Friday, July 31, 2009

Tadam! Tadam! Shark Week is baaaccckkk!!!

The Gulf of Mexico is a fine place to find sharks. According to filmmaker Jeff Kurr, the Gulf is teeming with whale sharks, hammerheads, a lot of bull sharks and some “large aggressive makos.”

He cites the Gulf's biodiversity, making it one of his top sites for filming shark footage. “I've had fishermen tell me they've seen great whites,” he says. “You can count on them being everywhere. They circumnavigate the globe. They're everywhere prey exists.”

Kurr's latest film is Shark After Dark, which airs at 8 p.m. Aug. 6. In the great push/pull tradition of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, it manages to pull an alarm with one hand while gently urging calm with the other. Casual swimmers aren't likely to find themselves in the great white-infested waters around Seal Island off the coast of South Africa, but Kurr's film finds 15-foot sixgill sharks rising from unthinkable depths to feed at night in Puget Sound, just 150 feet from the shore in Seattle.

There've been no reports of a sixgill attack. But footage of the sharks thrashing around hunks of dead fish are a sufficient nudge to avoid the sound at night.

More than two decades old, the Discovery Channel's Shark Week remains required viewing for a dedicated subset of viewer. The week of programming is a titillating cross between nature film and torture porn with a little environmental morality play thrown in.

Kurr points out the disparity in the number of sharks that killed by humans compared to humans killed by sharks. Still the film includes narration that reminds the usually docile sand tiger shark has been charged with 29 confirmed attacks. Cue unsettling music and don't forget to include a crew member saying things like, “The water is churning with teeth and fins.”

Yet Kurr's passion for filmmaking is a reflection of a viewer's passion for what he finds. Despite the sci fi assertion that space is the final frontier, we've a long way toward scratching the surface with the sea.

“It's the last wild frontier left on Earth,” Kurr says. “Just about all terrestrial animals have been fenced off where we can safely see them. But you go into the water at your local beach, and you're in a complete wilderness. In California it's not beyond the realm of possibility to see a great white 100 feet from a beach.”

Despite often being a victim — tens of millions of sharks are killed each year — the shark makes a compelling villain. It's capable of short violent actions only to disappear in a cloud. And it's surrounded by mystery. So, despite few attacks and fewer fatal attacks, the fairly short period of our interaction with sharks has created a chilling sense of terror that has for less than a century fed books and films.

Kurr points out only three instances of multiple attacks in a single area. There was 2001, tagged the Summer of the Shark in Florida, when several people were attacked (it's worth noting that shark attacks worldwide that year were down from the previous year). There was South Africa in late 1957 and early 1958 when five people were killed in a little more than 100 days.

And the one that started it all was off the coast of New Jersey in 1916, when four people were killed. The attacks, including one in a creek, inspired author Peter Benchley to write Jaws. More recently the book Close to Shore was written about that summer when an increasing number of swimmers took to the water to escape then-record heat. This year's Shark Week includes a sort of faux docudrama called Blood in the Water (8 p.m. Aug. 2) that recounts a week of shark attacks.

The 1916 New Jersey attacks are still the source of our cultural shockwaves regarding sharks. Much is still not known. Some theorize that there were multiple sharks, which Kurr believes. Others think it was one, a theory that gets murky because a great whites doesn't seem like a likely predator in a creek 16 miles inland.

The hysteria of the era is best represented by the fact that one report blamed a sea turtle for the attacks. “People knew nothing about sharks and nothing about the ocean,” Kurr says. “And forensics didn't really exist in those times.”

His theory involves weather patterns that drew schools of bait fish into the shallow water. “It's just what you'd call a sharky year,” he says. “It could've just been sharks chasing fish and accidentally attacking people. But the idea that it was the same one cruising along the coast Jaws-style is scientifically, biologically and behaviorally impossible.”

But the story has a narrative sweep and a sense of genuine terror. It's mysterious and chilling and speaks volumes about our fear and fixation with sharks.

Kurr, who made his own film about the 1916 attacks says “the human reaction was the most interesting part of the whole thing”: Panicked people blasting at the water with dynamite and shotguns.

And where some shark obsessives (like me) prefer to keep the fixation to film and the printed page, the more daring sorts like Kurr throw themselves into the water.

The result plays a little into a deeply rooted cultural fear that started in 1916 and was refreshed in 1975 with the release of the feature film Jaws Steven Spielberg's box-office behemoth.

But Kurr's films are informational first and daredevilry second. He's not above tickling the curiosity of shark gawkers, but he's also keen to clear the water and try to replace some myth with fact.

“We keep discovering interesting behaviors,” he says. “And we haven't been studying sharks all that long. There are a lot of great stories out there, lots that we don't know. I think that's why people are fascinated by sharks.”


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