Sharks have come a long way since the menacing deep-sea creature days of 1975's Jaws.
They're even more menacing!
Or so it seems, as Discovery Channel kicks off its 27th annual Shark Week with more sensational shows, more social media and more pop-culture buzz than ever before.
A campy Rob Lowe promo showing the actor surfing on two sharks, with more leaping behind him, went viral last week — and he's not even featured in any Shark Week shows. Pop star Demi Lovato's excited Sunday tweet "IT'S ALMOST SHARK WEEK!!!!!!!" has already been re-tweeted more than 17,000 times. And Ad Age came up with a parody of suggestions for similar programming, among them: Shark Tank Week, in which ABC locks a contestant in a room with Mark Cuban for seven days.
It's all been leading up to Sunday's kickoff at (8 p.m. ET/PT) with Air Jaws: Fins of Fury, the first of 13 new shows airing through Aug. 16, when it all wraps up with Sharksanity (10 p.m.).
But to George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research in Gainesville, the Shark Week frenzy is a "double-edged sword. I'm kind of disappointed, and I think most researchers are, too. It obviously is a big draw, but I'm afraid that the programs have gone more to entertainment and less to documentary over the years. It's kind of a shame, because they have the opportunity to teach good stuff in what's going on with science."
Sharks, he says, are "exciting enough that you don't have to go for least common denominators, which so often are blood and gore or animals performing tricks. I think a lot of people believe that what they see on Shark Week is all fact. A lot of times, the shows are poorly documented or poorly represented or things (are) done as pseudo-science."
Air Jaws filmmaker Jeff Kurr admits, "Yes, that's always the big question – how do you top yourself from year to year?"
He's been a part of Shark Week since 1991. In his latest project, he's searching for a 3,000-pound great white shark he calls Colossus. He first came across it two years ago — or rather, it came across him as the 14-foot-long fish breached above him as he was perched on a sea sled off the coast of South Africa. This year, he goes on a hunt to find Colossus again.
"We conducted research on great white migrations and had hunches of where it might be," Kurr says. "It took us to the bottom of the ocean in New Zealand in a tiny craft I invented called WASP (Water Armor Shark Protection)," an aluminum cage painted black and yellow and silver to attract the creatures.
"The results were incredible," he says. "Some of the biggest great whites I've ever seen are bumping it, biting it, knocking (expert) Chris (Fallows) around like he was a pinball. It was a little scary. He loved it."
And: "Spoiler alert: We saw sharks that were bigger than Colossus."
While Kurr is a veteran, Shark Week newbies include Australia-based shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder, who lost two limbs and his career as a Navy diver in a 2009 shark attack. He is host of this year's Great White Matrix, an investigation into an area that he describes as a "nursery" for great white sharks, an area where females are dropping off their pups.
Before he was attacked, he was "petrified" of sharks. Now, he says, "I have an extremely healthy respect" for them. "I've been given a lot of information about why they're necessary, and been to the U.N. to talk about shark issues. I realize they play an important role in our oceans. I'm happy to stand up and speak for sharks."
And now that he's part of Shark Week, de Gelder says, "I'm like everyone else on the planet. I think it's the best week of viewing all year. You rarely get that much insight to a world that is hidden."
Says Kurr: "Making sharks popular is really important. For the Jaws generation, the only good shark was a dead shark. Now they're talking and thinking about sharks. If you love sharks and are fascinated by them, you have a tendency to protect them." Plus, he says. "There are a lot of fish that are in trouble, but they don't have a week. Like the bluefin tuna. There may not be bluefin tuna in 10 years. The more we get them out there, the better for the species."
Shark expert Burgess has to agree with that. "It's bringing sharks to the attention of people. I suppose as any Hollywood star would say, any attention is good attention."