SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Three – Bride of Jaws and Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba
on Discovery Channel
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.