Since its premiere in 1988 as Discovery Channel‘s first weeklong event, Shark Week has become something of a summertime tradition for viewers, and cable’s longest-running event. Whether the series has done harm or good to the shark’s reputation during this time may depend upon what particular audience members take away from it — do they learn and understand more about sharks, or just get a scary thrill from stories about shark attacks? It may be a combination of both, but after nearly 20 years, perhaps some lessons have sunk in that these fascinating creatures aren’t the monsters depicted in the Jaws films, although their infrequent encounters with humans can be very unfortunate for both person and shark.
That combination of understanding and entertainment breaks the surface again as the annual favorite returns July 29-Aug. 4. Again, a lineup of eight sometimes lurid new titles seems likely to bring in massive viewers (20 million watched last year’s event), especially in a year when natural history programming seems to be all the rage thanks to series like Discovery’s own Planet Earth. There are also favorite repeat shark specials that air each night, based on earlier online voting from viewers.
The new episodes are:
Ocean of Fear: The Worst Shark Attack Ever — July 29. Richard Dreyfuss (of Jaws fame) narrates this two-hour look at the horrific experiences of the men of the World War II ship Indianapolis, which was sunk after being torpedoed. Those who didn’t go down with the ship were left in shark-infested waters for four days, with over 600 of them losing their lives. Assisted by George Burgess, America’s foremost investigator of shark attacks, Discovery re-opens the official shark attack file on this event and leads the first scientific investigation into the incident. Why did the sharks attack the way they did — and why did they sometimes not? What survival strategies did the men in the water use, including those who fought the sharks? Survivors recall their ordeal, and reconstructions, filmed with real sharks, reveal the drama from both the humans’ and the sharks’ perspectives.
Deadly Stripes: Tiger Sharks — July 30. When these so-called “garbage cans of the sea” (not known for being the most discriminating of eaters) mysteriously gather en masse off South Africa — and then vanish as suddenly as they appear — one researcher seeks to complete his life’s work on this complex animal. He believes these sharks are actually the same individuals returning year after year, and to prove it, he embarks on a dangerous dive to tag the sharks with a satellite-tracking device.
Top 5 Eaten Alive — July 30. A sensational title that sounds more at home on Discovery Health Channel, this special features the top five most amazing shark attack survival stories of recent history. Perhaps not for the faint of heart (or stomach), the special includes the stories of an abalone diver whose head and arm are bitten by a great white; a young woman caught in a tug of war between her rescue crew and a massive shark with her leg in its jaws; a fisherman who has no memory of an attack in which his arm was bitten off; and a vacationing woman pulled under water by a 9-foot tiger shark, and who fends it off by punching it in the nose.
Shark Feeding Frenzy — July 31. Survivorman Les Stroud hosts this special in which longstanding myths about shark feeding behaviors are tested. The diets of seven species — great white, mako, tiger, bull, Caribbean reef, lemon and hammerhead — are examined to discover which shark has the strongest jaws, how often a shark needs to eat, and what senses incite a shark to attack.
Perfect Predators — Aug. 1. After remaining fairly unchanged for 400 million years of perfect adaptation to their environment, we may want to learn a few things from sharks. And this special touches on that, looking at some new scientific applications and technologies being developed using the unique properties of shark skin.
Shark Tribe — Aug. 2. Animal behaviorist Dave Salmoni and South African shark scientist Ryan Johnson visit New Guinea to find out the secrets of “shark whisperers” — locals who can call in sharks using tiny canoes, without bait.
Sharks: A Family Affair — Aug. 3. South Africa’s leading shark expert, Craig Ferreira, has dreamt of an expedition to travel the world for a year to study the “dirty dozen” — the 12 deadliest species of shark. He sets off to do this, and decides to bring along the wife and kids to share in the fun!
Sharkman — Aug. 4. No, not the latest superhero. This shark expert is seeking to hypnotize a great white shark in open water, to “unstress” the fish to make it easier to study. But who’s going to unstress him in this dangerous situation?
A few tidbits about Discovery’s 20 years of Shark Week:
- Since its launch in 1988, Shark Week has aired 103 premiere shark programs
- The first time Shark Week hosted was in 1994, appropriately enough by Jaws author Peter Benchley
- 1995’s In Search of the Golden Hammerhead profiled an extremely rare shark never before seen on television
- The first live Shark Week program, Live From a Shark Cage, aired in 1999
- The 2000 Shark Week featured the first 3-D shark program, Sharks 3-D (sorry, 1983’s Jaws 3-D doesn’t count!)
- Celebrities such as Adrian Pasdar and Gabrielle Reece jumped into the water for Shark Week’s 15th birthday in 2002
Top 10 Highest-Rated Shark Week Programs
- Anatomy of a Shark Bite (2003)
- MythBusters: Jaws Special (2005)
- Air Jaws (2001)
- 10 Deadliest Sharks (2001)
- Tales of the Tiger Shark (1996)
- Dirty Jobs: Jobs That Bite (2006)
- Sharks 3-D (2000)
- Big Tooth: Dead or Alive (1999)
- Shark Attack Files (1995)
- Tiger Shark Attack: Beyond Fear (2004)
What’s Your Chance Of Being Attacked By A Shark?
- In the U.S., your chances of getting killed by lightning are 30 times greater than dying of a shark attack.
- Bees, wasps, and snakes kill more people each year than sharks.
- Drowning, heart attacks, beach accidents resulting in spinal injury, sunburn, cuts from stepping on sea shells, dehydration, jellyfish stings, and traffic accidents going to or from the beach are all far more common than shark attacks.
- In 1996 in the U.S. there were 18 reported injuries and deaths from shark attacks, but 198,849 injuries from working with screws, nails, tacks, and bolts; 138,894 injuries from ladders; 43,687 injuries from toilets; and 36,091 injuries while pruning, trimming, or edging plants.
- Between 1959 and 1990, 5,528 people were stuck by lightning in the 22 coastal states (excluding Alaska) and Puerto Rico, with 1,505 fatalities. During the same period, there were 336 shark attacks in the coastal waters of those states, with 12 fatalities.
- In 1987, New York City reported the following number of people bitten by dogs: 8,064; other people, 1,587; cats, 802; rats, 291; squirrels, 95, raccoons, 11; ferrets, 7; skunk, 3. There were 13 shark injuries reported nationwide the same year