Jeff Kurr believes "Shark Week" has shaped a generation's opinions about the ocean's apex predator.
While the 1975 film "Jaws" imprinted the image of a massive rogue man-eater on the public's consciousness, "Shark Week" has had something of an opposite effect, according to Kurr, a filmmaker and shark expert who has been producing specials for the Discovery Channel series since 1991.
Kurr believes a focus on science and positive portrayals of the predator have "given the sharks a voice" and built sentiment for the protection of this threatened but vital fish.
“It really helps sharks in general by promoting them," Kurr said. “I think 'Shark Week' has come so far in turning people’s opinions around. ... You can really appreciate the beauty of these animals.”
"Shark Week," in which the Discovery Channel dedicates a week of programming to shark documentaries, kicks off its 27th season Sunday. Large, dangerous shark species such as the great white, tiger and bull have typically been the stars of most documentaries, and that trend will continue this year. Kurr has two films in this year's lineup, both about great whites — "Air Jaws: Fins of Fury" and "Lair of the Mega Shark."
However, the world of sharks is one of great volume and diversity. Of the 500 or so species of sharks, more than half never grow to bigger than 3 feet, according to Ari Audd, visitor experience manager at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, Utah.
This diverse array of sharks is on display for families to see at Utah's new aquarium, where 12 species reside.
Most of the aquarium's sharks can be found in the Ocean Explorer exhibit and its nearly 300,000-gallon tank, which features a 40-foot-long "shark tunnel" where visitors can view the fish all around them. The tank features six grey reef sharks, five blacktip reef sharks, four whitetip reef sharks, four sandbar sharks, two zebra sharks, two nurse sharks and one brownbanded bamboo shark. They share the space with southern stingrays, a honeycomb whiptail ray, a shovelnose ray, damselfish, square anthias, unicorn fish, a green sea turtle and a loggerhead sea turtle named Gabbi.
Deana Walz, director of animal husbandry, has worked for the Living Planet Aquarium since 2009. She studied at Moorpark College in California and started her career working with dolphins and sea lions. As an animal behaviorist, she enjoys observing the sharks and pointing out schooling and hunting patterns.
"It's fun to see how that behavior comes together," she said. "If (people) could just sit here and spend five minutes, you would see a lot."
Walz points out, though, that their hunting efforts aren't all that successful because the sharks are already well fed and the fish in the tank are provided with "fish condos" — rocks that provide refuge.
"You have to give the prey somewhere to hide," Walz said.
Keeping sharks — especially large species — in captivity isn't an easy proposition. While there are massive whale sharks on display at the Georgia Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium has had juvenile great whites on display from time to time in its Open Sea exhibit, the sharks at the Living Planet Aquarium are typical fare for aquariums.
The largest of the sharks on display are the nurse sharks (the biggest being 79 1/2 inches) and the zebra sharks (the largest measuring 66 inches). According to the Discovery Channel's "Sharkopedia" book, nurse sharks can grow to 9 feet and occupy warmer waters in North and South America and western Africa. Nurse sharks are more sedentary than most species and "can be found in coves and reefs and often squeeze their bodies into spaces that don't seem big enough for them," according to "Sharkopedia." Their strong muscles allow them to pass water over their gills when they aren't swimming.
"Nurse sharks are responsible for a number of bites to humans, but in almost every case a diver or snorkeler had harassed the animal, such as trying to pull it out of a cave while it is resting," said marine biologist Andy Dehart in "Sharkopedia." "So the lesson is, let sleeping sharks lie."
Like the nurse shark, the zebra and brownbanded bamboo sharks belong to the order of carpetsharks, which are often flat and reside on the ocean floor. According to "Sharkopedia," carpetsharks are characterized by "two spineless dorsal fins, mouths in front of their eyes and odd-looking sensory attachments called barbels that most often extend from their nostrils or jaws."
The sharks at the aquarium that cut a more prototypical, menacing shape are the reef sharks (blacktip, whitetip and grey) and sandbar sharks.
The reef sharks range in size from 4 to 7 feet, according to "Sharkopedia," and are "named for their habit of visiting reefs. They often join in feeding frenzies, where dozens or even hundreds of sharks compete for prey."
Walsh noted that the grey reef sharks at the aquarium came together instantly "like a wolf pack."
The reef sharks and sandbar sharks are from the family of requiem sharks, which includes the notorious bull, tiger and oceanic whitetip sharks, some of the most deadly species in the ocean. According to "Sharkopedia," requiem sharks are the most abundant in the ocean and "are good swimmers, with strong bodies and long fins."
Some of the sharks at the aquarium are small and docile enough to reside in the stingray touch pool — an epaulette shark, coral catshark and smaller brownbanded bamboo shark.
“It’s kind of a cool opportunity for kids to see what sharks feel like,” Walsh said.
Three other small species, the horn, wobbegong and white-spotted bamboo sharks, reside in other tanks.Comment on this story
Aquarium visitors can observe shark feedings at 1:30 p.m. every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Walsh says the sharks are "target fed" with a PVC pole and have a diet that consists of squid, salmon, mackerel and herring.
While having a tank full of sharks swimming in the middle of a desert valley may seem counterintuitive, Walsh points out that the ecosystems are connected.
"Everything leads to the ocean," she said. "What we do here affects them."