‘Shark Week’ looks to bal­ance science, en­ter­tain­ment


Sharks are se­ri­ous busi­ness this sum­mer, with “Shark­nado”-style flip­pancy a barely heard echo fol­low­ing grisly at­tacks on beach­go­ers off the Florida, Cal­i­for­nia and North and South Carolina coasts.

Se­ri­ous­ness also marks the tone of Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s Shark Week which, af­ter veer­ing off course with pro­grams that lop­sid­edly favoured thrills over in­for­ma­tion, aims to bring the bal­ance back to hard science as the an­nual event be­gins Sun­day.

It re­mains to be seen whether the lineup will sat­isfy crit­ics of 2014’s Shark Week who con­demned, among other things, pro­grams awash in what they la­beled “pseu­do­science.”

If skep­tics re­main unswayed, it won’t be for Dis­cov­ery’s lack of ef­fort, as Howard Swartz ex­plains it. He’s the Dis­cov­ery vi­cepres­i­dent for doc­u­men­taries and spe­cials who over­saw all Shark Week con­tent, his first go at it. The sum­mer sta­ple is air­ing for the 28th time.

“Dis­cov­ery is at its best when it’s ful­fill­ing our core brand prom­ise, which is about ex­plo­ration and ad­ven­ture, science and re­search,” Swartz said. Shark Week has met that goal be­fore, he said, but this year’s fo­cus is even more in­tense and re­veal­ing.

“Tech­nol­ogy keeps beg­ging new ques­tions that re­searchers are go­ing af­ter, whether it’s about be­hav­iour, about mi­gra­tion, about find­ing new shark habits they didn’t know be­fore,” he said.

“My best friend in keep­ing Shark Week new is the re­search com­mu­nity and the tech­nol­ogy they’re us­ing,” added Swartz, whose science-heavy TV ca­reer in­cludes a stint as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of PBS’ ac­claimed “Nova” se­ries be­fore join­ing Dis­cov­ery.

That’s not to say that en­ter­tain­ment and hy­per­bole are miss­ing in ac­tion - this is com­mer­cial TV, af­ter all. Con­sider “Bride of Jaws,” (9 p.m. Tues­day, all times EDT), about the search for the largest fe­male Great White yet tagged, or “Shark­san­ity 2” (9 p.m. Satur­day, July 11) with viewer rank­ings of Shark Week’s “most in­sane bites, strikes and close calls,” as the chan­nel de­scribes it.

Shark Week also acts as a trav­el­ogue, tak­ing view­ers to far- flung lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, South Africa, the East and West U.S. coasts, Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico.

On a sober note, the lineup of­fers timely ex­am­i­na­tions of ef­forts to de­velop new tools to help ocean-lov­ing hu­mans and sharks co­ex­ist peace­fully in ar­eas cop­ing with dan­ger­ous shark vs hu­man en­coun­ters. The shows were com­pleted be­fore the re­cent spate of at­tacks.

“I think Shark Week has done a great job over the last decades show­ing the sharks aren’t mind­less killing ma­chines. But the re­al­ity is that shark at­tacks do hap­pen - the ques­tion is why they hap­pen, what can we learn from them and what can we do to mit­i­gate them from hap­pen­ing hap­pen,” Swartz said.

There are sev­eral rea­sons for what shark ex­pert Craig O’Con­nell char­ac­ter­izes as “maybe a slight in­crease” in dan­ger­ous en­coun­ters. The jump in the hu­man pop­u­la­tion and more crowded oceans is one, he said, a fac­tor also cited by sci­en­tists in ex­plain­ing the at­tacks of the Caroli­nas.

O’Con­nell’s ef­forts to keep peo­ple and sharks sep­a­rated with­out harm to ei­ther are part of “Shark Is­land,” which con­cludes Shark Week at 8 p.m. Sun­day, July 12. He was a pre­teen in up­state New York when a Shark Week pro­gram of two decades ago showed a shark en­tan­gled in a net, leav­ing him re­solved to find fish-safe al­ter­na­tives to beach nets and drum lines.

He and other sci­en­tists are test­ing the use of mag­nets to re­pel sharks by interfering with their nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem, which re­lies on their un­usual elec­tri­cal sense, O’Con­nell said.

There are other re­mark­able de­vel­op­ments and dis­cov­er­ies through­out the pro­grams.

Shark Week kicks off at 8 p.m. Sun­day, July 5, with “Shark Trek,” in which Mas­sachusetts’ marine fish­eries bi­ol­o­gist Greg Sko­mal tags Great Whites off Cape Cod.

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