The ocean's a wild place. It's good to be educated. —Jeff Kurr
Despite 23 years of experience filming shark documentaries, Jeff Kurr knows there are some variables he just can't control.
Like casting, for instance.
"When you go out there and jump in the water, you never know what's going to happen," he said. "You never know who's going to show up."
Fortunately for Kurr, a truly captivating star came upon the scene for his latest Shark Week production — an 18-foot great white.
"It's really like a school bus with teeth," said Kurr, whose "Great White Serial Killer" premieres Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 8 p.m. MDT on the Discovery Channel. "It's certainly the largest (great white) I've seen in 23 years of filming sharks. It's a very special animal."
Capturing unpredictable apex predators on film is just one challenge for those behind Shark Week, which enters its 26th season on Sunday. Keeping what's become a pop culture phenomenon fresh year after year requires finding new story lines, investing in technology and capturing sharks in ways viewers haven't seen before.
"It's not easy finding interesting and compelling stories to share every year," Kurr said. "You can't make this stuff up."
This year, viewers can expect to see a new high-tech piece of equipment called Shark Cam, which is purported to follow great whites where no diver can; a trio of Louisiana shrimp fishermen tracking down a legendary terror; a reboot of one of Shark Week's most-popular episodes ever; and a haunting examination of two of the most devastating fatal attacks in history.
After kicking off the week Sunday, Aug. 4, at 6 p.m. with "Air Jaws: Beyond the Breach," a behind-the-scenes look at Kurr's iconic soaring sharks franchise, Discovery will unveil Shark Cam, a newly developed robot submarine that follows and films great whites swimming off the shores of Cape Cod.
"How often does this happen everyday?" one scientist asks in "Return of Jaws" as he watches a massive shark travel right along a heavily populated beach. The show premieres Monday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m.
According to Michael Sorensen, a senior director of development and production who oversaw this year's Shark Week lineup, Shark Cam allowed crews to film great white movements for hours at a time, rather than the few seconds they're normally allotted.
"If you shoot something in a different way, it feels different," Sorensen said.
One documentary with a decidedly different feel is "Voodoo Sharks," which follows "Return of Jaws" at 8 p.m. Exceeding expectations, evolving the programming and taking viewers where they haven't been before is one of the goals of Shark Week, according to Sorensen. "Voodoo Sharks" juxtaposes a Louisiana State University science team tracking bull sharks in fresh water with three shrimp fishermen, called the "Cajun team," who chase the legend of a man-eating monster in the bayou. The unlikely hosts (think "Swamp People" meets Shark Week) swap fish stories with locals, retell legends around a campfire and even follow a bull shark using a homemade tracker.
"They had their own story to tell which was a lot different than the LSU science team," Sorensen said.
On Wednesday, Aug. 7, at 7 p.m., "Top 10 Sharkdown" counts down the 10 most deadly sharks in the world. It's a reboot of a 13-year-old episode that drew some of Shark Week's biggest ratings ever, according to Sorensen.
The new episode includes a few shakeups (the blue shark gets a dubious promotion) and some interesting featurettes on the cookie-cutter shark and Greenland shark.
Following "Sharkdown" is "Great White Serial Killer," Kurr's latest project that he produced and did a good percentage of the underwater camera work for.
The program examines two fatal great white attacks at Surf Beach in Lompoc, Calif., that occurred exactly two years apart in the same area. Researcher Ralph Collier says they are "the most violent events I've ever been involved with" in 50 years.
"People are afraid to go there because of these shark attacks," Kurr said. "It kind of played out like a real-life Jaws scenario."
Kurr says he hopes to "get rid of fear with understanding" and help people to know where they're surfing.
"The ocean's a wild place," he said. "It's good to be educated."
The ultimate goal of Shark Week, Sorensen said, is "trying to understand the mystery of sharks."
"Everything is still driven by a need to understand shark behavior."
People are naturally afraid of sharks, Sorensen pointed out, and Discovery tries not to demonize the animal or "over depict and be too graphic" when it comes to attacks, he said.
Still, the different episodes vary in tone and content, and some may be a bit scary and contain too much blood for very young viewers.