I’ve been watching Discovery Channel’s Shark Week in earnest since the late 1990s.
Some opening nights have been memorable, some forgettable and at least one has been regrettable. (That would be the “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” fiasco of 2013.)
Thanks to some spectacular footage and dramatic storylines, this year’s kickoff to the Super Bowl of nature documentary events was one of the more memorable in 34 years. And one veteran filmmaker, who has produced nearly 70 specials for Shark Week, promises that something unprecedented is coming.
“It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen on Shark Week,” said filmmaker Jeff Kurr, who has four specials on this year’s Shark Week schedule.
Jeff Kurr and ‘Air Jaws’
Kurr helped deliver one of the more groundbreaking moments in shark documentary history in 2001. That’s when he and wildlife photographer Chris Fallows gave us “Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa.”
The special featured never-before-seen footage of great white sharks jumping entirely out of the water (called “breaching”) while targeting seal decoys. I remember Discovery giving a sneak peak of “Air Jaws” during Shark Week in 2000. (This was before the days of social media teaser videos.) The images stuck with me for the entire year, and I made sure my VCR was ready to hit record when “Air Jaws” premiered. (This was when DVR, aka TiVo, was a luxury most college kids couldn’t afford.)
On Monday, the 14th installment in the “Air Jaws” franchise premiered on Shark Week, “Air Jaws: Top Guns.” For more than 20 years, Kurr and his teams have been seeking out new behaviors and employing new technology — all to find new angles to showcase the great white shark.
But when I chatted with Kurr by phone this week, I scrapped most of my questions about “Air Jaws.” I had just finished my second viewing of Kurr’s “Great White Open Ocean,” which was part of Sunday’s kickoff. And I was still trying to wrap my mind around what I’d seen.
A dangerous encounter with a great white shark
“Great White Open Ocean” features some of the more thrilling and scary shark encounter footage I’ve seen since a bull shark bit into Erich Ritter’s leg during “Anatomy of a Shark Bite” in 2003. (Video from another special that aired on opening night, where a “Jackass” cast member named Sean McInerney was severely injured after being bitten on the hand by a reef shark, also makes the list.)
Kurr’s film begins with shark expert Jimi Partington taking to the open ocean in a clear, polycarbonate box. What was “pretty monotonous,” in the words of witness Brandon McMillan, for about 45 minutes quickly turned into a terror-filled encounter.
Partington loses track of the shark for a moment. It bumps the box before circling around and approaching from below. That’s when the massive fish shatters the cage with its jaws open, and Partington is able to narrowly avoid physical injury and swim to the boat.
“Really miraculous how he was able to avoid the shark’s jaws,” said Kurr, who was watching from the boat. “I don’t think he saw that shark coming.”
Kurr says the shark was likely trying to “displace” Partington rather than attack him. Large sharks often bump kayakers and paddle boarders, and “most of the times you don’t even hear about it.”
“It was just a great white being a great white,” Kurr said.
Kurr calls the ocean a “concealing environment” that requires researchers and filmmakers to get close to the animals in order to understand and document their behavior.
“You need to be within a couple of feet, which is inherently risky. But that’s what we do for a living,” he said. “These sharks are not malevolent creatures. They’re doing their thing in the ocean, and we choose to get close to them.”
Orcas vs. great white sharks
Kurr’s next Shark Week film debuts Thursday, July 28, and features what he calls an “unbelievable natural history event.”
Researchers have enough evidence to understand that great white sharks have their own natural predators — killer whales. However, video evidence has been almost entirely absent.
Kurr says his new special “Shark House” will feature clear video evidence, taken by drone, of orcas killing a 10-foot great white shark.
“It has some of the most unbelievable natural history footage we’ve ever taken,” he said. “You won’t believe it when you see it.”
Jimi Partington’s recovery
It’s been quite a week for Kurr. The feedback he’s gotten so far regarding “Great White Open Ocean” is unlike anything he’s ever experienced, he said.
The film is about much more than Partington’s encounter with the great white in the open ocean. After emerging without a scratch, Partington goes back to England as the world enters lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s when he starts experiencing symptoms of PTSD.
Partington finally gets the chance to travel to New Zealand to come face to face with great whites again. He finds himself in a cage surrounded by great whites on the ocean floor, followed by a “snout touching” encounter from the side of a boat.
The emotional, triumphant moment is quickly followed by tragedy, however. Shortly after boarding a boat with Kurr and McMillan, Partington suffers a stroke and has to be airlifted to a hospital.
The film concludes by documenting Partington’s struggle to overcome the effects of the stroke. Kurr, who keeps in contact with Partington, says his passion for sharks is “driving his rehab.”
“He loves the film,” Kurr said. “It was a giant morale boost to him and his entire family.”