Shark Week: 25 years of celebrating and protecting the ocean's most feared predator

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 1:12 p.m. MDT

A scene from "Great White Island."

Scot Anderson, Discovery Channel

Despite 21 years of experience and almost 30 shark documentaries under his belt, Jeff Kurr was "genuinely scared."

Under Kurr was perhaps the most dangerous water on earth. The filmmaker lay prone with his camera on a flimsy metal "seal sled," bobbing precariously atop the cold, dark ocean and hoping not to be shish-kabobed from below. Or pulled off the sled. Or landed on by a two-ton great white shark that had taken to the air.

But Kurr got the shot.

"For me, it's all about getting the 'eye candy,' incredible footage that you can build a compelling story around," said Kurr, who has been a producer and director for Discovery Channel's Shark Week since 1991.

The story he'll tell this year is "Air Jaws Apocalypse," which follows a 14-foot great white named Colossus who controls the waters of Seal Island, South Africa. The program kicks off the 25th anniversary of Shark Week, a series that began during a brainstorming session at a fledgling cable network and was watched by 26.6 million viewers in 2011.

Throughout the years, Shark Week has used everything from advanced robotics to 3-D technology to celebrity hosts to draw viewers in. But the shark, an apex predator the network is dedicated to celebrating and saving, remains the star of the show.

"(Shark Week has) been a real pillar for that time of year for a long, long time," said Brooke Runnette, executive producer of Shark Week. “It has a great way of being a lot of things we care about all at once.”

The three-year-old Discovery Channel launched Shark Week on July 17, 1988, with an episode called "Caged in Fear." A weeklong series dedicated to sharks with a summer tie-in, Shark Week was an idea launched to draw more attention to the network.

The shark, with its unsettling combination of being always present but hidden below the surface, has proved to be compelling content.

"You can step into the ocean anywhere and chances are there will be a shark somewhere close by," Runnette said.

Kurr, communicating via email because he is on location "exploring the hidden realm of a large, predatory shark," said fascination with sharks "is rooted in fear."

"We fear what we don't understand, what we can't see swimming beneath us," he said.

Throughout the years, Shark Week has employed new features and technologies to keep the content fresh, innovative and, at times, unprecedented.

In 1994, author Peter Benchley, whose novel "Jaws" helped cultivate Americans' jittery fascination with the ocean predator, became the first host of Shark Week. Subsequent hosts have included journalist Forrest Sawyer, television personalities such as Les Stroud ("Survivorman") and celebrities like comedian Craig Ferguson.

Discovery has also crossed over Shark Week with some of its more popular shows, calling on Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" and Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman of "Mythbusters" to host episodes.

The 1999 season featured a live broadcast, called "Live From a Shark Cage," followed in 2000 by the first-ever 3-D shark program, "Sharks 3-D."

The second most popular program in Shark Week history, 2003's "Anatomy of a Shark Bite," used robotics to simulate and measure the force and impact of a shark attack.

In 1995, the episode "In Search of the Golden Hammerhead" provided footage of a species that had never been shown on TV.

And in 2001, a groundbreaking episode called "Air Jaws" introduced the world to the stunning visual spectacle of massive great white sharks launching themselves completely out of the water, a behavior referred to as "breaching."

"Nobody had even seen that before," Runnette said.

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