First airing in 1988, Shark Week is an annual week-long special on the Discovery Channel. It is dedicated to the study of sharks, their conservation, and correcting misconceptions about the animals. The show was a success from the start and is currently available in 72 countries with past episodes available for purchase or occasional reruns on Discovery Channel. Since 2010, it has been the longest-running cable television programming event in history with no signs of slowing down. Now, sink your teeth into these behind the scenes facts about Shark Week.
The Producers Aren’t Always Honest To The Scientists
Supposedly, not all of the producers at Discovery are always upfront with the scientists they recruit to appear on Shark Week shows. They have been known to give scientists misleading information so they’ll share their expert opinion to make the show appear more legitimate.
One example of this was the 2014 exclusive Voodoo Shark. Bull shark researcher Jonathan David claims that the producers weren’t clear about the subject matter of the show and wouldn’t have been a part of it otherwise. He says the program was edited in such a way that it made it look like he believed in a mythical shark that doesn’t exist.
They’re Running Out Of Ideas
Having been on the air annually since 1988, it’s understandable that Discovery is having a hard time creating original content. So, to keep things interesting, show creators have been relying on over-the-top ideas and gimmicks to keep viewers coming back and staying excited each year.
According to Brooke Runnette, a Shark Week executive producer, during a brainstorming session, one employee recommended that they do a show with people wearing “meat suits” or “chum underpants.” Luckily, the idea was shut down since having someone wearing “chum underpants” around a bunch of sharks is extremely dangerous.
A Biologist Was Attacked During Filming
Although there’s a certain level of danger anytime you get in the water with sharks, biologist Dr. Erich Ritter truly put himself in harm’s way to prove a theory. He declared that specific “yoga-like” breathing techniques would protect someone from being attacked by a shark.
So, to test his theory, he waded into bull shark-infested water that had also previously been chummed. Unfortunately, his plan backfired, and a shark took a serious chunk out of his leg. Although he recovered, he almost died from blood loss before reaching the hospital.
Shark Week Was Conceived At A Bar
Even though Shark Week has grown to become the biggest time of the year for Discovery Channel, the idea actually came about during after-work drinks. According to executive producer Brook Runnette, the Discovery Channel executives had an after-work brainstorming session to think of the next big thing for the Discovery Channel.
Well, after a few drinks, people started talking about sharks and the public’s general interest in them. They also realized that very little was actually known about the marine creatures. By the end of the evening, they had everything mapped out on a napkin and Shark Week was born.
They Captured The First Jumping Great White
Since Shark Week has been on the air for decades, it’s not surprising that the show has captured some groundbreaking footage of shark behavior. One of these firsts was of a great white shark leaping out of the water.
Originally thought to be a fisherman’s tale, the 2001 crew of Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa saw the truth of it. While using a decoy seal to study great white’s hunting strategies, the whole crew was stunned when a great white launched itself out of the water to take its prey by surprise.
Travel Can Be More Dangerous Than Filming
One would think that the most dangerous part about filming for Shark Week would be getting up-close and personal with sharks. However, that’s not necessarily the case. As it turns out, the travel associated with the job can actually be quite dangerous.
Film crews usually shoot in remote locations which means they have to be self-sufficient and are on their own if anything goes wrong. Andy Casagrande, who has been working on Shark Week for years, explained that he’s more likely to get hurt on his way to a shoot rather than by the sharks themselves.
Shark Week Has Connections To Steve Irwin
Although Steve Irwin suddenly passed away in 2006, he is still remembered from the many shows and documentaries that he starred in on Animal Planet. Interestingly, Animal Planet came out of the Discovery Channel in 1996 and was run by W. Clark Bunting, one of the executives to come up with the idea of Shark Week.
While supervising the establishment of Animal Planet, Bunting also helped launch Steve Irwin’s career. He is even credited with getting Irwin’s show The Crocodile Hunter up and running.
Who’s Filming This?
The footage of divers being filmed with sharks such as great whites almost seems implausible. While most of the footage features divers inside of shark cages, it makes you wonder who is behind the camera. Are they using a machine, is someone risking their life, what’s happening here?
However, as it turns out, the people filming are actually in shark cages too. Yet, they use various techniques to make the audience feel like they’re in the water with the sharks. One of their most common strategies is for one camera operator to attract the attention of the sharks while the others film the interaction.
The Author Of Jaws Was The First Host
Before Steven Spielberg turned Jaws into a worldwide phenomenon, it was a 1974 novel by author Peter Benchley. Yet, after the movie came out, Benchley was saddened how Jaws was negatively affecting the way people viewed and treated sharks.
This led him to become a shark advocate and he was even invited to be the first-ever host of Shark Week. After executives decided it was time to include a host, they figured there was nobody better for the job than Benchley himself. Benchley first hosted the show in 1994 and set the bar in the years to follow.
A Different Kind Of Attack During Shark Week
In 2018, marine biologist Melissa Marquez had quite the experience while filming for the segment titled Cuba’s Secret Shark Lair. She was attacked, not by a shark, but a crocodile. Although she only sustained minor injuries, it certainly wasn’t what anyone was expecting to happen when filming for Shark Week.
On her Twitter account, Melissa posted on the experience saying, “Got bit + dragged by a 10 ft (3 m) croc and all I got were these scars. Today all wounds have healed (finally!), bruising gone, + can walk w/o (much) pain.” #Blessed.”
Discovery Takes Market Seriously
In 2006, Discovery Channel decided they were going to market Shark Week like never before. In preparation for the highly anticipated week of that summer, Discovery Channel hung a 446-foot-long inflatable shark from their headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland.
There was a head, fins, and tail, and the body of the shark was the building itself. The shark was given the name “Chompie” and was consistently hooked up to a pump that fed 2,000 cubic feet of air per minute into the giant shark.
People Were Disappointed About One Special
In 2017, Discovery Channel began to hype up a new Shark Week special that featured Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps going head-to-head with a great white shark in a race. Of course, viewers couldn’t wait for the event and it quickly became the most anticipated special of that year’s Shark Week.
However, when the time came, viewers were sorely disappointed when they learned there was no shark. Instead, the shark was computer generated and its speed was calculated based on the measurements and times of real sharks. Viewers were quick to voice their displeasure and Discovery Channel realized that they went a little too far.
They Use Cutting-Edge Technology
In order to get such incredible shots of these magnificent creatures, state-of-the-art technology is required. Back in 2001, the Discovery Channel began to rely on the use of Phantom cameras, which catch high-speed and high-definition footage at over 1,000 frames per second.
With Phantom cameras, the film crews can now capture sharks deeper and clearer than ever before. This also allows them to slow down footage in high-definition so people can truly admire the animals. These type of cameras are also used at the Olympics and the NBA.
Shark Week Highly Promotes Conservation
Discovery isn’t exempt from criticism about their depiction of sharks, even if their goal is to educate their audiences. They want to demonstrate that sharks are both beautiful but also need to be respected. However, what they don’t want to do is make them look like the killing machines they’re portrayed as in pop culture.
One way Discovery makes an effort to help sharks is by partnering with organizations and nonprofits involved with marine conservation. Many of them are dedicated to stopping over-fishing and other crimes such as shark finning. One of the biggest corporations that they work with is Oceana and National Aquarium which helps raise awareness about the endangerment of sharks and sponsors many of the programs.
There’s One Behavior They Haven’t Been Able To Capture
Although Shark Week has been able to show never-before-seen footage of sharks to the public, there’s one behavior that continues to elude scientists. Nobody has even witnessed or documented great white sharks mating. According to Casagrande, “No one’s ever witnessed it. There’s no video proof or satellite data or anything to show when, where, and how white sharks mate.”
Although witnessing this mystery would be a breakthrough for scientists and filmmakers alike, it would also be helpful when it comes to conservation. Learning how they reproduce would aid us in protecting the species as a whole.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s Grandson Hosted A Show
Jacques-Yves Cousteau is a revered aquatic explorer. He’s so popular in fact, that Wes Anderson based his character Steve Zissou from his film The Life Aquatic on him. As it turns out, his grandson, Philippe Cousteau Jr., followed in his footsteps and is a marine explorer and conservationist as well.
In 2016, Philippe and his wife Ashlan hosted the Shark Week special Nuclear Shark. The show explores the re-emergence of marine life in the Marshall Islands that was believed to be extinct due to nuclear testing.
Shark Week Greatly Boosted Discovery’s Ratings
The Discovery Channel became an official television channel in 1985. It was the brainchild of John H. Hendricks who initially developed the cable service in 1982. When the channel was first introduced to the public, it only ran from 3 PM to 3 AM, yet still prided itself on its production of quality and original content.
However, after the first Shark Week was launched in 1988, the Discovery Channel’s primetime rating doubled, and the annual event has continued to grow since. Shark Week’s debut in 2017 had the highest ratings in the special’s history.
Being A Shark Cinematographer Is A Competitive Field
Wildlife filmmaker Andy Casagrande has more than 40 Shark Week credits to his name, although he says that it’s not a field you can just jump into. He notes, “I get about a hundred emails a month from people who want to do what I do […] Something about sharks just captivates the world … You get to travel to these really pristine, remote places around the world. You’re diving in amazing conditions with amazing predators.”
It sounds like an appealing job for a lot of people, but you have to dedicate your life to the work if you want to make a name for yourself.
A Lot Of Home-Made Equipment Is Used
Even though most of the film crews are fitted with state-of-the-art cameras and other technology, some of their most useful equipment they make themselves. One of these inventions is known as “bite cams.”
These are GoPros that are encased in a waterproof housing and covered in foam that painlessly attaches to a shark’s dorsal fin to provide a shark’s eyes view. The camera is attached using biodegradable fasteners which dissolve in the seawater, allowing the camera to bob to the surface to retrieve the footage.
There’s A Formula For Making A Shark Week Show
In the beginning, Shark Week was mostly a collection of shark-related documentary and shows without any real direction. All the Discovery Channel executives cared about was that the show was about sharks. Yet, because Shark Week has grown to become as popular as it has, the executives have created a formula that each new show must follow.
This formula includes making the shark the star, filming outside for the colors and lighting, being in the water or on the boat as often as possible, and don’t give the audience too much to worry about. So far, the formula has proven to be successful.