The whole tooth

Discovery's Shark Week turns 20-and still has bite.

THE LIFE AQUATIC Shark Week host Stroud gets up close and personal with one of his subjects.

THE LIFE AQUATIC Shark Week host Stroud gets up close and personal with one of his subjects. Photo: Discovery Communications Inc.

Each year sharks attack 50 to 70 people worldwide, killing 5 to 15 of them. That’s bad news for the poor souls who get bitten, but for the rest of us, it means death by Jaws is extremely unlikely. Compare the 300,000 fatalities that result annually from automobile accidents, and the whopping 3.5 million from smoking-related illnesses. Yet the rare violence caused by razor-toothed fish has for 20 years inspired Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the network’s highest-rated regular programming event—a marathon of mayhem whose offerings have included Great White! Parts One and Two, Sharks of the Red Triangle, Great Shark Hunt, Anatomy of a Shark Bite, Shark Attack Survivors, Perfect Shark and Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa, which included never-before-aired footage of great whites jumping from the water like Flipper.

The 20th-anniversary edition of Shark Week dominates the Discovery schedule grid from Sunday 29 through August 4, with dozens of favorites from the past two decades as well as eight new specials—among them Ocean of Fear: The Worst Shark Attack Ever (Sunday 29, 9–11pm), a documentary about the 1945 mass attack on survivors of the torpedoed U.S.S. Indianapolis, an event memorably recounted in Jaws by irascible seaman Quint. (Robert Shaw, who played the crusty fisherman, is sadly no longer around to narrate the special, so his costar Richard Dreyfuss does the honors.)

“I always tell people, it’s much more dangerous for me to get in my car and drive on the freeway,” says filmmaker and survivalist Les Stroud, the host of Shark Week, who was bitten on the hand by a reef shark while shooting a special in Australia last year. “But there’s a heck of a lot more sex appeal in showing a shark attack on the news than the 400th car accident that month.”

And yet devoted viewers will tell you—seriously—that Shark Week is not just about the sharks. The creatures are metaphors with fins—means by which filmmakers can explore the extremes of individual experience and the tension between civilization and nature.

“There’s so much meaning surrounding the shark,” Stroud says. “It’s a huge mythical beast for us—a creature at the top of the food chain that can be docile and peaceful, but that can also attack and kill people, and that lives in a place we can’t inhabit.”

There’s a ritualized quality to many of the specials, particularly ones that recount an individual attack and its aftermath. Even when swimmers have been warned that they’re venturing into dangerous waters, the assault is always unexpected, and the unsuspecting surfer, fisherman or deep-sea scientist is suddenly forced into a primal mind-set. Any thoughts he or she might have had about mortgage, marriage or where to eat dinner that night are obliterated by more urgent questions: Can I get back to shore without bleeding to death? Do I save myself, or go back for my partner?

In the aftermath, we hear of funerals, lawsuits, long recoveries and prosthetic limbs. Survivors ramble about the ephemeral nature of life and concede that they didn’t realize what they were capable of until they felt that tug beneath the water. The individual tales are enclosed by larger narratives of developers and local governments debating whether to close shark-infested beaches or post signs saying swim at your own risk, and accounts of professionals who devote their lives to studying sharks, treating shark bite survivors and monitoring beaches by land, sea and air.

The overall impression left by Shark Week is that modern civilization is in some sense temporary—that even as we flatter ourselves into thinking our species has subdued the planet, we are, in fact, just visiting. We chew up and spit out nature, but when it bites back—even just a nip—we react with terror, and fume at the very idea that in the 21st century, there are still some beaches or lagoons where humans shouldn’t swim.

“I was down in water with the great whites in Australia, in a cage, and I had this 18-footer come in and ram it,” Stroud recalls. “Here we are doing this film, we’re experienced, we have great equipment, I have this great cameraman, we think we’ve got it all figured out. But this shark, if he really had a mind for it, could just say, ‘You know what? That’s it. You’re all going down.’ ”

Visit for a complete Shark Week schedule.