ALIEN SHARKS: RETURN TO THE ABYSS and LAIR OF THE MEGA SHARK
Pros: Weirdo sharks galore – and footage of extremely aggressive great whites in action
Cons: Nothing major
Day three of 2014’s Shark Week programming on the Discovery Channel featured a two-hour block of all-new shows that served as a sort of continuation of programs seen either earlier this year or last. After an opening two days which featured shows that were speculative at best, downright phony at worst, I was pleased to find that Tuesday, August 12’s lineup of shows showcased legitimate documentaries focusing on authentic footage and real creatures. Looking at the strange and potentially quite frightening sharks on display in both Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss and Lair of the Mega Shark, it’s difficult to understand why Discovery Channel’s producers would even need to really “invent” or fictionalize programming. There are more than enough fascinating, bizarre, and fearsome real creatures here to fill any number of documentaries.
The snake-like frilled shark – is there really much question where legends of sea serpents came from?
The first of Tuesday’s shows was Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss, an examination of various incredibly strange and outrageous deep sea shark species. This program follows a marine biology grad student named Paul Clerkin who set out to examine these seldom-seen sharks by stationing himself on a deep sea trawler as it journeyed through the southern Indian Ocean. Whenever sharks would be hauled up in the vessel’s nets, Paul would be summoned both to examine the creatures and make an attempt to return them unharmed to the oceans. Many of these deep sea sharks have incredibly slow reproductive rates and appear to be relatively scarce, thus it’s important to try and save as many of them as possible from being killed in nets designed to catch other fish species.
The creepy-looking chimaera – the so-called “ghost shark.”
Though the basic framework of a story provided some structure to the program, Alien Sharks more had the feel of being an elaborate session of “show and tell.” Various species of bizarre sharks are examined by Clerkin, and a talking head scientist pops in to explain things about these creatures that Clerkin can not. This format seems a bit antiquated in 2014, not at all as flashy as other documentaries airing during the Shark Week lineup. Fortunately, as might be expected, the animals seen in Alien Sharks make up for the ho-hum presentation – this show provides glimpses of dozens of frequently unbelievable varieties of shark. These range from the comparatively more widely known sharks like the (that has a rather amazing protruding jaw), the (a large shark species that uses a luminescent mouth to attract krill), and the (which bores holes out of its prey using saw-like circular jaws) to incredibly obscure species like the (a species of bottom-feeding shark that almost looks like a carpet of seaweed sitting on the ocean floor), and the extremely elusive . This last species was one Clerkin explicitly set out to document: living at extreme depths it has glowing orange eyes (!) and needle-like teeth – a true weirdo even among the universally strange deep sea sharks, but unfortunately, one is never caught during the program.
Megamouth – millions of years old, undiscovered until 1976. What else hides in the deep?
Despite the fact that the “holy grail” Clerkin is looking for is never found, I massively enjoyed the footage of all of the creatures that are seen in this program. It’s absolutely amazing to see how living at the bottom of the ocean ( seen in the show live at depths of 7000 feet or more) and in complete darkness has led to some incredible adaptations in these species. Many have crazy-looking eyes (look for the appearance of the poisonous – the so-called “ghost shark”), and a few have some form of bioluminescence to either ward off predators or attract prey. It’s worth noting also that some of the craziest animals seen in Alien Sharks aren’t sharks at all: it’s stunning to see and one unlikely species called the (commonly – and appropriately – called the “spook fish”) is nearly beyond description. I honestly can’t believe a creature like this exists.
The positively unbelievable barreleye fish a.k.a. the spook fish. It’s entire head is transparent. See those “eyes” on the front of the creature? They’re nostrils – the creature’s eyes actually are those greenish “orbs” inside of its head. Talk about aliens…
In comparison to Alien Sharks, Lair of the Mega Shark is a bit more conventional and typical for what often features on Shark Week. This program follows a camera crew to Stewart Island, New Zealand in an attempt to photograph the largest great whites in existence. Reports of 20-foot-long monsters are common in this vicinity, and Shark Week veterans Andy Cassagrande and Jeff Kurr intend to film them using both some rather high and rather low-tech camera options.
This white shark caught off Cuba in the 1940s was 21 feet long – the official record. Nevertheless, rumors of monsters of at least this size persist to this day.
In a somewhat similar manner to Monday night’s Monster Hammerhead program, Lair of the Mega Shark took a more dramatic approach to telling its story and it seemed more stylized than many Shark Week documentaries. This was especially true in scenes where Cassagrande finds himself underwater and surrounded by large great whites. Early in the episode, while swimming freely – i.e. without a shark cage – Cassagrande stumbles across an underwater kelp forest that’s not only stunningly beautiful but also seriously spooky. When a large white shark appears out of the cover of the tall vegetation, it creates an extremely dangerous situation for the horrendously exposed diver, but even later instances in the show, in which Cassagrande is protected within a steel shark cage, frequently get mighty hairy.
Does this kelp forest look like a good place to go looking for great whites? You gotta give it to these photographic crews – they very well may be nuts.
This program has a few moments of jaw-dropping bravery and/or stupidity – Cassagrande is forced to admit on more than one occasion that what he’s attempting to do here is simply “not smart.” One definitively “dodgy” moment occurs when Cassagrande, sitting in a small dinghy, attempts to deploy a “fin camera” on the dorsal fin of a 14-foot great white – by hand. This whole operation not only seemed very half-assed but mind-bogglingly dangerous. I’ve seen fin cameras being deployed before, but the procedure attempted this time around was ridiculous and I’ll be the first to admit that I was a bit surprised that everything eventually worked out. Even this alarming moment couldn’t compare to the show’s finale, in which a dive team heads into a nighttime cage dive. Surrounded by huge white sharks that are in an aggressive feeding pattern, this may be one of the most out-of-control situations I’ve seen in a shark documentary. The cage is constantly being bumped and prodded by very inquisitive and bad-tempered sharks, and eventually the smaller (i.e. 14-16 foot) sharks scatter when an 18-20 foot behemoth shows up.
Both Australia and New Zealand are known for their resident shark populations which, as you can see, come in close contact with people.
In some ways, Lair of the Mega Shark wasn’t nearly as interesting as the show that featured earlier in the night, but it was probably the more outright entertaining of the two programs. Certainly, the narrative seems to have been manipulated a bit to accentuate certain moments, but like most Shark Week programs, Mega Shark is awe-inspiring to look at. I also found it quite interesting to see really “amped up” and large great whites going into a feeding frenzy at night – night time dives involving sharks are always dangerous since these creatures behave completely differently after dark. The climactic sequence presented in Mega Shark is I believe one of the few that shows patently aggressive white shark feeding behavior – this is definitely some unique footage and speaks to the fact that these creatures may be naturally nocturnal.
This kinda stuff right here…pretty damn ballsy.
All things considered, night three of Shark Week 2014 had a bit of something for everyone. The examination of odd shark species was pretty amazing, and the second program of the night also had plenty of educational value as well as enough action, suspense, and drama to fill a handful of hour-long specials. Thus far, I’ve been impressed by the lack of “I was attacked by a shark; listen to my story” type shows on this year’s Shark Week: maybe Discovery Channel finally realized that the same types of stories can only be told so many times before they lose their pop. In any case, I’m looking forward to see what the rest of the week holds – though not entirely enthused by the knowledge that last year’s Megalodon special gets regurgitated and “enhanced” come Friday night…