SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Four – Super Predator and Ninja Sharks
on Discovery Channel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.