SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Six – Sharks of the Shadowland and Shark Clans
on Discovery Channel
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.