Tag Archives: discovery channel

“…now I am become death…the destroyer of worlds:” HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

HOW WE BUILT THE BOMB

on Discovery Channel


(4/5)

Pros:  Accessible, captivating,  and informative, with a wealth of astounding archival footage


Cons:  Actual interviews not included

Made for the Discovery Channel networks and first broadcast in mid 2015 to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Trinity Test, How We Built the Bomb takes the form of a dramatized documentary that tells the story of the American atomic program from start to finish. The program (two hours with commercials) begins with the now-famous letter written by Albert Einstein warning American president Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany may in fact be working on a “superbomb” that would be powered not by conventional explosives, but by splitting the atom. As America enters World War II in the coming years, a priority is placed on unlocking the secrets of nuclear fission and developing a uranium or plutonium based explosive device (referred to by scientists as “the gadget”) before the Germans did. This involved a large and incredibly secretive operation across several states, with the main research and development facility located in a remote section of the New Mexican desert.

scanned: May 2001 by Image Delivery Systems LLCSome of the many personnel involved in the Manhattan Project whose viewpoints are told in the documentary through re-imagined interviews.

Lacking a traditional narration, How We Built the Bomb (written by David Broodell) is told from the perspective of the people who worked on the so-called “Manhattan Project,” but instead of using actual archival interviews, the production is based around an extended series of recreated interviews with actors portraying the various scientists, military and support personnel, and others who found themselves involved in some way with this tremendous undertaking. At first, this approach seems awkward and maybe even reprehensible since the ongoing dialogue is fictionalized to an arguably large extent. As the program wore on however, I grew more and more absorbed in the unfolding story being told and found the format of the documentary to be less detrimental than I would have originally thought.

A billboard at the Oak Ridge FacilityDespite the government’s best efforts, security among project personnel was compromised on several occasions.


Along with these dramatized interviews, the program also presents a rather large amount of home movies and film footage taken by residents of Los Alamos, New Mexico (for all intents and purposes, the center of the R&D division of the Manhattan Project) during this era. When combined with the speakers, this footage goes a long way in not only telling a detailed history of the nuclear program, but also explaining what life was like for the scientists, spouses, military personnel and support staff who found themselves working on an underground project in a top secret location. Much of the program (rightfully) focuses on efforts to come to grips with the physics behind fission and put such theories into practice, but How We Built the Bomb also includes some rather humorous observations about the ways in which project personnel unwound after long hours in the lab. I found myself chuckling at explanations of what went into the highly alcoholic “tech area punch” that scientists consumed during their off hours and was similarly amused by one military man’s frustration at the fact that some eighty babies were born at the facility in 1944, indicating another method of stress relief practiced by the town’s residents.

nextgov-mediumSite of the Trinity Test, viewed after the first detonation in July, 1945.

Unsurprisingly, the documentary starts to ratchet up the tension level down the stretch when scientific theory doesn’t quite match up with actual experimental results and it becomes apparent that a new method of detonation must be sought. By this point in 1944, though the war in Europe is nearing its conclusion, a long, drawn-out and very costly invasion of Japan is imminent unless the bomb can be used to precipitate a quick end to the conflict. Accompanied by almost psychedelic music cues, the segment dealing with the initial Trinity Test, the world’s first detonation of an atomic weapon, is very deliberate in its construction which maximizes the impact of the event on a viewer. I should also state that while the program does chronicle the period up to and including the unconditional surrender of the Japanese following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these events are only briefly touched on; the documentary is clearly more focused on the actual development of the atom bomb, not its deployment.

One of the strongest aspects of the documentary is the way in which it breaks down complicated physics in a way that can be understood by viewers who in all likelihood don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the processes involved. Even if the interview subjects do on occasion go into lengthy and extremely complicated explanations of the mathematics involved in solving the problems of nuclear fission, they subsequently reveal what they were trying to accomplish in “layman’s terms.” An offscreen “interviewer” character (who a viewer is never truly introduced to) acts as the voice of the viewer at times, prompting the speakers to answer questions in a more straight-forward manner. Visuals and graphics that accompany these segments also aid in a viewer’s understanding of the concepts being discussed: I got a kick out of the now almost humorous vintage educational film footage utilized during certain segments, and nifty special effects attempt to visualize what actually happens when fission starts to take place in a nuclear device.

atomic_bomb_end_of_worldIt’s kind of scary that none of the scientists working on the project quite knew what would happen when an atomic detonation occurred – some feared that the blast would actually ignite the atmosphere.


In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the nuclear program was the fact that the scientists involved in making the atom bomb faced serious moral dilemmas. Truly, at the time it was only these scientists who fully comprehended what effect these weapons would have should they be used against enemy forces – or civilians – and many were vehemently opposed to the military deployment of “the gadget.” How We Built the Bomb deals with this issue about as well as one would expect or hope for in a program of this nature, prompting the viewer to question whether the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were genuinely necessary. It’s worth noting that it was Harry Truman, who assumed the Presidency of the United States after the death of FDR and only found out about the Manhattan Project after he had been sworn in, that actually authorized these attacks. One has to wonder if he was aware of what the consequences of this action would be, and in a modern society that’s gotten all-too-used to the idea of nuclear threat, it’s worth remembering that the United States is still the only nation that has ever used an atomic device against other human beings.

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When viewing this program, one is left with a sense of awe – not only with the power of the atomic bomb itself, a power which is hammered home time and again throughout the film, but with the fact that such a seemingly impossible scientific undertaking as to make such a device was accomplished in a short time under rather adverse conditions. No matter what one’s feelings are about nuclear weapons, it’s pretty amazing that scientists were able not only to understand how the fission process worked but also how it can be harnessed and (at least partially) controlled. Edited in a very capable manner with a quietly effective music score provided by Brendan Anderegg, How We Built the Bomb ultimately celebrates the tremendous scientific achievement that the bomb was the end result of. Although to an extent it makes the scientists involved out to be heroic figures, to its credit the program doesn’t necessarily present the bombing of Japan as a moment of triumph or jubilation, ending instead on a somber and even ominous note, with various blurbs from political speeches and news broadcasts reminding the viewer how fundamentally the world was changed with the advent of the bomb. I think that’s about as appropriate an end statement that could be made, and would whole-heartedly recommend this documentary to any interested viewer.


 

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“…out with a whimper…”: The SHARK WEEK 2015 FINAL WRAP-UP

SHARK WEEK 2015: Final Wrap Up – Sharksanity: The Return and Shark Island

on Discovery Channel


(3/5)

Pros: Shark Island paints a detailed portrait of a population in the midst of a genuine shark crisis

Cons: Sharksanity is a waste of time

After numerous “big-hitter” programs premiered early and had been repeated throughout Shark Week 2015, this annual block of Discovery Channel programming devoted to the ultimate undersea predators faded out with, well, a bit of a whimper. Saturday, July 11 saw the premiere of a new volume of Sharksanity, a show which first showed in 2014 that more or less acts as a sort of pat on the back for Shark Week producers. Acting as a sort of “greatest hits” lineup, Sharksanity: The Return chronicled the best moments from the week’s programming, placing an emphasis on jaw-dropping spectacle rather than on well-founded science. As might be expected then, South African researcher Dickie Chivell featured prominently: it was he, after all, who had not only unveiled “Chewie,” the underwater measuring device during Island of the Mega Shark, but also climbed into a decidedly flimsy-looking “ghost cage” which placed him right in the midst of a swarm of aggressive great whites. Chivell has made quite a name for himself in the past two years (2014 saw him climb aboard a floating female shark decoy – and come precariously close to being a meal), and if Sharksanity is any indication, he’ll be back for another round next year (if not before and provided he’s not eaten).

7886I salute you, Dickie Chivell.  You’re freaking nuts.

One of the main “points of interest” (???) during Sharksanity was the unveiling of a series of viewer’s choice awards which celebrated some of the best moments from the 28-year history of Shark Week. More amazing to me than the list itself was the amount of similar countdown-type shows that Discovery Channel puts out there year in and year out. In fact, just prior to 2015’s Shark Week, the channel aired a program called Shark Week Sharktacular, hosted by filmmaker Eli Roth (who later hosted Shark Week’s Shark After Dark aftershow), that did almost the same thing, running through the best events in Shark Week history as voted by fans. Hey, if Discovery Channel didn’t keep telling us how awesome Shark Week is, who would? Seriously though, I find these sorts of “congratulations; good job” sort of shows to be very annoying: I’d rather be watching, I don’t know, actual shark documentaries, but maybe that’s just me.

Narwhals_breachYeah, but when does NARWAHL WEEK start?

Sunday, July 12, the last day of Shark Week 2015, offered up a final, noticeably low-key show: Shark Island chronicled the efforts of scientists and locals living on Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, to come to terms with an increasing number of shark attacks. In the last four years, seventeen attacks, seven of them fatal, have occurred offshore, prompting the government to make ocean swimming and surfing illegal in the name of public safety. While the local government employs a team of armed “shark watchers” to monitor the coast during specific times designated to allow local surfers back into the water (and it seems that the locals on Reunion Island do love their surfing), American marine biologist Craig O’Connell starts to investigate the reasons for this increase in attacks while looking for appropriate ways of promoting safety without harming the local shark and fish populations.

shark-week-2015_0Craig O’Connell preparing for a dive into the (presumably?) shark-infested waters off Reunion Island.

More ominous than many of the week’s other documentaries, Shark Island features interviews with concerned locals and attack survivors which allow viewers to really get into the mindset of the population of this island. Continuous images of the shark-related graffiti which peppers the island speaks to the severity of the situation, and though it’s difficult for me to really make sense of people continuing to surf in an environment that has become the most dangerous area for shark attacks in the world, the real question is what has led to this unfortunate condition. The documentary examines the notion that nearby fish nurseries and wildlife refuges are to blame, but more or less comes to the conclusion – surprise! – that human behavior is responsible. Decreasing fish populations in the open ocean where sharks used to hunt for food has drawn the creatures closer to shore in the hunt for a meal, and an increasing amount of seaside development has caused the nearby waters to become murky: exactly the type of conditions that bull sharks thrive in.

reunion-islandReunion Island…but in recent days, a cloud has appeared on the horizon of this beautiful resort community – a cloud in the shape of a killer shark.

The scientific portion of this program is somewhat limited to specific segments: a decent amount of time during the program is devoted to an explanation of the bull shark, arguably the most dangerous shark in the world in terms of the sheer number of attacks on humans. These sharks are known for their aggressive behavior, and during breeding season, males are pumped up with the highest testosterone levels in the animal kingdom – which may explain why most of the Reunion attacks occur during the winter months. Bull sharks’s poor eyesight is likely also a contributing factor in these attacks: since they patrol muddy waters, the sharks presumably mistake errant human feet or hands for typical prey items, backing off after they realize they’ve literally bitten into something they can’t chew. In any case, Shark Island certainly creates a portrait of a population facing a serious shark crisis of the type seen in the first Jaws film.

Bull_Shark_2_600The bull shark – arguably the world’s most dangerous.

As expected, Shark Island is capably made, with amazing camerawork showing just how picturesque Reunion Island truly is. It also has an appropriate amount of pathos to it, but if anything, it’s a bit lacking in the shark department: mostly talk, with little footage of the creatures actually on the prowl. Hence, I’d call this an interesting but fairly mediocre Shark Week program, one that’s probably the most interesting for its depiction of the local culture and for its finale, in which various non-lethal anti-shark methods are examined. I started to lose hope when the narration began to suggest that a mass-extermination of sharks was the only way to stop the ongoing attacks, but the show actually finishes with a more conservation-minded conclusion. I’d give this particular program three stars out of five.

55958ab8498fd.imageThe shark-related graffiti on Reunion Island figures prominently into the look and feel of Shark Island.

Overall, Shark Week 2015 gave a viewer precisely what would be expected. Many of the shows here prescribed to the “bigger is better” mentality, and numerous programs made it their goal to find bigger, bolder, and all-around badder sharks. Several of 2015’s shows continued storylines that had been started in previous years, but I found many of these to be among the week’s more forgettable offerings. Year in and year out, there are major breakthroughs in shark-related research, and I was generally impressed by the level of new scientific information featured throughout the week: it’s always a good thing when I, admitted shark junkie, learn something new from Shark Week.

hammerhead shark

Without doubt, the best thing about Shark Week 2015 was the lack of the type of hokey, utterly phony programs like the Megalodon mockumentaries that were feature events in years past. Hopefully, this demonstrates to other cable “educational” channels that a solid lineup of responsible and factual programming can be as (if not more) effective than outright sensationalism put forth just to gets butts in the seat. Considering that Discovery has planned a Shweekend (read: “Shark Weekend”) event for late August, the deluge of shark programming isn’t over quite yet, and one can only hope the quality of these documentaries continues to head on an upward trajectory.

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Shark Week 2015:

The Outstanding: Shark Planet

The Great: Sharks of the Shadowland, Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba, Island of the Mega Shark

The Good: Shark Alley, Super Predator, Ninja Sharks, Bride of Jaws, Shark Trek, Monster Mako

The Mediocre: Shark Island, Shark Clans, United Sharks of America, Return of the Great White Serial Killer, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters

The Ugly: Sharksanity

 

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A Hit and a Miss as SHARK WEEK 2015 Starts to Winds Down

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Six – Sharks of the Shadowland and Shark Clans

on Discovery Channel

(3.5/5)

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.

broadnose-sevengill-sharkSevengill shark – as the name suggests, it has seven gill slits instead of the normal five that other sharks possess.

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.

151920.002.01.197_20150630_120421They may not be the most physically imposing sharks of Shark Week, but these sevengills make for some really sketchy underwater sequences.

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?

CJlcbs-WEAAlTMhEfforts to photograph and catalog individual great whites – but do these creatures actually form social groups?

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.

maxresdefaultShark Clans does feature some magnificent images of white sharks in their natural habitat.

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.

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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.

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Finally! Discovery Channel Does SHARK WEEK RIGHT: Night Five of 2015 Edition

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Five – Shark Planet

on Discovery Channel

(5/5)

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.

 


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The Hypothetical Behemoth Makes an Appearance (or not): SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Four

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Four – Super Predator and Ninja Sharks

on Discovery Channel

(3.5/5)

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.

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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.

1431115359_great-white-shark-articleProbably not the best way to snap a photo of a toothy friend.

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.

killer-whale-kills-great-whiteThe Killer Whale or Orca – one of the few creatures on earth known to kill great whites.  Can you guess the other?

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.

WhiteSharkRedTriangle-MainOne of the theories proposed in this year’s Shark Week is that the largest white sharks keep far away from humans in the ocean depths – a remarkable survival tactic if ever there  was one.

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.

 

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Shock and Awe in Effect on SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Three

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Three – Bride of Jaws and Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba

on Discovery Channel

(4/5)

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.

maxresdefaultYUMMY! Incoming “chum shower.”

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.

14358783221682The real Jaws – “El Monstruo,” which was caught in 1945, weighed an estimated 7000 pounds and measured out at twenty-one feet.

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.

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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.

hqdefaultWorst thing imaginable for a diver: exploring a shipwreck in the open ocean with a large shark lurking just outside…

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.

mqdefaultThe elusive long-finned mako.

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.

8934The “Gardens of the Queen.”  This is what a thriving underwater habitat looks like.

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.


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Par for the Course: SHARK WEEK 2015 – NIGHT TWO

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night Two – Return of the Great White Serial Killer and Alien Sharks: Close Encounters

on Discovery Channel

(3/5)

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.

CI2m2M0WUAEoyWAWhen I can start recognizing individual sharks seen in these shows based on their scar patterns and physical characteristics, it would seem safe to say that I’ve simply watched too many Shark Weeks.

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?

17mxqoek45zubjpgThe sarcastic fringehead as featured in Alien Sharks: Close Encounters – a real fish, though not a shark.

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.

526a2e9e57f39bb84e7b238a9f212a21683629b8Emma, a foul-tempered shark known to prowl the waters around Guadalupe Island, attacks the reserve dive equipment at the bottom of McMillan’s cage.

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.

megamouth-shark-facts1The megamouth shark, only discovered within the last few decades.

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.

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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.

 

No CGI Sharks and Still Compelling Viewing: SHARK WEEK 2015: Night One

SHARK WEEK 2015: Night One – Shark Trek, Island of the Mega Shark, and Monster Mako

on Discovery Channel

(4/5)

Pros:  Factual information and a large amount of amazing footage

Cons:  Nature documentaries are “dry,” right?

Now in its 28th year of existence, Shark Week, Discovery Channel’s annual block of television shows devoted to the ocean’s most captivating predators, began on Sunday, July 5, 2015 with a trio of all-new documentaries that nicely picked up where previous year’s programming stopped. Truth be told, the last several years of Shark Week have gotten increasingly sketchy as faux-documentaries and “monster hunt” shows overwhelmed the actual science and biology that one would think this event was all about. I was particularly perturbed last year when Shark Week made nary a mention of the , which aimed to eliminate large man-eating sharks…by killing any shark, large or small, that a designated team of hunters came across. Thankfully, this year Discovery Channel seems to have realized that the sensationalized and/or straight phony programs and endless string of “I Was Attacked” recollections wasn’t do much to encourage shark conservation – a glance of the preliminary lineup for Shark Week 2015 shows a focus on –gasp!– actual facts and straight-faced documentaries.

shark-week-2015Shark Week 2015 continues the hunt for bigger and badder sharks.

This certainly was the case with the opening day’s lineup which kicked off with Shark Trek. This hour-long program followed researcher Greg Skomal as he continued efforts to tag and study the behavior of the great white sharks off Cape Cod. In the time since last year’s Jaws Strikes Back, Skomal has increased the number of tagged animals to 56 and has begun to analyze the data being relayed by the tags. Some of the most important of this information relates to the migratory habits of the Atlantic white sharks – in the fall of 2014, several animals were tracked as they moved down the American East Coast to warmer regions in Florida – areas where beaches are substantially more popular than those in Massachusetts. Obviously, this brings the sharks in closer proximity to people, and Skomal’s main goal in the investigation here is to find out what drives the shark’s migration and determines where they wind up.

ea72184cac59c184597cacfaa258fa493fcdfd46Skoval attempting to tag a great white with his specially-rigged harpoon.

The second of the opening night’s programs was Island of the Mega Shark, a semi-continuation of a pair of last year’s programs. This show found Dickie Chivell, who proved his insanity by riding a flimsy white shark decoy in last year’s frankly mind-blowing Air Jaws: Fin of Fury, joining forces with Lair of the Mega Shark’s Jeff Kurr and Andy Casagrande to again search for gigantic whites in the waters around Guadalupe Island, which lies off the coast of Baja, Mexico.   This team attempts to solve some of the riddles relating to white shark reproduction, but one of the main points of this program is to again position Chivell as Shark Week’s resident daredevil. This time around, he finds himself in a so-called “ghost cage” whose four clear plastic sides are virtually invisible underwater – thus, he appears to be a free-swimming meal to any of the fourteen-to-sixteen-foot great whites in the area. Add in a malfunctioning door (literally, Chivell has to hold the cage shut) and you’ve got the formula for some crazy TV, but things get really wild when a heavily-pregnant, twenty-plus-foot shark appears on the scene.

d4f8cf5ca7a1c55960bb5ef1ac6b93ee1eb064efChivell in the “ghost cage.”  Ya gotta give it to him: the man has cojones.

Finally, we had a program in Monster Mako that focused its attention on one of the lesser-known shark species, one which is rumored to reach speeds in excess of 30 MPH underwater and breech the surface in amazing fashion when stalking its prey. Despite a sensational title and a more dramatic approach (replete with a gruff-voiced narrator and moments of questionable tension), this program was actually fairly scientifically sound and quite interesting, as two groups of scientists attempted to document not only the speed of the mako sharks which inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, but also their ability to shoot missile-like from the ocean in pursuit of prey. The program eventually makes some interesting observations about the behavior and habits of these creatures, even though the majority of its running time plays as a sort of hunt which finds the two teams attempting to lure in specimens suitable for their research.

08be66c388Monster Mako attempts to distinguish fact from fiction about this shark which, with its streamlined body and distinctive teeth, resembles a torpedo.

Clearly, one of the best things about this block of programming is that it avoided the types of frankly ridiculous mockumentaries of the Shark of Darkness variety. Everything included in Shark Week 2015’s opening day was based in actual fact and – surprise surprise – was far from boring. Sure, the average couch potato might grow tired of the “dry” documentaries featured here, but those honestly interested in sharks – arguably the crowd that Shark Week should be marketed towards in the first place – would eat them up. Even without the addition of giant CGI sharks, this opening night had its share of harrowing moments – particularly when Chivell had to literally push great whites out of his enclosed “ghost cage.” Additionally, there were even a few heartwarming “Aww!” moments provided by the appearance of a nine-year-old shark advocate who joined Skoval in his mission to tag various sharks. The hosts of these various programs are obviously enthusiastic about what they do, making the action they get involved in more compelling to watch.

shark-week-lair-of-the-mega-shark-bNow THAT looks like a big shark.

I’ve always found actual footage of sharks gliding through their marine environments to be stunningly beautiful, and the camerawork throughout these three programs was generally astounding. Especially cool were several sequences filmed near Guadalupe Island which showed the shallow coves where the native seal population attempts to hide from the lurking sharks – with their gently swaying and multicolored undersea plant life, these environments look otherworldly. Additionally, there were numerous aerial shots which showed both individual sharks and an enormous group of black tip sharks migrating off the Florida coast. Amazing as it is to see individual creatures breaking the surface, watching thousands of sharks just offshore around a populated area was jaw-dropping. It was also downright ominous to see huge sharks lurking just on the edge of visibility range in many of the underwater shots – particularly during the numerous dives featured in Island of the Mega Shark. The three shows featured here certainly emphasized the fact that groups of smaller sharks disappearing quickly signaled the arrival of a true monster, and these moments were captured perfectly through the actual camerawork and slick editing of the programs.

This.  Looks.  Dangerous.

On the downside, though both the Shark Cam (from last year’s Jaws Strikes Back) and the “Shark Eye” unit seen in Monster Mako attempted to provide underwater views of the sharks in action – sometimes from the perspective of the shark – neither of these devices really worked as well this time around and didn’t provide quite the unique perspective that one would have hoped for. I would have to say then that camera work through this opening trio of shows, while undeniably excellent (as I’d expect from Discovery Channel), was somewhat conventional and not as outwardly flashy as what I’ve seen in other, similar shows. Again, this didn’t really bother me – I’d rather have authentic representations and actual facts than a continual barrage of flashy visuals with sketchy information tacked alongside.

remus sharkcam topShark Cam – big hit of last year’s Shark Week, didn’t so much as get deployed this time around.  Bummer.

Overall, Shark Trek, Island of the Mega Shark, and Monster Mako provided a wealth of solid information that would appeal to both the Shark Week veteran and newcomer.  There was a nice amount of generalized information in these programs, as well as a chronicle of more individualized efforts to learn more about various shark species.  The variety of topics covered here and fascinating overall presentation made for a strong opening night of Shark Week 2015.  Since there’s no Megalodon in sight, I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what the rest of the week offers.  This year’s edition of the Discovery Channel staple might not create intense water cooler discussion or ignite a social media firestorm, but I think it’s commendable that a more low-key approach with dedication to facts has been applied.

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“Not a Place Where a Human Being Should Be…” The EATEN ALIVE Documentary

EATEN ALIVE on Discovery Channel

(4.5/5)

Pros: Pretty intense jungle hunt, good insight into snake anatomy and behavior, finale is kinda crazy

Cons: The misleading ad campaign apparently pissed some people on the internet off.  SURPRISE!  It’s worth keeping in mind that this is a documentary, not a carnival sideshow.

Proving that alongside all the reality TV bunk and staged and/or speculative programming, Discovery Channel still can make outstanding legitimate documentaries, 2014’s Eaten Alive special has to be one of the more jaw-dropping things the channel has aired. This two-hour program followed snake expert/conservationist/explorer Paul Rosalie into the deepest, darkest corner of the Peruvian Amazon in search of a huge green anaconda known locally as the “Chu’ mana.” Though Rosalie’s main goal was to prove that such a creature could and in fact does exist in this untouched habitat, as the title of the program suggests, there was an ulterior motive to the snake hunt. Having constructed a suit specially designed to withstand the constricting coils of a thirty-foot snake, Rosalie intended to capture one of these beasts and offer himself up as prey to demonstrate the truly awesome abilities of this apex predator.

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“Aww, that’s just a baby…”

The first ninety minutes of so of Eaten Alive however plays more like a jungle adventure than a sensational program about a dude getting eaten by a huge serpent. Rosalie, his wife, and a team of researchers, trail guides, and animal trackers head well off the beaten path in search of the virtually unexplored region of the Amazon known as the “Floating Forest,” made up of small, spongy islands floating on a pitch black bog some thirty feet deep. The fact that palm trees growing here barely peek above the water level gives some indication of the make-up of his swampy area, and it’s full of hazards both in terms of its unstable terrain and the various animals that live here. Aside from being prime breeding ground for anacondas, the swamp is teeming with poisonous spiders, snakes, and caiman, seeming to be about the last place any expedition would really want to camp out. Regardless, Rosalie and his team set about exploring the area in search of signs that large snakes are on the prowl – and wind up tracking down several of the creatures.

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Jumping into this mud bog in an attempt to wrestle a thirty-foot anaconda? Not sure that’s such a good idea…

Edited in such a way to both accentuate the dangers of the Amazon and heighten the tension as the team tries to stay alive within it, the indisputable highlights of the first half of the show deal with various, hairy encounters with Amazonian wildlife. At one point, while traversing through a chest-deep creek, the team stumbles on an electric eel ready to throw a charge that could measure six hundred volts their way. This situation hammers home the notion that even when there’s not a large predator of the reptilian variety around, traipsing through the Amazon is incredibly dangerous. The situation only gets worse once the team reaches the “Floating Forest.” Here, they first square off against a twelve foot snake, then one measuring just under twenty feet in length, before finally wrestling with one that could top out at thirty feet long. Even with the smallest of these animals, it’s readily apparent how powerful anaconda really are, and when Rosalie dives headfirst into the pitch black waters of the swamp in pursuit of an animal that’s the size of a bus and could literally swallow him whole, I was forced to come to the conclusion that the man may be entirely certifiable.


Now that is a big ass snake!

The portion of Eaten Alive in which the team attempts to corral a large snake is filmed and edited exceedingly well, often filmed from the first-person perspective, literally putting the viewer in the middle of the action. There are many absolutely astonishing, breath-taking views of essentially unexplored parts of the Amazon; these places aren’t areas that most people would ever want to visit due to the extreme risk involved in exploring them, but they are without doubt stunningly beautiful to look at. There’s even a few moments here that could be genuinely unsettling: in one instance, the camera pans around the bog at night to reveal dozens of glowing caiman eyes glaring at the team members. Along with the solid filmmaking involved, I also really appreciated the fact that various herpetologists (i.e. reptile experts) intermittently provide explanations and insight into the anatomy and behavior of the anacondas the team is searching for. There are some really nifty computer animations demonstrating how anacondas first kill and then devour and digest their prey, and though it’s not the most pleasant thing to hear about, the entire process is fascinating and pretty darn amazing. Along the way, we also get some brief background into legends and myths about giant serpents and, in case the documentary isn’t outrageous or fast-paced enough for viewers raised on a steady string of consistently bonkers reality TV, one segment deals with constrictor attacks on humans. A rather startling actual photograph of a large python devouring a Malaysian man is about the most eye-opening thing in the documentary…at least until the final twenty minutes or so.

I don’t think I’m especially giving anything away by revealing that Rosalie and the expedition team don’t actually succeed in capturing the thirty-foot monster anaconda during the course of this program (honestly, I don’t know how they ever expected to do this in the first place), but that failure doesn’t mean that the genuinely insane stunt/experiment at this program’s center doesn’t take place. Though Rosalie has to settle for an especially aggressive twenty foot anaconda instead of the thirty-footer he’d hoped to find, he nevertheless does don the elaborate snake-proof suit and allows the reptile to attempt to devour him. And this is where Eaten Alive attempts a level of jaw-dropping spectacle that few programs on television these days come close to despite their best, most desperate attempts.

Suit
Rosalie, on the left wearing the snake-proof suit, attempting to goad a twenty-foot specimen into attacking him

It’s pretty remarkable to see how even this comparatively smaller animal is able to pin down a fit adult human male, going so far as to start to wrap its expanding jaws around the oversized helmet that Rosalie is wearing. The fact that I would think that the creature at some point must have realized that this thing in its mouth wasn’t especially edible makes the footage included in this documentary all the more shocking: views directly into the gullet of an anaconda could potentially be quite creepy. It’s not difficult to imagine a snake being able to fully devour a human after watching this program: in the same way that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week seems a bit suspect in its supposed goal of advocating for shark conservation even though it focuses heavily on stories of shark attacks, I’m not sure that Eaten Alive is the best way to get the word out about saving the Amazonian snake habitat. Still, I guess any program that gets easily distracted American viewers at all interested in nature is better than nothing, right?

eaten-alive
Rosalie in the clutches of the snake.

OK OK, so a dude isn’t actually devoured then regurgitated by a huge snake during the course of this show, but honestly, did anyone actually expect that that would happen?   If so, the ad campaign worked flawlessly.  Even though it doesn’t completely follow through on its main selling point, Eaten Alive was positively compelling viewing that only seemed to get more unbelievable as time went on. The jungle adventure portion of the program is quite interesting in and of itself, providing plenty of moments to disturb those afraid of creepy crawlies or large reptiles, but when the program switches gears and focuses its attention on the promise of showing a man being attacked and very nearly eaten by a large anaconda, it reaches another level of fascinating spectacle. It’s a program like this that reminded me how rewarding legitimate documentaries can be, and I have to wonder why Discovery has become more reliant on obviously fabricated programming in recent years. If they are perfectly capable of making a jaw-dropping, positively authentic show like this that’s both extremely entertaining and quite educational, what’s the point of programming like Russian Yeti, Megalodon, or Shark of Darkness that do little more than test the gullibility of viewers? In any case, I’m hoping Discovery makes more programs like this in the future: I have a much easier time getting behind something real than the load of malarkey that the channel sometimes passes off as fact. Eaten Alive comes highly recommended.

“There’s Something Down Here With Us!” MONSTERS UNDERGROUND

MONSTERS UNDERGROUND on Discovery Channel

(1/5)

Pros: The spelunking is pretty cool

Cons: They’re really running out of ideas for new monster shows…

Satisfying a niche (???) for shows about monsters lurking in caverns and abandoned tunnels, the second of three new monster programs on the Destination America channel premiered September 4, 2014 on flagship network Discovery. Another Mountain Monsters clone, this one following the exploits of cryptozoologist Bill Brock and the usual monster hunt team (a grizzled tracker named McGhee, a “scientist” named Casey who actually is a former physician and not any sort of researcher, and a character identified as “the beast” named Jeremy who is the ex-military, self-proclaimed “badass”), Monsters Underground tweaks the typical crypto-reality show a bit and may actually be one of the more creepy of the lot, having a more spooky atmosphere to it than any combination of Mountain Monsters, Swamp Monsters, Beasts of the Bayou, or even Finding Bigfoot episodes. Needless to say, as a scientific examination of unknown animals, Monsters Underground fares as poorly as the rest of those programs, providing scant evidence of any of the beasts Brock and his crew supposedly and inexplicably come into contact with.

know what's going on here?
Know what’s going on here? Neither do I, but I’m pretty sure there hain’t no monsters being found.



In the first episode of the series, Brock and company wind up in Arizona’s Volcano Cavern on the search for a large bat-like creature known as the (this despite the creature hailing from Africa). After briefly consulting a single eyewitness, the team heads more than 200 feet underground and comes into contact with a blob that shows up on the FLIR infrared camera. What this blob is is anyone’s guess, but of course the team immediately assumes it’s the creature they originally intended to find in the cave in the first place. Though I have to say the episode does a nice job of building tension as an unknown creature apparently stalks the team members in a deep, dark underground hole, I’m not all that convinced that the depiction of events in the narrative of the program is accurate.

oh look!
Oh look – There it is!

A second episode saw the team in an area of Northern California known as Graveyard Gulch searching for an animal that apparently has been killing the local black bear population. This creature, called the and supposedly related to the now-extinct giant sloth, has to be one of the most ridiculous creatures any crypto show has ever sought out. As depicted in computer rendering here, the beast has a single large eye in the center of its head and a toothy mouth situated in the middle of its abdomen. Yeah…because that’s definitely real. At any rate, the team again finds itself in a staredown of sorts with an unknown creature that may or may not actually be real (I’m favoring the second of those options), and again, escapes with nary a single bit of hard evidence proving the creature’s existence. Or should I say, Brock claims he procures a DNA sample on a net coated in adhesive, but since the results of that analysis aren’t provided, I’m calling BS on the whole evidence/science thing.

yeah...
Yeah…’cause THAT‘s a real thing…

Perhaps the best thing about Monsters Underground overall is that episodes of the show only run a half hour. Cutting the typical monster hunt show down by fifty percent means that Monsters Underground at the very least doesn’t waste time with town hall meetings, obligatory “let’s make fun of Wild Bill” moments, or “find the most sketchy witness possible” segments. Brock and his team cut to the chase: by the time these episodes reached their first commercial break, the monster hunt is solidly underway. The downside of this is that the creatures featured (on these first two episodes at least) positively seemed like figments of the imagination since there was only the briefest of discussions about past reports of the creature, their habits, and appearance. Though the program is tightly edited and fairly suspenseful, with ghostly music and sound effects applied at key moments, there’s no escaping the fact that the whole monster aspect to the show seems like absolute fantasy.

Sadly
Sadly, this is precisely what these guys seem to be doing throughout the whole episode: sitting around, shining their flashlight at nothing in particular.

As much as I could proclaim that the crew in this show is probably putting themselves in the most obvious danger of any monster crew on television since they appear to be spelunking with minimal safety gear in some rather hazardous cavern systems, quite frankly there’s no way these situations are as hairy as the editing and commentary from the team members would suggest. If things were really that bad, there would be no way at least one camera crew would be able to document the team’s every move. That said, it’s difficult to fake some of the very real perils faced while traipsing about in relatively unknown subterranean caves: during the second episode for instance, gung-ho Jeremy dislocates his finger in about as gruesome a manner as possible and later has to painfully reset the joint. I’m not sure I can get behind Jeremy’s “kill first, ask questions later” approach, but the guy is a tough dude not only to remain calm looking at one finger that’s at a right angle compared to the rest, but also to put said finger back in place later on.

jeremy and bill
At least this gang has their priorities straight, the shotgun being a key part of any spelunking expedition.

While the program may be acceptably entertaining as a sort of adventure show, the introduction of monsters into the mix seems extremely gimmicky in context. Nowadays, it almost seems that the “monster card” is being added into standard-formula reality TV programs that otherwise would have been tiresome – and utterly pathetic – to give them a little extra kick: both Monsters Underground and Swamp Monsters as well as the upcoming Alaska Monsters seem to be proof of this new trend (let’s not forget that multiple reality shows are set either in the bayou or in Alaska). In some regards, Underground Monsters doesn’t try and kid itself or its audience into really buying into the whole monster angle: this show is more about the spelunking than the honest-to-Pete search for any unknown creatures, but I then have to wonder why in the world anyone would really want to watch it? The show simply doesn’t seem to do much to win viewership for itself – though the monster hunt formula seems exhausted to begin with, the cast here is dull and doesn’t add any “zip” to the proceedings. And yes, as might be expected, the monster hunt itself is preposterous. Sure, this show is slickly edited and generally well-made, but I honestly wish reruns of the corny but straight-faced In Search Of…, Sightings, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World, or hell, even Unsolved Mysteries would turn up in place of some of these increasingly desperate new monster-related shows. It seems unbelievable considering my innate fascination with all things cryptozoological, but I’m positively sick of this phony monster/reality garbage.

maybe
Maybe these guys should just stick to coal mining…

from on .