SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Two – Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Alien Sharks: Close Encounters
on Discovery Channel
Pros: Brilliant photography much of the time, but especially when the action shifts below the ocean’s surface; interesting viewing for Shark Week newbies
Cons: Mostly redundant for the seasoned shark fanatic
In keeping with the Discovery Channel’s promise of more scientifically-oriented programming during this year’s edition, day two of Shark Week 2015 offered up another pair of brand new, genuine documentaries which carried on stories that had been featured in previous shows. Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Alien Sharks: Close Encounters returned to familiar territory, the former exploring a stretch of beach where shark attacks occur with almost alarmingly predictable regularity while the other furthered the examination of bizarre and largely unknown deep-water species.
Every other year from 2008 until 2012, a stretch of California coastline known as Surf Beach has been the site of a great white shark attack. Two of the three attacks, each of which occurred during a roughly one month period from September into October, were fatal, prompting a surfer-turned-shark researcher named Brandon McMillan to investigate. The original Great White Serial Killer episode first aired in 2013, and 2015’s Return of… special begins with McMillan preparing to head to Surf Beach just as October 2014 rolls around. The almost clockwork predictability of the attacks at Surf Beach is indeed alarming, but even knowing the basic premise of this ongoing series, I wasn’t quite expecting the explosion of attacks that occurred during the filming of this latest program: within a three week period, a surfer, two kayakers, and a boater found themselves targeted by aggressive white sharks. This leads McMillan not only to attempt to DNA test some teeth pulled from a victim’s surfboard, but also head to Guadalupe Island off the Mexican coast in search of potential culprits in the series of attacks. Could one huge shark be responsible for all the attacks?
The other premiere on day two was the latest episode in the ongoing and popular Alien Sharks series. Previous episodes in this series focused on graduate student Paul Clerkin, who found himself stationed on fishing vessels trolling the deep seas of the Indian Ocean, but 2015’s Close Encounters episode finds three teams of scientists probing the depths in search of unknown species. While Clerkin and the Pacific Shark Research Center’s Dr. David Ebert sail on a Taiwanese vessel attempting to fit a rare megamouth shark with a satellite tag, a group of researchers in the Gulf of Mexico are working to determine the effects of the Deep Horizon oil spill on the lives of deep sea wildlife. Additionally, a third team based in California examines new species of biofluorescent fish (i.e. fish that harness the reflective light energy in the surrounding water to illuminate themselves) that may hold the key to new medical breakthroughs.
Compared to the more action-oriented opening night of Shark Week 2015, the second night seemed somewhat toned-down and sober. Return of the Great White Serial Killer played almost as a gloomy murder mystery, albeit one punctuated by some exhilarating footage late in the going that shows 16-plus foot white sharks in their native habitat. Extremely talky for much of its duration, this program to some extent came across as one of those “I was Attacked!” Shark Week programs that typically rub me the wrong way. Considering that the ratio of sharks killed by humans to humans killed by sharks is literally millions to one, I find these hysteria-inducing programs to be largely irresponsible, promoting the sort of human behavior that will eventually result in mass extinctions. That said, Return of the GWSK is actually less obviously mean-spirited and anti-shark than most, simply presenting the facts of the case instead of offering a cascade of gory recreations and tearful victim statements. It’s also refreshing that most of the people featured in the program don’t seem to hold any overwhelming animosity towards the shark(s) responsible for the attacks and deaths – McMillan actually appears to hold an immense amount of respect towards these creatures and seems to merely be searching for closure with regard to the case instead of seeking some form of vengeance.
If this first program was an interesting continuation of previous Shark Week stories, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters was mostly redundant even if it did offer the viewer some unbelievably gorgeous, dazzling images of light-emitting marine life. The main dramatic thrust of the show focuses on Clerkin’s effort to tag a megamouth shark, an elusive species which was essentially unknown until the late 1970s. Along the way, the program shines a light on various strange sea creatures: newcomers to Shark Week will undoubtedly be amazed by footage of a variety of odd sharks, including the goblin, frilled, gulper, and pocket shark. I was struck by a feeling of “been there, done that” however: in previous years, Clerkin had made some genuine discoveries of previously unknown creatures, but this time around, there’s largely a parade of creatures I’d seen previously in the Alien Sharks series, with the expected talking head marine biologist along to tell the viewer what is being seen.
Footage of light-emitting undersea creatures (this swell shark among them) is undoubtedly the coolest part of Alien Sharks: Close Encounters.
Perhaps the most alarming thing about this episode was that Clerkin and Ebert found themselves on board a Taiwanese fishing vessel as it trolled the deep-sea trenches of the Pacific. I say this is alarming because the Taiwanese fishing industry is notorious for its deplorable shark fishing methods in which live sharks are “de-finned” then dumped back into the ocean. While the country did pass a law in 2012 which limited this practice to some extent – at least in national ports where the eyes of the world are watching – the lack of far-reaching global legislation has ensured that large-scale finning has continued in international waters. Hell, when one Taiwanese fisherman seen in the episode shows off his megamouth shark catch, the fact that all the nearby fisherman have their faces blurred may say more about the way the fishing industry operates in this country than I could ever speculate. This information being kept in mind, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters’s ending monologue which states that “there are still so many mysteries in the deep sea that have yet to be revealed…” becomes especially poignant and ominous. If human behavior across a wide range of areas continues to endanger sharks and indeed all ocean life, there may not be much left for us to discover down the road as all marine life will be dying or dead.
I was reminded during the second day of 2015’s Shark Week of a major complaint I had about the 2014 edition: that serious notions about honest shark conservation were conveniently ignored by a channel that claims to be striving to generate interest in marine biology and sharks in particular. It would appear that the Discovery Channel still has no interest in really “making a difference” in this area, content to deliver the usual assortment of agreeable but “safe” programming designed to make a viewer gasp but not necessarily spring into action. The pairing of Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Alien Sharks: Close Encounters is about as concise a demonstration of that point as any: a nicely photographed (particularly in terms of the aerial photography on display) and sometimes exhilarating duo of documentaries that’s interesting but rather forgettable in the long run. As Shark Week programming, this is strictly middle of the road, but it’s undoubtedly better for a viewer than watching the latest reality show.