You can step into the ocean anywhere and chances are there will be a shark somewhere close by. —Brooke Runnette, executive producer of Shark Week
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.
Advancements in camera technology have allowed producers to slow down the footage and portray the sharks in greater detail. This year, Kurr's "Air Jaws Apocalypse" employs a camera called "Phantom," which shoots at 1,000 frames per second.
"Using this camera to shoot flying sharks was like seeing the behavior for the first time," Kurr said.
Runnette acknowledges that Shark Week has gone through various phases, everything from using comedians as hosts to taking the more provocative, "don’t go to the beach" approach. But Shark Week is ultimately a "natural history event," which Runnette says works because of the sheer awesome power of this predator.
"My mantra is, the shark is the star, not the people," she said.
Research and innovation are essential to producing fresh, compelling content. Several discoveries, including "breaching" sharks, "walking" sharks and the world's oldest shark fossil, have been made during the 25-year run of Shark Week.
The quest for "great footage" also helps advance science, Kurr said.
"Getting that footage usually means inventing something," Kurr said. "How will great white sharks react if we put a diver in a clear plexi 'shark tube'? What will happen if I build a robotic seal and send it into the great white's hunting grounds? In the process of answering these questions and getting the footage ... we usually learn something about shark behavior."
Discovery works with researchers and conservation groups, such as Oceana, to ensure the accuracy of its programs and to "help spread the word about the plight of sharks," according to a news release. (Approximately 70 million sharks are killed annually.) Discovery also works with The Pew Charitable Trusts to combat the practice of "shark finning," where the shark's fins are cut off and the rest of the body tossed back into the ocean. Public service announcements are prevalent throughout Shark Week broadcasts.
Despite their formidable reputation, Kurr calls sharks a "vulnerable" species.
"Discovery is very committed to educating people about sharks and understands the value of responsible research and conservation," Kurr said. "These values go hand in hand with entertainment value."
Best of all, Kurr says, is that great footage — like the kind he put himself at risk for on that seal sled — "gets people talking about sharks, wanting to learn more about these predators and ultimately wanting to protect them from harm."
"We're making all this stuff exciting for people to watch," Runnette said. "It feels like a really worthy thing to do to have this opportunity to make science exciting and fun."
2012 new episode guide
"Air Jaws Apocalypse," Aug. 12, 7 p.m.
"Shark Week's 25 Best Bites," Aug. 12, 8 p.m.
"Mythbusters' Jawsome Shark Special," Aug. 13, 7 p.m.
"Sharkzilla," Aug. 13, 8 p.m.
"How Jaws Changed the World," Aug. 14, 7 p.m.Comment on this story
"Shark Fight," Aug. 14, 8 p.m.
"Great White Highway," Aug. 15, 7 p.m.
"Adrift: 47 Days With Sharks," Aug. 16, 7 p.m.
Highest-rated Shark Week episodes
1. "Ocean of Fear" (2007)
2. "Anatomy of a Shark Bite" (2003)
3. "Tales of the Tiger Shark" (1996)
4. "Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa" (2001)
5. "Mythbusters: Jaws Special" (2005)
6. "10 Deadliest Sharks" (2001)
7. "Ultimate Air Jaws" (2010)
8. "Great White Invasion," tie (2011)
8. "Jaws Comes Home," tie (2011)
10. "Shark Attack Files" (1995)