Category Archives: Television Shows

PBS’s Comprehensive and Illuminating Examination of THE BOMB

THE BOMB

on PBS

See it at the PBS website 

(5/5)

Pros: Detailed and immensely provocative, with plenty of moments both comical and sobering

Cons: This documentary asks the hard questions and is quite provocative: itt’s not the flag-waving piece some viewers might desire

Timed for broadcast to roughly coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the concluding events of World War II, the two-hour PBS documentary titled simply The Bomb tells the chronological history of nuclear weapons and their effects on world history. Beginning with the theoretical discovery of nuclear fission in pre-WWII Germany, the film’s first half goes on to chronicle the whole of the Manhattan Project that saw the United States develop the first true weapons of mass destruction. During this segment, The Bomb covers nearly identical territory as Discovery Channel’s How We Built the Bomb, yet the PBS show is a tidier production, presenting a more wide-reaching examination of the topic in a fraction of the time. I’d almost say that PBS’s straight-forward documentary is the ideal companion piece to Discovery’s more movie-like program, sinceThe Bomb attaches actual faces to its explanation of the story.

Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - 65th Anniversary

From here, The Bomb continues to discuss what happened after this initial display of power, tackling the subjects of nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction that, while absolutely preposterous and more than a bit maniacal, probably kept the human race from destroying itself.   The main body of the program more or less ends with the dissolving of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the cessation of US nuclear testing in 1992, but features an epilogue of sorts that cautions about how these weapons will forever remain a threat – particularly as more and more foreign nations develop their own nuclear programs.

Consistent with typically outstanding PBS shows like Nova and American Experience, The Bomb is a straight-forward production consisting of interviews with former military personnel, scientists, and political figures as well as historians and researchers well-versed in the subjects being discussed. The program makes use of an extensive collection of archival footage, a surprising amount of which is in striking color and much of which was restored specifically for inclusion here. A sort of teaser which pops up before the film begins shows a before and after comparison revealing how effective this restoration was, and the story is held together by a well-written narration.

While there are some carefree moments scattered about – such as a sequence when public fascination with all things atomic during the late ‘40s, including the development of the bikini swimsuit, is investigated – the overall tone of the documentary is more frequently serious if not ominous and menacing. It seems like the producers went out of their way to find the most awe-inspiring and inevitably unsettling images of atomic explosions. There is a frankly unbelievable amount of actual film footage of these events (some from tests that I’d never even heard of), and the program starts to border on being downright scary when covering the era of McCarthyism or showing efforts during the ‘50s on the part of America and the Soviets to construct almost inconceivably powerful thermonuclear devices. Also frightening (though darkly humorous in a way) are segments which focus on the ideas of being prepared for potential nuclear strikes – including the infamous Duck and Cover cartoon.

Considering the controversial subject at the heart of the documentary, it might not be surprising that The Bomb could be declared “thought-provoking” for making a viewer really examine and question the situations being discussed, but I think the program’s strongest aspect is its challenging nature. The Bomb purposely avoids notions of patriotism often attached to discussions about atomic weapons, and instead actually forces the viewer to confront cold hard about the actualities of nuclear war. Footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki shows unfortunate victims of those blasts and their horrific wounds, and while the historians interviewed during the production acknowledge the scientific accomplishment that the development of the bomb was, they are equally as likely to point out the “most extraordinary insanity” on the part of humanity that the nuclear arms race represented. In hindsight, it becomes very difficult to view the arms race as anything but a pissing contest: after all, what “piece of mind” did having some 31,000 nuclear weapons (as the US did at its peak in 1967) really provide – especially when, as they were attempting to convince the public that a nuclear attack was somehow survivable, the government was also striving to create ever-more powerful weapons?

Ultimately, a viewer is left with a deep understanding of how many if not all world events in the latter half of the twentieth century played out under the shadow of the atomic bomb. While many documentaries have covered topics related to nuclear weapons with varying degrees of success (among the better ones are this year’s aforementioned How We Built the Bomb and 1982’s The Atomic Cafe, which compiles educational and government-produced short programs into an alternately amusing and deadly serious collage), I’m not sure that any provide a better, more altogether comprehensive examination of the subject than this program does. As such, The Bomb is almost essential viewing that would be perfect for usage in an educational setting. This is the sort of program that makes PBS stand out among the so-called educational channels, and I’d give it nothing less than my highest recommendation.

 

The documentary can be viewed in its entirety at the PBS website.

“…now I am become death…the destroyer of worlds:” HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

on Discovery Channel

Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Accessible, captivating,  and informative, with a wealth of astounding archival footage

Cons:  Actual interviews not included

Made for the Discovery Channel networks and first broadcast in mid 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity Test, How We Built the Bomb takes the form of a dramatized documentary that tells the story of the American atomic program from start to finish. The program (two hours with commercials) begins with the now-famous letter written by Albert Einstein warning American president Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany may in fact be working on a “superbomb” that would be powered not by conventional explosives, but by splitting the atom. As America enters World War II in the coming years, a priority is placed on unlocking the secrets of nuclear fission and developing a uranium or plutonium based explosive device (referred to by scientists as “the gadget”) before the Germans did. This involved a large and incredibly secretive operation across several states, with the main research and development facility located in a remote section of the New Mexican desert.

scanned: May 2001 by Image Delivery Systems LLCSome of the many personnel involved in the Manhattan Project whose viewpoints are told in the documentary through re-imagined interviews.

Lacking a traditional narration, How We Built the Bomb (written by David Broodell) is told from the perspective of the people who worked on the so-called “Manhattan Project,” but instead of using actual archival interviews, the production is based around an extended series of recreated interviews with actors portraying the various scientists, military and support personnel, and others who found themselves involved in some way with this tremendous undertaking. At first, this approach seems awkward and maybe even reprehensible since the ongoing dialogue is fictionalized to an arguably large extent. As the program wore on however, I grew more and more absorbed in the unfolding story being told and found the format of the documentary to be less detrimental than I would have originally thought.

A billboard at the Oak Ridge FacilityDespite the government’s best efforts, security among project personnel was compromised on several occasions.

Along with these dramatized interviews, the program also presents a rather large amount of home movies and film footage taken by residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico (for all intents and purposes, the center of the R&D division of the Manhattan Project) during this era. When combined with the speakers, this footage goes a long way in not only telling a detailed history of the nuclear program, but also explaining what life was like for the scientists, spouses, military personnel and support staff who found themselves working on an underground project in a top secret location. Much of the program (rightfully) focuses on efforts to come to grips with the physics behind fission and put such theories into practice, but How We Built the Bomb also includes some rather humorous observations about the ways in which project personnel unwound after long hours in the lab. I found myself chuckling at explanations of what went into the highly alcoholic “tech area punch” that scientists consumed during their off hours and was similarly amused by one military man’s frustration at the fact that some eighty babies were born at the facility in 1944, indicating another method of stress relief practiced by the town’s residents.

nextgov-mediumSite of the Trinity Test, viewed after the first detonation in July, 1945.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary starts to ratchet up the tension level down the stretch when scientific theory doesn’t quite match up with actual experimental results and it becomes apparent that a new method of detonation must be sought. By this point in 1944, though the war in Europe is nearing its conclusion, a long, drawn-out and very costly invasion of Japan is imminent unless the bomb can be used to precipitate a quick end to the conflict. Accompanied by almost psychedelic music cues, the segment dealing with the initial Trinity Test, the world’s first detonation of an atomic weapon, is very deliberate in its construction which maximizes the impact of the event on a viewer. I should also state that while the program does chronicle the period up to and including the unconditional surrender of the Japanese following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these events are only briefly touched on; the documentary is clearly more focused on the actual development of the atom bomb, not its deployment.

One of the strongest aspects of the documentary is the way in which it breaks down complicated physics in a way that can be understood by viewers who in all likelihood don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the processes involved. Even if the interview subjects do on occasion go into lengthy and extremely complicated explanations of the mathematics involved in solving the problems of nuclear fission, they subsequently reveal what they were trying to accomplish in “layman’s terms.” An offscreen “interviewer” character (who a viewer is never truly introduced to) acts as the voice of the viewer at times, prompting the speakers to answer questions in a more straight-forward manner. Visuals and graphics that accompany these segments also aid in a viewer’s understanding of the concepts being discussed: I got a kick out of the now almost humorous vintage educational film footage utilized during certain segments, and nifty special effects attempt to visualize what actually happens when fission starts to take place in a nuclear device.

atomic_bomb_end_of_worldIt’s kind of scary that none of the scientists working on the project quite knew what would happen when an atomic detonation occurred – some feared that the blast would actually ignite the atmosphere.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the nuclear program was the fact that the scientists involved in making the atom bomb faced serious moral dilemmas. Truly, at the time it was only these scientists who fully comprehended what effect these weapons would have should they be used against enemy forces – or civilians – and many were vehemently opposed to the military deployment of “the gadget.” How We Built the Bomb deals with this issue about as well as one would expect or hope for in a program of this nature, prompting the viewer to question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were genuinely necessary. It’s worth noting that it was Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency of the United States after the death of FDR and only found out about the Manhattan Project after he had been sworn in, that actually authorized these attacks. One has to wonder if he was aware of what the consequences of this action would be, and in a modern society that’s gotten all-too-used to the idea of nuclear threat, it’s worth remembering that the United States is still the only nation that has ever used an atomic device against other human beings.

3241909-einstein-after-an-atom-bomb-test

When viewing this program, one is left with a sense of awe – not only with the power of the atomic bomb itself, a power which is hammered home time and again throughout the film, but with the fact that such a seemingly impossible scientific undertaking as to make such a device was accomplished in a short time under rather adverse conditions. No matter what one’s feelings are about nuclear weapons, it’s pretty amazing that scientists were able not only to understand how the fission process worked but also how it can be harnessed and (at least partially) controlled. Edited in a very capable manner with a quietly effective music score provided by Brendan Anderegg, How We Built the Bomb ultimately celebrates the tremendous scientific achievement that the bomb was the end result of. Although to an extent it makes the scientists involved out to be heroic figures, to its credit the program doesn’t necessarily present the bombing of Japan as a moment of triumph or jubilation, ending instead on a somber and even ominous note, with various blurbs from political speeches and news broadcasts reminding the viewer how fundamentally the world was changed with the advent of the bomb. I think that’s about as appropriate an end statement that could be made, and would whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to any interested viewer.

 

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB – EXCERPT from Seth Skundrick on Vimeo.

“The Question is, What’s Going On…” MISSING IN ALASKA

MISSING IN ALASKA

on History Channel

showposter

See it at the History Channel

(2/5)

Pros: Interesting basis for the episodes…

Cons: …but the conclusions drawn seem like a stretch

“This dramatized program is inspired by eyewitness reports and legends and may contain certain sensationalized and/or controversial content. The personal opinions and theories expressed are not endorsed by the network.

Viewer discretion is advised.

There are currently 738,000 people living in Alaska. In the past 20 years…more than 60,000 have been reported missing. Some believe a number of these cases…stem from mysterious phenomena.”

alaskan-bermuda-triangle-1a

So reads the intro of History Channel’s latest supposed documentary Missing in Alaska, which premiered in July 2015 and follows the exploits of a three man team – former police officer and apparent skeptic Jeremy “Jax” Atwell, folklorist Tommy Joseph, and “specialist in strange phenomena” Ken Gerhard, who’s been featured in many vaguely similar programs and doesn’t go anywhere without his trusty curved cowboy hat – whose goal it is to explain some of those many disappearances. Appropriately enough, this show airs just after the now-almost-parodical Ancient Aliens and on the one hand, I’ve got to give the producers credit for at least acknowledging that what’s covered in their “dramatized” show might be “sensationalized and/or controversial” – right there, they’ve already been more honest with their viewers than any number of the typical “monster hunt” programs, of which Destination America’s Alaska Monsters may be the most flat-out absurd. Of course the disclaimer does leave the door open for everything discussed in Missing in Alaska to be utter hogwash, so the question then becomes why anyone would want to watch such malarkey…

BRAND_H2_MSGA_162202_TVE_000_2398_60_20150722_000_HD_still_624x352The MiA team on the hunt…

Initially, Missing in Alaska seems fairly straight-faced. Each episode tackles one possible cause that would explain people vanishing in the so-called “Alaska Triangle.” The program’s first episode deals with the sudden disappearance of a C-54 military transport carrying some 44 persons in January 1950. Numerous planes go missing in Alaska but the majority of these cases can probably be blamed on unpredictable and dangerous weather patterns. The particular incident covered in the show is noteworthy not only for the amount of people who were lost, but also because a massive military search operation didn’t yield a single clue as to what actually happened. Gerhard, being of sound mind, believes that the so-called “vile vortices” may be to blame, thus making a connection to the blatantly phony Devil’s Graveyards mockumentary. Episode two likewise travels through familiar territory, covering the team’s search for the so-called “Hairy Man,” a Sasquatch-like creature prowling the Alaskan wilderness that is rumored to be both larger and more aggressive than the typical “Bigfoot.”

Missing_In_Alaska_Tommy_Joseph_Bio-E“Expert on Alaskan legends” Tommy Joseph posing with supposed Hairy Man nest.  Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

After a narration provides some backstory for each episode (and to be fair, there’s legitimate historical basis for at least some of the subjects tackled here), the MiA team sets out on a quest not only to find experts and witnesses who may shine some light on the case they’re investigating, but also to have some first-hand experiences for themselves. Invariably (and in some cases most inexplicably), the team’s research leads them to conduct some sort of nighttime investigation, which may be about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard – is it really a good idea to go lurking around after dark in remote areas where five out of every thousand people disappears, knowing full well that bears may be lurking just out of camera range? Even if I can accept that the investigation of the “Hairy Man” might turn up something in the nocturnal hours, what could possibly be learned by prowling around at night in search of vile vortices? Regardless, these segments do wind up providing the almost mandatory infrared and night vision sequences along with a multitude of declarations like “did you hear that?” or “there’s definitely something out there!”

29EA0EB600000578-0-image-a-11_1435136401617Landscape photograph in the show is, as might be expected, outstanding.

Like many other modern “speculative documentaries,” Missing in Alaska does a reasonable job of appearing to represent authentic events and situations. Similar to a program like America Unearthed, Missing in Alaska incorporates some subtle reality TV moments: to an extent, the show is more about what happens during the team’s investigation rather than the underlying topic being examined. The documentary-like approach is also pretty solid, boasting some stunning photography of the breathtaking Alaskan landscape, but the illusion of verisimilitude collapses or is at least severely strained at times. Episode one features a moment where the team utilizes an aerial drone to try and get a wide-range view of a snow-covered valley. The drone is quickly lost during a sudden change in weather, but “miraculously” appears – with its tracking beacon and scientific gear still functioning – later on during the episode’s climax. Much as I like to keep an open mind, I don’t at all believe the nudge-nudge-wink-wink assertions that this drone actually went through one of the vortices the team was searching for and then apparently jumped ahead in time and space – that notion just pushes my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. Similarly, episode two’s conclusion of a shadowy figure knocking a trail cam around seems highly suspect – it’s simply too convenient and frankly unbelievable that this team would randomly stumble upon an unknown hominid during the course of a few day film shoot.

ken_gerhard.1322040_stdKen Gerhard – specialist in strange phenomena.  And owl wrangler.

Given the sketchiness of the show, I was somewhat shocked that Gerhard, a somewhat respected (?) figure in the world of cryptozoology and the paranormal, would appear in something like this. Maybe the guy’s looking for acting gigs nowadays, for that surely is more what Missing in Alaska seems: I would hope that most viewers would take any of the “factual” information here – at least that which the research team stumbles across – with a grain of salt. There are strange things occurring in the Alaskan wilderness and the number of missing persons in the state is undeniably alarming, making the real life aspects and historical incidents depicted in Missing in Alaska quite fascinating. To instantly jump to the “mysteries and monsters” conclusion with regard to explaining these disappearances however seems not only illogical but irresponsible. As a “documentary” then, though Missing in Alaska is not quite as utterly reprehensible as what I’ve come to expect from the genre of ghost/monster/unknown-related programming, it’s still highly questionable. As entertainment however, it does exactly what it’s supposed to, raising numerous questions and getting a viewer thinking about the infinite possibilities that are/may be out there. This isn’t must-see TV by any stretch, but those who enjoy shows dealing with the paranormal will probably get a kick out of it.

 

“It’s All So Surreal…” THE 2000s: A NEW REALITY

THE 2000s: A NEW REALITY

on National Geographic Channel

National Geographic Channel 

(3/5)

Pros: Nice selection of interview subjects and fantastic archival footage

Cons: Depressing! and doesn’t do much to explain what I would consider the bigger picture issues going on

The latest in a string of National Geographic miniseries devoted to an exploration of the past several decades (after The 80s: The Decade that Made Us and The 90s: The Last Great Decade), 2015’s two-part The 2000s: A New Reality, as its title suggests, focuses its attention on the period from 2000 until 2009. Examining both major news events and pop culture stories and covering a wide range of material, the program (narrated by actor Rob Lowe) features a ton of archival footage, with a variety of interview subjects, including many people actually involved commenting on and trying to make sense of these events. As might be expected, the 9/11 terrorist attacks are the thing which shapes virtually everything else covered, and the program does a fine job of establishing how much the world changed almost instantaneously as a result of these attacks. Since the series has to cram ten years of time into roughly four hours of television however, it doesn’t linger on this decade-defining event for long, pushing forward instead to cover as much as possible within the time constraints.

 350Pretty much.

The 2000s starts out with a segment focusing on the tumultuous and incredibly controversial 2000 election in which a recount was ordered…then abandoned. From here, much of the program details the “war on terror,” from actions in Afghanistan to the (ongoing) war in Iraq, with significant attention paid to the hunt for and capture of Saddam Hussein. Along with coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the DC sniper and even the struggle to decide the fate of young Elian Gonzalez, it seems an equal amount of time is devoted to popular culture and technological innovation. Admittedly, there was a lot of crazy stuff happening during this decade, one in which such innovations as Ipods, Iphones, Youtube, and reality television (wait…is that an “innovation?”) came into being, but it struck me as a little sad and maybe even distressing that Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” made it into a documentary proposing to cover the biggest events of a ten year period. I’ve often been critical of the American media covering seemingly insignificant stories to gloss over issues that people really should be concerned about, and the whole “Nipplegate” affair is about as glaring a case of that as ever has existed.

the-2000s-janet-justin-super-bowlReal news right here folks.

Much as the choice of events being covered in this documentary sometimes seemed strange, I was more struck by the discrepancy in the amount of screen time devoted to one story versus another and how certain events were portrayed. The 2000s: A New Reality is presented almost exclusively from an American point of view, virtually ignoring any events happening in other sections of the globe – save those related to the war(s) in the Middle East. This is problematic in its own right (though it fits right in with how the American media works in general), but it’s also discouraging that several major events are downplayed in favor of segments dealing with celebrities and pop culture. For instance, I found that the segment dealing with the financial crisis of 2007-8 was told in a very protracted manner that didn’t really get into the meat and potatoes of the story. Despite this being a serious event with major global ramifications, the television show The Osbournes got about the same amount of screen time – if not more.

reality_tv_collage…and humanity collectively got a whole lot dumber.

In my review of The 90s: The Last Great Decade, I was somewhat critical of the title of the program: how could National Geographic justify that label? Were they trying to say that the “good times” were over – possibly for good? Having now seen The 2000s: A New Reality, everything makes sense, since an examination of the 2000s is downright depressing. It struck me that most every item covered in this documentary either fell into the category of bad news or was an example of what I might label as human stupidity in action. The 2000s ends with a segment covering the “miracle landing on the Hudson,” which actually is pretty nifty in taking the decade full circle back to planes being used as weapons during 9/11. Still, this glimpse of hope pops up way too late in the going to change my mind about how positively dreadful the 2000s really were, especially in terms of how they’re represented in this documentary – A New Reality is almost surreal in how downbeat is plays for much of its duration.

NTTS13900OK – so there were a few moments of hope during the decade….

Perhaps the most alarming thing about The 2000s: A New Reality is that there’s very little honest discussion about how humankind should have learned from the mistakes covered in not only this documentary, but also those covering the ‘80s and ‘90s. Virtually no attempt has been made to really link events together despite the fact that many of the problems that arose during the 2000s had their roots in things that occurred previously. As Albert Einstein is quoting as saying “Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – undoubtedly, the world has changed substantially since the turn of the millennium, but it seems like humans are repeating many of the same actions that have caused problems in the past. If we’re to judge by this documentary, things look gloomy, but the human race does have the power to change the way it does things…if only we look beyond the mundane to see the big picture.

NTTS13899…but this New Reality seems to be one overwhelmed by tragedy, turmoil,  and despair.

Arguably one of the more important changes covered in the documentary was the way that increased global connectivity has affected not only the manner in which news is obtained by the public, but also the manner in which that news is presented. The proliferation of camera phones has prompted the rise of “citizen journalism,” ensuring that news can literally break in real time as it happens. While this is a good thing in many ways, it also has a tendency (in my opinion) to lead to knee-jerk responses from authorities and those in positions of power. Perhaps because The 2000s was fairly dark to begin with, the program doesn’t really examine the consequences of this new school of information and news gathering, and maybe it’s not the program’s responsibility to do so. I guess my point is that I would have liked if the program encouraged more discussion and thought instead of just regurgitating information and possibly inciting a nostalgic response from the viewer. My criteria for this program would most certainly be different than the average television viewer who’s just trying to be entertained.

29906170001_4330507977001_4330455167001-vsIt’s a good thing the program sprinkles some humor into the proceedings – I don’t know if this parade of unfortunate events would be tolerable otherwise.

In the end, I suppose The 2000s: A New Reality does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It does cover most of the big events of the decade and many of the far-reaching paradigm shifts,  attempting to (superficially at least) explain the basic facts relating to them. The program is put together extremely well, with a soundtrack full of iconic music hits from the decade.  Occasional comedic elements thrown in to contrast the more distressing elements are most welcome, and I’m not sure that anyone would want to watch this program if humor wasn’t present in some form.  As a time-waster, this program would be ideal; with its moderate (if unchallenging) educational content, it certainly has much more to offer a viewer than the typical, mindless television program. I’m not going to call it outstanding, but it’s worth checking out if you get a chance.

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Time.Dec.09.Cover_-225x300

“…out with a whimper…”: The SHARK WEEK 2015 FINAL WRAP-UP

SHARK WEEK 2015: Final Wrap Up – Sharksanity: The Return and Shark Island

on Discovery Channel

Shark Week at Discovery Channel 

(3/5)

Pros: Shark Island paints a detailed portrait of a population in the midst of a genuine shark crisis

Cons: Sharksanity is a waste of time

After numerous “big-hitter” programs premiered early and had been repeated throughout Shark Week 2015, this annual block of Discovery Channel programming devoted to the ultimate undersea predators faded out with, well, a bit of a whimper. Saturday, July 11 saw the premiere of a new volume of Sharksanity, a show which first showed in 2014 that more or less acts as a sort of pat on the back for Shark Week producers. Acting as a sort of “greatest hits” lineup, Sharksanity: The Return chronicled the best moments from the week’s programming, placing an emphasis on jaw-dropping spectacle rather than on well-founded science. As might be expected then, South African researcher Dickie Chivell featured prominently: it was he, after all, who had not only unveiled “Chewie,” the underwater measuring device during Island of the Mega Shark, but also climbed into a decidedly flimsy-looking “ghost cage” which placed him right in the midst of a swarm of aggressive great whites. Chivell has made quite a name for himself in the past two years (2014 saw him climb aboard a floating female shark decoy – and come precariously close to being a meal), and if Sharksanity is any indication, he’ll be back for another round next year (if not before and provided he’s not eaten).

7886I salute you, Dickie Chivell.  You’re freaking nuts.

One of the main “points of interest” (???) during Sharksanity was the unveiling of a series of viewer’s choice awards which celebrated some of the best moments from the 28-year history of Shark Week. More amazing to me than the list itself was the amount of similar countdown-type shows that Discovery Channel puts out there year in and year out. In fact, just prior to 2015’s Shark Week, the channel aired a program called Shark Week Sharktacular, hosted by filmmaker Eli Roth (who later hosted Shark Week’s Shark After Dark aftershow), that did almost the same thing, running through the best events in Shark Week history as voted by fans. Hey, if Discovery Channel didn’t keep telling us how awesome Shark Week is, who would? Seriously though, I find these sorts of “congratulations; good job” sort of shows to be very annoying: I’d rather be watching, I don’t know, actual shark documentaries, but maybe that’s just me.

Narwhals_breachYeah, but when does NARWAHL WEEK start?

Sunday, July 12, the last day of Shark Week 2015, offered up a final, noticeably low-key show: Shark Island chronicled the efforts of scientists and locals living on Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, to come to terms with an increasing number of shark attacks. In the last four years, seventeen attacks, seven of them fatal, have occurred offshore, prompting the government to make ocean swimming and surfing illegal in the name of public safety. While the local government employs a team of armed “shark watchers” to monitor the coast during specific times designated to allow local surfers back into the water (and it seems that the locals on Reunion Island do love their surfing), American marine biologist Craig O’Connell starts to investigate the reasons for this increase in attacks while looking for appropriate ways of promoting safety without harming the local shark and fish populations.

shark-week-2015_0Craig O’Connell preparing for a dive into the (presumably?) shark-infested waters off Reunion Island.

More ominous than many of the week’s other documentaries, Shark Island features interviews with concerned locals and attack survivors which allow viewers to really get into the mindset of the population of this island. Continuous images of the shark-related graffiti which peppers the island speaks to the severity of the situation, and though it’s difficult for me to really make sense of people continuing to surf in an environment that has become the most dangerous area for shark attacks in the world, the real question is what has led to this unfortunate condition. The documentary examines the notion that nearby fish nurseries and wildlife refuges are to blame, but more or less comes to the conclusion – surprise! – that human behavior is responsible. Decreasing fish populations in the open ocean where sharks used to hunt for food has drawn the creatures closer to shore in the hunt for a meal, and an increasing amount of seaside development has caused the nearby waters to become murky: exactly the type of conditions that bull sharks thrive in.

reunion-islandReunion Island…but in recent days, a cloud has appeared on the horizon of this beautiful resort community – a cloud in the shape of a killer shark.

The scientific portion of this program is somewhat limited to specific segments: a decent amount of time during the program is devoted to an explanation of the bull shark, arguably the most dangerous shark in the world in terms of the sheer number of attacks on humans. These sharks are known for their aggressive behavior, and during breeding season, males are pumped up with the highest testosterone levels in the animal kingdom – which may explain why most of the Reunion attacks occur during the winter months. Bull sharks’s poor eyesight is likely also a contributing factor in these attacks: since they patrol muddy waters, the sharks presumably mistake errant human feet or hands for typical prey items, backing off after they realize they’ve literally bitten into something they can’t chew. In any case, Shark Island certainly creates a portrait of a population facing a serious shark crisis of the type seen in the first Jaws film.

Bull_Shark_2_600The bull shark – arguably the world’s most dangerous.

As expected, Shark Island is capably made, with amazing camerawork showing just how picturesque Reunion Island truly is. It also has an appropriate amount of pathos to it, but if anything, it’s a bit lacking in the shark department: mostly talk, with little footage of the creatures actually on the prowl. Hence, I’d call this an interesting but fairly mediocre Shark Week program, one that’s probably the most interesting for its depiction of the local culture and for its finale, in which various non-lethal anti-shark methods are examined. I started to lose hope when the narration began to suggest that a mass-extermination of sharks was the only way to stop the ongoing attacks, but the show actually finishes with a more conservation-minded conclusion. I’d give this particular program three stars out of five.

55958ab8498fd.imageThe shark-related graffiti on Reunion Island figures prominently into the look and feel of Shark Island.

Overall, Shark Week 2015 gave a viewer precisely what would be expected. Many of the shows here prescribed to the “bigger is better” mentality, and numerous programs made it their goal to find bigger, bolder, and all-around badder sharks. Several of 2015’s shows continued storylines that had been started in previous years, but I found many of these to be among the week’s more forgettable offerings. Year in and year out, there are major breakthroughs in shark-related research, and I was generally impressed by the level of new scientific information featured throughout the week: it’s always a good thing when I, admitted shark junkie, learn something new from Shark Week.

hammerhead shark

Without doubt, the best thing about Shark Week 2015 was the lack of the type of hokey, utterly phony programs like the Megalodon mockumentaries that were feature events in years past. Hopefully, this demonstrates to other cable “educational” channels that a solid lineup of responsible and factual programming can be as (if not more) effective than outright sensationalism put forth just to gets butts in the seat. Considering that Discovery has planned a Shweekend (read: “Shark Weekend”) event for late August, the deluge of shark programming isn’t over quite yet, and one can only hope the quality of these documentaries continues to head on an upward trajectory.

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Shark Week 2015:

The Outstanding: Shark Planet

The Great: Sharks of the Shadowland, Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba, Island of the Mega Shark

The Good: Shark Alley, Super Predator, Ninja Sharks, Bride of Jaws, Shark Trek, Monster Mako

The Mediocre: Shark Island, Shark Clans, United Sharks of America, Return of the Great White Serial Killer, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters

The Ugly: Sharksanity

 

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A Hit and a Miss as SHARK WEEK 2015 Starts to Winds Down

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Six – Sharks of the Shadowland and Shark Clans

on Discovery Channel

Shark Week at Discovery Channel 

(3.5/5)

Pros: Sharks of the Shadowlands is captivating

Cons: Lack of hard evidence hurts Shark Clans

Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week typically begins with a bang, enticing viewers with the promise of huge aggressive sharks and lots of frantic underwater footage. The 2015 edition of this programming block was no different, offering up a few days of jaw-dropping, undeniably outrageous and compelling documentaries. By later in the week however, things clearly start to wind down, and low-key premieres are the order of the day. While the vast majority of viewers might not be as interested in these less obviously buzz-worthy programs, it’s during this stretch of Shark Week that the more scientifically-minded shows, ones that are perhaps more geared towards the hardcore shark enthusiast, start to pop up, and for that crowd, the pair of documentaries which aired on Friday, July 10th would be mightily interesting.

broadnose-sevengill-sharkSevengill shark – as the name suggests, it has seven gill slits instead of the normal five that other sharks possess.

First up was Sharks of the Shadowland, which dealt with a team of researchers in New Zealand trying to learn more about the hostile sevengill sharks that inhabit a stretch of salt water fjords and coves. These sharks have become quite a nuisance to a team of divers whose job it is to rid this area of a particularly hardy variety of invasive seaweed, making the task of exterminating the weeds all but impossible. Since so little is known about sevengill sharks, marine biologist Jenny Oliver along with shark researcher Kina Scollay and commercial diver Ross Funnell set about gathering information relating to their various habits. What they find out is that these sharks are extremely territorial and completely unafraid of humans, exhibiting pack behavior as they stalk the divers in the murky and genuinely eerie waters of the fjords.

The Sharks of the Shadowland turn out to be very bold and aggressive – particularly at night.

Filmed in an absolutely beautiful and entirely remote location, Sharks of the Shadowland might sound like an unlikely choice to be the most nerve-wracking program of Shark Week 2015, but I think it holds its own with heavy hitters like Island of the Mega Shark or Bride of Jaws. What the sevengills lack in size and mass (they’re relatively small at a maximum of ten feet in length and 200 pounds in weight – nothing compared to the 18-foot, one and a half ton behemoths that tried to eat Dickie Chivell earlier in the week) they make up for in sheer cunning and sneakiness. These creatures are downright aggressive, and seem to be lurking menacingly in the corner of virtually every underwater shot present in the Shadowland documentary. The program culminates in a nighttime dive when things get really dicey since the sharks work themselves into a near-feeding frenzy, approaching the divers from all sides. While I think most shark-related programs tend to overexaggerate the amount of danger divers and researchers are put in while underwater in an attempt to add tension to the proceedings, the situations depicted in Shadowland seemed genuinely hectic and risky. If anything, the element of danger here may have actually been downplayed a bit, which may be a Shark Week first.

151920.002.01.197_20150630_120421They may not be the most physically imposing sharks of Shark Week, but these sevengills make for some really sketchy underwater sequences.

Friday’s second premiere was of Shark Clans, which chronicles the Fox Research Team of Australia. Founded by the legendary Rodney Fox, himself the survivor of a brutal great white attack who’s known for his underwater photography and for developing the anti-shark cage, this group has, since the year 2000, amassed a database of hundreds of individual sharks that prowl the Australian waters, and the documentary chronicles their efforts to photograph and tag large great whites. Set up somewhat like a reality show, Shark Clans shows the day-to-day operations of the Fox team: aside from attempting to build and update their roster of sharks, this team also operates an eco-tourism business that allows normal folks to dive with large great whites. There’s lots of footage of large predators in feeding mode here, and the jaw-dropping moment for me occurred when a shark sporting huge, gaping wounds all over its face shows up. Along the way, the program also discusses Fox’s theories that great whites actually travel in “clans” of two to five individuals. A large portion of the research the team is conducting involves finding out more about what more about these social groups and what they mean: for instance, do the sharks in these so-called “clans” stay together all the time, or do they only meet up at opportune feeding events or during breeding season?

CJlcbs-WEAAlTMhEfforts to photograph and catalog individual great whites – but do these creatures actually form social groups?

The notion that great whites maintain some sort of long lasting relationships with others of their species is a potential game changer in the understanding of the creatures. For decades, sharks have been known as solitary hunters, more or less fending for themselves as they traverse large segments of the world’s oceans. It seems that several of the programs during Shark Week 2015 sought to suggest that sharks aren’t nearly as unintelligent or belligerent as they’ve been made out to be, though (as seems to be the case with any and every ongoing shark-related research) much more investigation needs to be conducted before solid conclusions can be drawn. Still, evidence of shark intelligence, personality, and social behavior could go a long way in getting the public behind conservation efforts, and the whole subject is a fascinating one to ponder.

maxresdefaultShark Clans does feature some magnificent images of white sharks in their natural habitat.

And pondering is about all one can do after watching this show because as it is, Shark Clans promotes thought and discussion but doesn’t really have the hard facts to back up its main hypotheses. The program builds to a conclusion where a large breeding female is equipped with a satellite tag, and the information gained from this creature could unlock many secrets about the life cycle of these animals and how they interact with one another. That information isn’t actually revealed in the program however, and I almost wish producers would have waited to air this film until they could finalize the proposed theories and back them up with evidence.

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Even if neither Sharks of the Shadowland nor Shark Clans were quite the barn burners that one might expect from Shark Week, both were quite intriguing in their own ways. I loved the photography and moody look of the Shadowland program, and might even say it was the episode of this year’s Shark Week that stood out the most for me in terms of its visuals. The provocative Shark Clans may be most notable as a piece that later shows can expand and follow up on; it wasn’t particularly bad, and I loved the sequences of large great whites in action, but in my mind, the lack of concise evidence mitigated its arguments. Personally, I kind of liked the unassuming tone of both of these documentaries: they provided a definite contrast to the more loud and obnoxious programming that the Discovery Channel had unleashed previously in the week and proved that not every Shark Week show has to be ridiculous to be effective.

Four stars for Sharks of the Shadowland, three for Shark Clans.

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SHARK FEST 2015: Nat Geo Wild Gets in on the Action With Two New Docs

SHARK WEEK 2015 Extra: Shark Fest – Shark Alley and United Sharks of America

 on Nat Geo Wild

Nat Geo Wild 

(3.5/5) 

Pros: Shark Alley is an outstanding nature doc, and United Sharks is a commendably levelheaded and fact-based examination of American shark attacks

Cons:  Not as slam bang a block of programming as what Discovery Channel typically provides

Cashing in on the wild popularity of “that other thing” (read: Discovery Channel’s Shark Week), Nat Geo Wild channel let loose with their own block of shark-related programming (labeled “Shark Fest”) on Sunday, July 5, 2015. This opening night saw the premieres of a pair of documentaries, the more or less straight-forward nature documentary Shark Alley and a program in United Sharks of America that examined the most “dangerous” shark states in the US. This type of program typically rubs me the wrong way since they almost effortlessly confirm sharks as the “eating machines” they were made out to be in Jaws and any number of other Hollywood films, but United Sharks actually is somewhat more responsible in its approach than the usual “I was bitten” program. All in all, these two programs are a worthy supplement to the generally outstanding Discovery Channel lineup.

Prepare for some eye-popping images in Shark Alley.

Shark Alley stands as a typically excellent National Geographic wildlife documentary, one that focuses its attention on a somewhat unusual topic. Essentially, this program deals with the “sardine run” that occurs each winter off the South African coast, in which the small fish travel some 700-plus miles from the Capetown area to KwaZulu-Natal. Unsurprisingly, the concentration of prey created when billions upon billions of sardines pack together and begin their migration peaks the interest of a seemingly endless array of predators. According to the program, the sardine run leads to the biggest predation event in the world, and the documentary does a fine job of giving the viewer some indication of how large it really is through the use of almost unbelievable aerial shots that show a huge mass of sardines drifting much like an oil slick would just off the South African beaches.

Shark versus seal.

Instead of exclusively focusing on the sardines themselves however, the main point of interest in Shark Alley are the various species that prey on them. To that end, the documentary includes some astounding underwater images of sea birds dive-bombing the wriggling whirlwind of fish as well as seals, dolphins, various species of shark, and even full-size whales snacking on the sardines. As is typically the case in National Geographic programs, while the main narrative about the migration continues, a viewer is treated to brief asides that serve to explain various other facets of the creatures being seen in the documentary. Thus, footage of a great white shark stalking a mother seal searching for her pup as well as explanations about shark physiology are able to be incorporated into the proceedings. Well-rounded and top-notch in most every area, I think Shark Alley works best as a graphic illustration of the complexities of the food chain: it’s pretty amazing to learn that the sardine migration is not only essential for the survival of these small fish, but also key in the life cycle of dozens of other marine creatures and even birds.

3e1f886033e1fd9301013af3001291beBirds getting in on the sardine action.

United Sharks of America is a bit of a different animal, playing as a countdown through the top five most dangerous regions in the US with regard to shark attacks. Various attack survivors tell their stories, while a panel of shark experts attempts to explain why these incidents took place. The occasional reenactment pops up to get the viewer more into the stories, and the program does include some rather graphic images of the resulting wounds. As I mentioned, this is usually the type of shark-related program that I find distasteful: sharks have been portrayed in the media as evil, man-eating creatures for decades, resulting in a public that for a long period of time had no problem exterminating them completely. United Sharks is slightly better than the average program in its portrayal of sharks however: all the attacks chronicled here were non-fatal, and most of the interview subjects explain that they have no ill-feelings toward their attackers. The documentary actually ends with a segment focusing on a group of survivors who have taken up shark conservation efforts in the aftermath of their attacks.

ussharkattacks_460What really struck me about this program was how much of what it was revealing seemed to me to be common sense. The top five most “dangerous” states for shark attacks are precisely ones that I could have predicted beforehand: North Carolina (25 attacks in the last decade), California (31 attacks), South Carolina (38), Hawaii (40), and Florida with a “whopping” 219 attacks. I say “whopping” in quotes because, as the film points out, 219 attacks is still statistically negligible: Florida not only has a high population and a huge amount of coastline, but also gets some 26 million tourists in some three month periods – the overall odds of being attacked by a shark still level out at some 11,000,000:1 and 99 percent of those attacked in Florida survive. More common sense sorts of information is provided by the shark experts who point out ways to avoid potentially dangerous situations: stay out of murky water, avoid active feeding areas, stay in groups…the kind of stuff that people really should be doing anyway since many shark attacks occur simply because these creatures misidentify human feet or hands as potential food items. The vast majority of shark attacks pretty clearly demonstrate that most sharks have no real interest in eating people for food: if they really wanted to, large sharks could very easily kill and devour even a large human victim. That they typically simply instigate an exploratory bite then back away shows that humans typically aren’t on the menu, but given the shark’s killer hardware, it’s not a shock that they still inflict brutal and sometimes fatal damage to people.

il_fullxfull.296482482Even an exploratory bite can be deadly when you’re working with this sort of hardware.

Overall, the opening night of Shark Fest was worthwhile though not remarkable. The Shark Alley documentary was extremely well-made with some magnificent photography (a shot filmed through a sea-side cliff showing the commotion going on out at sea is jaw-dropping), and United Sharks of America is more progressive in its underlying message than I would have thought. Even if this second program didn’t really provide much new information to me specifically, there’s no doubt it would be helpful and interesting to viewers who might not have as clear an understanding of sharks and their behavioral patterns. These two shows appear to be the only brand new documentaries aired on Nat Geo Wild throughout the week, and though I probably wouldn’t label either as must-see television, they’re far from being a complete waste of time – if you’re interested and they’re on, check them out.

Four stars for Shark Alley, three for United Sharks of America.

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Finally! Discovery Channel Does SHARK WEEK RIGHT: Night Five of 2015 Edition

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Five – Shark Planet

on Discovery Channel

Shark Week at Discovery Channel 

(5/5)

Pros: An extraordinary, well-rounded and responsible documentary that’s on par with the best that National Geographic and PBS have to offer

Cons: This’ll be the one show that the majority of Shark Week viewers choose not to watch…

Buried deep in the middle of Shark Week 2015, Discovery Channel finally unleashed the well-rounded, superbly-made, and, perhaps most importantly, respectful documentary about sharks that I had been desiring all along. Let’s not get things confused: I’ve been watching Shark Week since it first debuted some 28 years ago (my dad tells a funny story about how excited I got as a little kid in the lead-up to the event), and I’m probably well aware of not all but most of the information contained in this (and most) Shark Week programming. For the average viewer who maybe doesn’t have that base of knowledge to draw upon when considering this frequently misunderstood species however, a comprehensive, honest and compelling nature documentary of the variety that National Geographic and PBS are known for can go along way in changing public perception about these creatures. Shark Planet is that very documentary.

A co-production between the Discovery Channel and the BBC, Shark Planet is a feature length (two hours with commercials) program that does an exemplary job of covering the bases with regard to the ocean’s most infamous and perhaps most formidable predators. The main gist of this documentary is to briefly chronicle various shark species, accomplished by a sort of tour of the world’s oceans and the sharks that inhabit them. Starting off in South Africa, camera crews travel across the globe, from the Arctic to Indonesia, the Great Barrier Reef to the Graveyard of the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast. Numerous species of sharks are documented during the course of the show, and all the while, Shark Planet makes a dedicated effort to explain various aspects of shark physiology and behavior, even including a segment about mating behavior and birthing. Although previous Shark Week shows have covered aspects of some of these topics throughout the week, I was pleased that at least one “total package” documentary made an appearance since I think it’s important that sharks are (at least for one night) presented not just as the “eating machines” that Richard Dreyfus passed them off as in Jaws, but as a complex and fascinating species that’s worthy not only of respect, but of tolerance.

While the great white (understandably perhaps) gets the most screen time, one of the best things about Shark Planet was that it devoted significant attention to lesser known species, including several that I can’t recall having ever seen during Shark Week before. An early segment in the program examines the feeding habits of the undeniably strange tassled wobbegong shark of Indonesia, a creature that mimics the look of the sea bed, tricking prey into an ambush attack. The show goes on to feature such relatively unknown varieties as the primitive Port Jackson shark (notable for its corkscrew-shaped eggs) and even the epaulette shark (which has adapted to be able to survive for periods of time outside of water). I was also impressed that the production spent a good ten minutes or so on skates and rays, close relatives of the shark that are typically ignored during Shark Week. To be honest, the section of Shark Planet devoted to the giant manta and Mobula rays was about the most breathtaking segment in the documentary.

As great as the information provided during this film was, it was the truly amazing visuals that put the film in a league of its own. Most Shark Week programs are no slouch in terms of providing some truly outstanding camerawork, but Shark Planet took things to the next level, utilizing all sorts of technology to capture unbelievable and frequently mesmerizing images. One such scene was filmed under the icecap in the Canadian arctic, with divers in pursuit of the Greenland shark. Not only were images of this creature and its habitat otherworldly, but the camera crews even manage to document the small parasites which cling to the eyeballs of virtually all members of this species, making them virtually blind. Another phenomenal moment occurs when a crew in Mexico documents the yearly gathering of Mobula rays which culminates in the creatures flying out of the water in a display presumed to be related to attracting a mate. I can safely say that I’ve never seen anything like this footage in all my years of Shark Week, and these two moments are just the tip of the iceberg of what is offered up in the documentary. I’ve really got to hand it to the camera crews who did a wonderful job of photographing all these creatures in some very remote and inhospitable environments, but also to the editors who went through what had to be a mass of footage and made a finely-tuned, very informative and entertaining finished film – this documentary had to take a long time to put together and the end result is magnificent.

One of the things that’s long been lacking from Shark Week programming as far as I’m concerned was a serious discussion about how numerous shark species are being pushed to the brink of extinction due to overfishing. It’s pretty sad when any number of speakers in these programs claim that we’re just beginning to learn more about this species now as many varieties are on the verge of disappearing from the world’s oceans forever. Shark Planet not only acknowledges this dire situation in a sober and responsible manner, but makes a valiant effort to try and change public perception about these creatures. A moment in which the non-verbal communication of great whites is discussed hints at the fact that these animals aren’t the hulking titans of terror they’re typically portrayed as, and the fact that this documentary creates and maintains a sense of wonder about these animals really does more in my opinion for the shark species than any number of the “Look at the big predator!” documentaries that Shark Week seems to specialize in lately.

I admit it: when Shark Planet began with a monologue about how it was going to show “other sides of shark behavior…not just feeding,” I was more than a bit skeptical: I’ve seen my fair share of gnashing bared teeth so far in Shark Week 2015 and those seem to be the go-to images that this event builds itself around. Imagine my surprise then when this documentary, complimented by an appropriately majestic music score, turned out do exactly what it proposed and wound up as a highlight of the programming block. About all I could hope for is that viewers watching Shark Week for the more sensational and/or ridiculous shows stuck with this one: not only was it gorgeous in terms of the visuals and images it provided, but it also was the most factual and level-headed documentary that’s likely to air all week. While most of Discovery’s shark-related programs are enjoyable enough for what they are, this may be one of the few that I’d honestly urge interested viewers to track down. Highly recommended.

 


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The Hypothetical Behemoth Makes an Appearance (or not): SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Four

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Four – Super Predator and Ninja Sharks

on Discovery Channel

Shark Week at Discovery Channel 

(3.5/5)

Pros: A balanced mixture of science and sensationalism

Cons: Neither of these really has the “punch” of some of this year’s other episodes

Another night of Shark Week 2015, another mix of sensational and rational programming. Wednesday, July 8th saw the premiere of one of the more absolutely ridiculous but somehow intriguing shows of this year’s block of shark-related documentaries when Super Predator popped up in the earlier time slot, and also had a show in Ninja Sharks that was perhaps the week’s most straight-forward nature documentary. While I’ve frequently been frustrated by Discovery Channel’s inclusion of programming designed to grab a viewer’s attention rather than be scientifically accurate, these two shows provided about as great a combination of the best of both worlds as could be imagined.

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OK, so I’m up for belief in many things – UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis – but this is kind of a stretch…

Super Predator followed the exploits of one Dave Riggs, Ozzie wildlife photographer who, since coming in contact with an aggressive white shark some years back, has been on the hunt for a humongous predator he believes lurks in Bremer Canyon, a deep sea chasm situated in Australia’s Southern Ocean. After an examination of some basic facts in the case – including the story of a nine-foot tagged white shark that was presumably devoured in the canyon by an even bigger specimen and photographic evidence that suggests a pygmy blue whale had a chunk taken out of it by an absolutely mammoth shark – Riggs sets out on the first documented exploration of an area near the Canyon that he refers to as the “kill zone.” Sea birds, killer whales, and numerous sharks gather in this area during a specific time of year in the hopes of finding food coming up from the ocean bottom, and Riggs hopes that some homemade tech will allow him to locate and film any large creatures prowling the depths.

In the second documentary, cameras followed a pair of research groups on opposite sides of the globe as they attempt to examine the amazing “ninja-like” abilities of a half dozen shark species. While one camera crew in the Philippines tries to capture high-def images of a thresher shark using its tail as a whip to immobilize prey items, a team in Alaska strives to dive with and film the elusive salmon shark, one of the few shark species that’s able to survive in frigid Arctic waters. Meanwhile, in between the stories of these two film crews, the documentary also provides brief segments explaining the often amazing adaptations of such species as the short-finned mako, hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, and bull shark. These adaptations have allowed these species to outlast and outperform their competitors, placing them as the apex predators in the regions they inhabit.

1431115359_great-white-shark-articleProbably not the best way to snap a photo of a toothy friend.

Truth be told, I didn’t know quite what to expect from Super Predator: this program has a plotline alarmingly similarly to those of the faux-documentaries that were a focal point of past year’s editions of Shark Week. Amazingly enough, the story of Riggs and his quest to locate a beast that hypothetically could be – are you ready for it? – 35 feet long, the same size of the absurdly phony-looking shark in Jaws 3-D, appears to be entirely genuine. What is rather strange about this program (or is it, considering all the facts) is that it doesn’t actually feature much shark action: the main thrust of the show details various elaborate and very homemade devices that Riggs constructs to help him in his quest to explore Bremer Canyon.

killer-whale-kills-great-whiteThe Killer Whale or Orca – one of the few creatures on earth known to kill great whites.  Can you guess the other?

For starters, Riggs builds a fully functional submersible, in his garage and out of, basically, scrap metal and fiberglass. Right there, I’d be a little skeptical about getting in this thing in the open ocean, but it actually turns out to be quite seaworthy, and even is able to withstand a rather aggressive attack by a great white with minimal damage. After the sub is deployed near the Canyon with mixed results however, Riggs comes up with an even more elaborate gizmo: a full-sized, illuminated and camera-equipped giant squid decoy that is sent into the abyss in hopes that it will lure in a large predator. Half the appeal of Super Predator is just seeing what this (possibly off his lid) Ozzie will come up with next, but it speaks to the man’s ingenuity, creativity, and genuine knowledge that all of his devices do exactly what they’re supposed to.

WhiteSharkRedTriangle-MainOne of the theories proposed in this year’s Shark Week is that the largest white sharks keep far away from humans in the ocean depths – a remarkable survival tactic if ever there  was one.

I’ve got to say that the possibility of a gigantic shark lurking in the almost entirely unexplored ocean depths is quite intriguing – hell, it’s this very idea that prompted the production of such hogwash as Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine. In some ways though, I think those sorts of blatantly phony programs have made me infinitely more skeptical about the possibility of unknown monsters lurking in the deep – I’ve simply grown tired of being fed a line of complete malarkey. Still, it’s immensely difficult for science to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that something, be it a giant shark or a Bigfoot-like creature or time travel, doesn’t actually exist or is entirely impossible. Science has a funny way of offering up a major, unexpected surprise just when researchers were about to claim that they knew everything there was to know about a certain subject or topic.

 mako
The distinctive jaw and bite of the mako.

Speaking of science, biology features prominently in the second of Wednesday’s premieres. Despite its somewhat ludicrous title, Ninja Sharks may be about as close as Shark Week 2015 gets to treading into PBS territory, a straight-faced nature documentary that simply presents some interesting facts about a handful of shark species. While probably not the most exciting program offered up by the Discovery Channel this year, I’m glad Shark Week producers do mix in a few of these relatively “dry” documentaries in with all the “Hunt Down a Monster” programs and “Be Afraid of Sharks” specials. Ninja Sharks actually does a nice job of explaining various aspects of shark physiology, particularly the sensory system, and is especially illuminating in its explanations of how shark species developed specialized traits which ultimately have allowed them to flourish for millions upon millions of years. It’s also pretty cool to see some of the lesser-known species to get some Shark Week love: I especially was awed by (somewhat grainy) footage of the thresher shark in action.

 salmon shark
This scene, which shows a diver (head visible) being circled by a shark’s dorsal fin, is somewhat alarming…until one considers that the shark in question is the relatively harmless salmon shark.

Though I suppose its inevitable that Discovery Channel would push the envelope of Shark Week 2015 into areas of sensationalism, I’ve been fairly pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of this year’s more “scientifically-oriented” edition. Let’s face it: massive sharks get butts in the seat, thereby giving Discovery more advertising dollars, but I think this year has proven that factual and authentic shows can be every bit as (if not more) exciting and compelling than the obviously fabricated programs that served as the cornerstones of the past few Shark Weeks. I’m going to continue urging Discovery to devote more time during this programming block to genuine shark conservation until they actually do (much as I’m sure the advertisers would hate it, a graphic and therefore realistic program about finning really should be included in each year’s edition – if for no other reason than to explain why certain species won’t be seen on Shark Week ever again) but for a shark enthusiast, the advertisements are correct: Shark Week is the most wonderful week of the year.

 

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Shock and Awe in Effect on SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Three

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Three – Bride of Jaws and Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba

on Discovery Channel

Shark Week at Discovery Channel 

(4/5) cool

Pros: A further, rather suspenseful “monster hunt” documentary along with a genuinely fascinating survey of previously unexplored waters

Cons: No big payoff in the search for “Joan of Shark,” though I’m not convinced that’s an altogether bad thing…

After a lackluster second night of programming, Shark Week 2015 got back on form on its third day, Tuesday, July 7. This evening saw the premiere of two all-new shows, both of which were quite fascinating in their own way despite some vast differences in approach. First up, we had Bride of Jaws which, like Island of the Mega Shark and others before it, covered the search for ever bigger and ever more elusive great whites, this time off the coast of Australia, while second hour-long program Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba examined the creatures inhabiting the essentially pristine and largely unexplored waters off the coast of this Caribbean nation. Mixing a sort of “monster hunt” episode with one that was more level-headed made this a winning night of shark-related documentaries.

maxresdefaultYUMMY! Incoming “chum shower.”

Certainly, the title of Bride of Jaws and its marketing campaign (most of the commercials leading up to the broadcast focused on a single scene in which an underwater female diver is given a “chum shower” – a cocktail of fish heads, guts, and blood that’s used to attract sharks to research vessels) made it seem like a more sensational and maybe even ludicrous sort of show, but the actual premise here was actually quite story-driven and compelling. In 2014, a nearly 18 foot female white shark was tagged in Australian waters and soon created a social media buzz. Nicknamed “Joan of Shark,” the creature was subsequently tracked up and down the southern Australian coast, prompting authorities to close beaches as she came ever closer to shore. Suddenly, Joan all but vanished, prompting photographer and frequent Shark Week contributor Andy Casagrande, former Australian Navy diver and shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder (previously featured in 2014’s Great White Matrix), and fellow attack survivor Elise Frankcom to try and not only locate but also re-tag the behemoth creature.

14358783221682The real Jaws – “El Monstruo,” which was caught in 1945, weighed an estimated 7000 pounds and measured out at twenty-one feet.

Tuesday’s second hour of original programming, Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba, followed the first official joint Cuban and American expedition as they attempted to document the various shark species that inhabit the waters off the island nation. Cuba has long been known as a haven for large sharks – it was near the small fishing village of Cojimar that a 21-foot great white, known as “El Monstruo” was captured and documented in the 1940s. This specimen still remains the largest white shark ever recorded, and Tiburones not only tries to shed light on this legendary beast (even including an interview with a witness to the creature), but prove that equally ferocious sharks still roam in coastal areas. While somewhat less obviously exciting than the exaggerated drama found in Bride of Jaws, Tiburones has a few moments of suspense of its own while remaining a satisfying if somewhat typical nature documentary.

shark-migration

Almost nothing is known about shark migration patterns or their mating behaviors.  Many Shark Week 2015 programs are striving to change that.

Aside from providing some (vague) insight into shark migration patterns and mating behavior, as might be expected, Bride of Jaws includes a maximum amount of footage of large great whites in action. An explicit demonstration of the power these creatures possess occurs during a moment in which a large shark tears the flotation device on Casagrande’s underwater cage to shreds in a matter of seconds. While this is going on, the camera shows Casagrade being shaken around inside the cage “like he was in a washing machine.” A pair of scenes later in the documentary ratchet the hair-raising intensity up a few dozen notches. One finds double-amputee de Gelder losing his prosthetic hand after a shark grabs hold of a kayak he was about to get into and starts thrashing around: about as alarming a “live” moment as one is likely to see in 2015’s Shark Week. Finally, an eerie scene in which de Gelder and Casagrande swim through a large shipwreck as a shark ominously patrols outside is appropriately scary, virtually recreating a staple scene of “killer sea creature” horror movies like Jaws: The Revenge or Piranha II to name but a few.

hqdefaultWorst thing imaginable for a diver: exploring a shipwreck in the open ocean with a large shark lurking just outside…

Cool as it is to watch as Frankcom comes face to face with the awesome creatures that caused her serious injury just a few years prior, the real jaw-dropping moment during Bride happens when Casagrande, affixed to a sort of rope and pulley system, hangs out over the stern of a research vessel in an attempt to fix a clamping “fin cam” onto live, fourteen-plus foot white sharks. Needless to say, this plan doesn’t quite go as well as might have been hoped and the brave (or is it foolhardy?) researcher finds himself in the drink, caught up in a tangled mess of ropes as large predators swim nearby. Certainly, some expert editing added to the tension in this scene – I don’t think Casagrande was necessarily in as much immediate danger as the program makes it seem – but it still made for some tense and rather hairy documentary footage. I also should add that while the ending of this program didn’t really solve anything or provide a definitive “a-ha!” moment, that’s kind of the way things work with any sort of scientific research: “big payoff” moments are more an anomaly than an everyday occurrence.

Precisely nothing about this moment seems safe to me.

Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba can’t quite measure up in terms of suspense and spookiness with the earlier program, but it’s probably the more rewarding show in terms of the science it reveals. Numerous shark species, including several that typically don’t get much Shark Week screen time, are seen during the program, which culminates in an attempt to apply a satellite tag onto a long-finned mako, a species of shark that’s rarely seen and had never previously been photographed in its natural habitat. Though this tagging effort is pretty wild, there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot of genuine danger involved in the making of this show…which means it’s probably among the more low-key Shark Week documentaries that will air this year.

mqdefaultThe elusive long-finned mako.

It’s also one of the few that raises some interesting points about shark conservation efforts. Supposedly, the information obtained by the satellite tags deployed during the filming of Tiburones will eventually be used by the Cuban government to establish a shark conservation plan, something that the vast majority of the rest of the world seems very reluctant to develop. I found it kind of amusing that lead expedition scientist Bob Hueter proclaimed that one goal of the joint expedition was to determine why shark species have congregated in Cuba; considering that shark finning operations continue unchecked in much of central and South America – and the fact that Cuba has so much protected marine habitat, including the “Gardens of the Queen” just south of the island where part of this documentary was filmed – it’s a no-brainer that sharks would hang out in the relatively safe – and relatively clean – Cuban waters. It’s pretty sad when one scientist makes a remark that the aforementioned “Gardens of the Queen,” a lush, vibrant habitat for all sorts of marine life, resembles what the Florida Keys looked like “80 years ago…before the population came.” This gives the viewer some indication of what effect human behavior has even on underwater environments.

8934The “Gardens of the Queen.”  This is what a thriving underwater habitat looks like.

I think it’s now safe to say that 2015 is the year that photography accomplished through the use of aerial drones transformed the way that Shark Week played out. The number of stunning aerial shots which provided unique views of live action taking place at water level has risen progressively this week, and while this Discovery Channel staple has never been less than breathtaking in terms of the visuals it provides, drone technology has added a whole new component for Shark Week producers, editors, and directors to make use of. In terms of individual episodes, a viewer now is able to understand the bigger picture of what’s happening at certain key points since the aerial views allow a better grasp of the spatial dynamics in various situations. Undoubtedly, this trend will continue into the future, and I’m hoping the week’s upcoming documentaries remain as scientifically-sound and undeniably interesting as the pair featured on this third night.


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