Pros: Typically fascinating factual information and wonderful photography

Cons: Neither of these shows lived up to the hype surrounding them

Featuring two of the (in my opinion) slightly more gimmicky programs thus far on the 2014 version of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week 2014, Night Four (i.e. Wednesday, August 13) didn’t really offer much that I hadn’t seen before (either on previous Shark Week programming or shows that I’ve caught elsewhere). The opening show of the night was the hour-long Zombie Sharks, a special which dealt with the topic of tonic immobility in various shark species. Basically, this condition (which also is called “playing dead” in various other animal species) is a defense mechanism in animals in which they enter a sort of trance-like state and seem to be either “sleeping” or paralyzed. In sharks, the tonic state is often prompted by flipping the animals onto their backs, and the Zombie Sharks program investigates the notion that ocean predators are exploiting this weakness in shark species in order to prey on them.

Thresher shark on its back and in a state of tonic immobility.

Following the appearance of dead white sharks in various regions of the world, marine biologist Eli Martinez travels the globe exploring the process of tonic immobility in sharks. Starting off by examining how smaller shark species like the silky shark can be prompted to enter this paralytic state, Martinez slowly moves up the ladder of shark varieties, attempting to instigate tonic states in larger tiger sharks and finally in sixteen-foot great whites. As might be obvious, Martinez’s investigation gets increasingly more dangerous as time progresses, and when he actually leaves the safety of a protective shark cage in an attempt to coax a “playful” great white into a tonic state, Zombie Sharks reaches a level of insanity that few shows during Shark Week would even attempt. Remember kids: pay attention to the warnings: Never attempt to “pet” white sharks!

For the love of all that’s holy, DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME OR AT SEA.

As is the case with most television documentaries, Zombie Sharks is well-photographed and somewhat scary – especially towards the end. When a large male white shark is seen urinating in the water around the shark cage in an attempt to assert its dominance over the enclosure’s human occupants, it becomes clear that these animals simply aren’t to be messed around with. The program does a nice job of explaining the tonic state as well as some aspects of shark behavior and anatomy but at least for me, it has a major flaw. The script for this show almost is presented as a sort of mystery in which Martinez attempts to determine which sea creatures are responsible for the deaths of some large sharks which have washed up on various beaches around the world, but to anyone paying attention in the show (or with previous knowledge of sharks) the culprit isn’t a mystery at all. There have actually been several programs documenting the process by which orca (or killer) whales can prey on even the largest of great whites by turning them upside down in the water. Thus, even if this show is informative and well put-together, it simply seemed a rehash of known information “souped up” with a new title to capitalize on the recent zombie craze.


The second program of the night entitled Spawn of Jaws: The Birth also seemed gimmicky to me, though for a completely different reason. A few years ago, actor and shark enthusiast Paul Walker (of Fast and the Furious fame) featured on a Shark Week program in which he and marine biologist Dr. Michael Domeier attempted to tag and track an extremely large, pregnant female white shark nicknamed “Gill Raker.” Upon completion of the tagging operation, the program ended in a manner so as to be continued later on. This was mostly due to the fact that the 18 month white shark gestation period meant that the inevitable follow-up show would take a while to complete. In the meantime however, after having filmed some scenes to be included in part two of the ongoing Spawn of Jaws program, Walker died in a 2013 automobile accident. What this meant it terms of Spawn of Jaws: The Birth is that this show could (in some way at least) capitalize on the inevitable real-life drama that results when a personality in the program dies midway through production. Though I wasn’t privy to such advertising, apparently Walker’s appearance in this program was hyped by Discovery Channel leading up to this premiere: not necessarily a surprising eventuality, but one that (to me) seems to be somewhat in poor taste. It’s almost as if Walker’s death is being exploited to “get butts in the seat” to watch this program that many viewers might not otherwise have cared about.

Future Jaws at play.

To their credit, in the documentary itself, the producers don’t really harp on the Paul Walker connection too much. Though Walker’s Fast and the Furious costar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson introduces Spawn of Jaws and says a few words about his friend, during the show itself Walker shows up at one point, helps Domeier with some experiments, then vanishes. Next thing we know, Domeier is having to tearfully offer up a tribute to his now-deceased friend. Honestly, I was OK with Walker’s death being treated as one small aspect of the bigger story going on in this program: this is, after all, Shark Week, not a block of programs dedicated to celebrities in general, or Paul Walker specifically.

walker & domeier
Walker and Domeier sharing a moment at sea.

As Domeier attempts to keep track of Gill Raker, he’s surprised to find the creature seeming to stop for an extended period off the California coast. A closer examination of this area reveals that the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles does appear to be a white shark pupping area, and the program includes some really amazing glimpses of young white sharks swimming in California waters. More surprising – and potentially very unfortunate – is the fact that Gill Raker suddenly heads south into Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, an area notorious for its extremely lax fishing regulation. Domeier fears that the shark he’s followed for almost two years will wind up being killed by Mexican fisherman who could expect to gain some $70,000 for hauling in a large white shark. At times, The Birth becomes quite tense as Domeier frets over the possibility of losing the opportunity to see where Gill Raker actually gives birth.

juvenile white
Juvenile white shark appears behind two California surfers.

Not much at all is known about shark gestation and the birthing process, so it was interesting to find out the details behind white shark litters that was provided by this program. Here, we learn that whites give birth to a dozen or so live, four-foot-long babies and that shark mothers may actually seek out the exact areas in which they themselves were born in order to pup. All the interesting facts aside though, Spawn of Jaws: The Birth may contain the single biggest letdown of 2014’s Shark Week: after a huge, suspenseful buildup, Domeier and his team never actually see the expectant shark mother or her brood for that matter – any glimpses of the shark were those acquired in 2012. The program ends with the research team merely speculating about where Gill Raker gave birth: quite a disappointment for a program which seemed to tease the fact that it would actually detail (and capture) the white shark birthing process. I can only imagine that the viewer who onscreen-tweeted that he had popcorn ready for the show’s finale was incredibly frustrated by a conclusion which accomplished precisely nothing in the bigger picture of the program.

heavily pregant white
A heavily pregnant white: something you won’t see much of in Spawn of Jaws

In the end, I was a bit underwhelmed by Wednesday’s Shark Week programming. The two shows featured here weren’t a complete wash out since both certainly presented a bunch of interesting information and some startling images. Still, neither Zombie Sharks nor Spawn of Jaws: The Birth quite lived up to the level of hype that had been built around them. Maybe the major problem is that I’ve come to expect better programs from Shark Week – and indeed got outstanding documentaries on the previous couple of nights. I guess then that the ultimate thing to take away from the worthwhile but hardly necessary shows seen on Night Four of Shark Week 2014 is that you simply can’t win ‘em all.

Sadly, Zombie Sharks is nothing like this:

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