosses their path, including non-organic materials. There is a montage from several sources of tiger sharks attacking fledgling albatrosses in the central Pacific area (possibly Hawaii, but they never say).

The next segment features a great white taking out a female elephant seal in Northern California. When the seal is already being torn to shreds, a second white joins the feast. Before the attack, we do get a stunning shot of a male elephant seal where he has had a massive chunk of ragged flesh torn out of his side, clearly the work of a great white, and yet the seal was still living and hanging out onshore.

We are then shown a couple of clips that were already aired in SharkFest 2017’s first new episode, Shark vs. Predator. We see the very same pod of orcas attack and murder a tiger shark, and then we see the same footage from the Seattle Aquarium (though unidentified here, possibly to make it look like it is in the ocean) of a giant Pacific octopus wrapping its tentacles around a 4 ft. spiny dogfish and essentially drowning it to then feed upon it.

In the next segment – which is supposed to show us how sharks sometimes have to deal with the unexpected even while being top predators – we meet the sand tiger shark, where it is said their ragged tooth looks make the adults seem far more aggressive than they actually are. But then we meet the kids. We see footage inside the uterus of a female sand tiger, where one baby has hatched before the others, killed the other early hatchlings, and is feeding on the yolk from the mass of eggs inside. We are told that for this very purpose, the sand tiger has a second uterus on the other side of her body where the same gruesome scenario is being played out with a different baby sand tiger.

It is hard to compete with a scene featuring a murderous baby shark, so the remainder of the show is a letdown from that point forward. The next section involves describing and showing examples of the basic senses of the shark, including the 5 that we share with them. Then they get to the other two senses that sharks and rays possess: their lateral lines and the ampullae of Lorenzini. We then get to the bull shark, and told how it loves to swim into rivers and lakes to find easier, unsuspecting prey. After another scene with great whites, in which the narrator tells us how they use a combination of all of their senses to make an attack, we then meet a very different kind of shark: the tasseled wobbegong, who lies on coral or the ocean floor looking very much like a carpet with fringe on it, and then snatches prey with an ultra-quick motion to suck the fish back into its throat with five rows of razor-sharp teeth.

It’s always nice to see a wobbegong, since they end up on TV far less than they should, but this World’s Deadliest was fairly deadly dull given how much of it is recycled and is pretty much on a par with other greatest hits episodes. Much of the footage, since some of it comes from what looks like non-professional sources, makes the show feel akin to the overall quality of a When Animals Attack episode. Also, what is up with not naming Valerie Taylor, but practically doing so by referring to her as a “famous underwater photographer”? It’s a really odd compilation, with no real drive to marry content to the theme of its title, and has very little focus as a result. It feels pretty much like a time-filler, but at least the shark information is mostly solid and there is that intrauterine cannibalism segment to punch things up a bit. Overall though, simply generic. – TC4P Rating: 5/9

And that is it for SharkFest 2017. One shot and done. Four episodes and no more. There were a bunch of other specials shown throughout the week on Nat Geo Wild, but only four new ones. (Well, two new ones and a couple that are pretty much video compilations.) And so this draws the TV documentary section of The Shark Film Office to a close for 2017. From here on out for the year, it’s mostly all shark movies, all the time. Just wait until you see what is next…


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