SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Five – Shark Planet
on Discovery Channel
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.