Shark Week is like Discovery Channel’s summer vacation. For a week, the channel can fulfill its original mandate and educates the public, while also letting its hair down for some dangerous fun.
Shark Week shows the world just how powerful and mysterious sharks can be. Celebrities usually show up for hosting duty and everyone comes away from it fulfilled, informed, and just a little bit awed.
It takes a tremendous amount of planning and effort to deliver the bite-sized chunks of shark revelry that fill out a stuffed week of aquatic programming. From its genesis to its current status as a cultural mainstay, Shark Week has had a long journey.
Each year, it takes the work of hundreds of professional divers, camera operators, and scientists to craft each special.
Behind the scenes, Shark Week shows off the best of human ingenuity, but still flirts with some sketchier tendencies of reality TV to distort the truth in the interest of audience pandering.
This is how factual shows, like Nuclear Sharks, find themselves next to outright fictions, like Shark of Darkness: Wrath of the Submarine. However, the work that goes into both is just as fascinating, even if their aims are wildly different and audiences don’t seem to care either way.
The ratings for Shark Week seem to grow every year, and overall, it shows no signs of stopping yet.
Here are the 20 Behind-The-Scenes Secrets About Discovery’s Shark Week.
20 Producers Allegedly Lied To Scientists To Get Them To Appear In Specials
While Discovery continues to feature scientific documentaries as part of Shark Week, they’ve gotten sketchy in their tactics for getting scientists to lend credibility to mockumentaries like Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Shark of Darkness: Wrath of the Submarine.
For the 2014 special Voodoo Shark, bull shark researcher Jonathan Davis claimed that producers were not clear about the actual subject matter of the special.
They also took answers out of context in editing to make it seem like he actually believed a mythical shark was stalking the Bayous of Louisiana.
For 2015’s Monster Hammerhead, a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at Shedd Aquarium was similarly duped into appearing.
Kristine Stump claimed that producers told her they were simply filming interviews with people doing research on hammerhead sharks. However, the actual premise of the “documentary” was totally different from what she’d been told.
19 The Creator Of Shark Week Also Helped Launch Steve Irwin’s Career
The world lost a great man and a stalwart advocate for animals and conservationism when Steve Irwin tragically perished in a stingray attack in 2006.
His legacy includes a number of TV and movie documentaries about aquatic and amphibious animals, but his biggest mark on pop culture was his show on the Animal Planet channel, The Crocodile Hunter.
Animal Planet spun off of The Discovery Channel in 1996, under the supervision of W. Clark Bunting, who was also one of the executives to think of Shark Week. He is currently the president of Discovery Inc.
In addition to shepherding the new channel’s launch, Bunting also worked closely with Steve Irwin on The Crocodile Hunter, cementing Irwin’s position as a pop-culture fixture.
18 A Biologist Was Bitten By A Shark During Filming
The crew of Shark Week risk their hides every time they go into the water to film the titular beasts whether they’re protected by cages or not. However, one biologist named Dr. Erich Ritter decided to literally risk life and limb in order to prove his theories.
Dr. Ritter theorized that yoga breathing techniques would protect him from shark attacks, and waded into bull shark waters laden with chum to test this theory.
As you might expect, his theory was wrong, and his failed experiment ended up costing him a massive chunk of his leg. He almost succumbed to blood loss while being rushed back for medical treatment.
Bull sharks are usually placid when not provoked by an amateur yogi surrounded by chum. Dr.Ritter had been criticized by colleagues for his theories, with one stating that he is “more like a philosopher than a scientist.”
17 Gimmicks Such As “Chum Underpants” And “The Meat Suits” Have Been Suggested
As reality TV has ratcheted up its craziness year after year, actual documentary programs and channels have felt the need to keep pace. They have frequently resorted to sometimes questionable gimmicks in an attempt to draw in new audiences and/or sustain the ratings of previous years.
Discovery itself has felt the pressure, which has led to mockumentaries and outright fictional movies like Shark of Darkness: Wrath of the Submarine. However, some of these projects just go too far.
Shark Week executive producer Brooke Runnette recalls that previous brainstorming sessions with staff have yielded the suggestion of “chum underpants” and “the meat suits.”
She did not elaborate, so one can only imagine how those would have been implemented. However, it's easy to say that it would not have been pretty.
16 Driving Out To The Remote Diving Destinations Can Be As Dangerous As Swimming With Sharks
When people see specials on Shark Week of the creatures ripping up their prey or menacing camera operators, it seems like it would be the most dangerous part of taking a gig working for Shark Week.
However, the lengths that crews have to go to just to get to filming locations for the specials put a dark spin on the phrase, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
Locations are often far from anything resembling civilization, which means that crews have to be fully stocked with food and medical supplies.
They frequently have to travel by car for miles through countries that are either actively unfriendly to travelers or have completely insane traffic laws.
Shark Week veteran Andy Casagrande reckons that he is always much more likely to be harmed on the way to a shoot than by the animals themselves.
15 It Captured The First Footage Of Great Whites Leaping Out Of The Water
Great White sharks are infamous for being elusive, mysterious creatures, and many elements of their behavior and life cycle are still unknown to scientists.
For example, no one has observed their mating habits. Thanks to Shark Week, scientists were able to confirm one aspect of Great White shark behavior that had long been considered nothing more than an old fisherman’s tale.
Great Whites had never been observed jumping out of the water by scientists or filmmakers before.
The crew of the 2001 special Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa was able to capture the first footage ever of a Great White surfacing and flying through the air to chomp down on its prey thanks to a special decoy made to look like a seal.
14 It’s Been Around For 30 Years
Shark Week has been a summertime tradition for such a long time that the years blend together. Therefore, it might come as a surprise to even the most hardcore shark lore fanatics that Shark Week is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
It debuted in 1988 with a special called Caged in Fear. The programming block also included specials like Sharks: Predators or Prey, Sharks of a Different Color, and The Shark Takes a Siesta.
When it comes to either watching sharks or watching a really bad reality show? We'll take sharks any day.
Over the next 30 years, Shark Week developed, evolved, and expanded to include fictional programs and mockumentaries, and decided to feature hosts who were celebrities, scientists, or both.
Today, it continues to draw audience numbers that dwarf Discovery’s other programs.
13 The Very First Shark Week Doubled The Discovery Channel’s Ratings
What is now known as Discovery Channel began broadcasting as The Discovery Channel in 1985, after having been conceived by John S. Hendricks in 1982 as a cable service with programming designed for “lifelong learners.”
While it’s inconceivable to modern viewers, The Discovery Channel only broadcast from 3 PM to 3 AM when it started out.
It prided itself on the fact that 75% of its programming was new to American viewers, but couldn’t pride itself on reaching too much of the nascent cable market in America... until the idea of Shark Week was hatched by The Discovery Channel executives.
When it premiered with a tantalizing series of programs in 1988, The Discovery Channel’s average primetime ratings doubled overnight and only kept growing.
Shark Week’s debut in 2017 pulled in the highest ratings ever.
12 The Grandson Of Jacques-Yves Cousteau Hosted A Show
Jacques-Yves Cousteau is so famous as a pioneer in aquatic exploration and documentaries that Wes Anderson decided to parody him in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
He’s so synonymous with scientific discovery of underwater life that he’s recognizable even by the lay person on first-name basis. He also spearheaded the field of marine conservation.
This is why it was great for Discovery when they got his grandson to host a show for Shark Week.
Philippe Cousteau Jr. is a documentarian and conservationist like his father and grandfather. He co-hosted the show Nuclear Sharks for Shark Week with his wife Ashlan.
The special explored the resurgence of marine life in a crater left by nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, where marine life had long been thought to be extinct.
11 Most Footage Of A Diving Operator Inside A Cage Is Being Taken By Someone Else In Another Cage
While some underwater cinematographers for Shark Week have made a name diving amongst the creatures without cages, more often than not, cages are used to ensure the safety of camera operators.
Cages are also used for capturing dramatic shots of sharks trying to get at the soft, tasty humans inside them.
So the question is: how do Shark Week specials get the shots from the outside of the cage while the camera operators inside the cage are getting menaced or attacked? The answer is more cages and a little teamwork.
While one camera operator attracts the attention of sharks, there’s usually another diver in a different cage filming it.
The additional cage preserves the safety of both divers, although some choose to forgo the cage in certain situations.
10 Lots Of Ocean Cinematographers Have Started Building Own Equipment
One way you can tell true professionals from ] amateurs in any profession is by seeing who truly goes above and beyond when it comes to the tools of the trade.
Cinematographer Andy Casagrande is a veteran of over 40 Shark Week productions. Like a lot of wildlife filmmakers, he’s developed his own equipment for capturing jaw-dropping shots when off-the-shelf equipment doesn’t cut it.
In addition to using high-resolution, high-frame-rate cameras like the Phantom, Casagrande has also developed his own camera rigs using the versatile Go-Pro line of cameras.
One is ingenious enough to make James Bond’s gadget-maker Q jealous-- it's a Go-Pro in waterproof housing surrounded by buoyant foam that secures painlessly to a shark’s fin with fasteners that dissolve in seawater.
When they dissolve completely, the camera floats to the surface for collection.
9 The Author Of Jaws Was The First Host Of Shark Week
Jaws was an original blockbuster, as its success helped to coin the term. It was the movie that propelled Steven Spielberg into fame, fortune, and unlimited Hollywood power.
Author Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel that Jaws was based on, was horrified at how violent people were against sharks after Jaws became a massive hit.
Benchley spent years after the movie came out trying to educate the public on sharks and advocate for their conservation.
It’s therefore only fitting that when Discovery’s Shark Week decided for the first time to have a host to introduce their programs, it was Peter Benchley who stepped up.
Benchley hosted Shark Week in 1994, and set a precedent for experts and celebrities hosting Shark Week.
8 Discovery Channel Shipped Over Six Million 3D Glasses Across The Country For Shark Week Uncaged
While 3D movies are common nowadays after the tremendous popularity of 2009’s Avatar, back in 2000, major movie studios hadn’t really taken a chance on 3D since, ironically, Jaws 3-D in 1983.
Not even the combined powers of Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett Jr. could save the movie from being a ham-fisted schlock fest.
However, documentary and specialty movies had quietly contributed to a 3D renaissance in the late 1980s and mid 1990s, with the IMAX format lending itself to immersive three-dimensional movies.
Discovery took a chance in 2000, ordering over six million pairs of 3D glasses for Shark Week Uncaged. The Shark Week-branded glasses were available at Discovery Channel stores and Lenscrafters.
7 Discovery Channel Hung A 446-Foot-Long Inflatable Great White Shark From Their Headquarters
In the spirit of Shark Week’s celebration of its big, powerful creatures of the deep, Discovery decided to go big or go home in 2006.
To promote Shark Week, the channel decided on a shark-related stunt that would make Renny Harlin blush. They hung massive inflatable Great White shark parts around their headquarters in Maryland, turning the building into a shark.
“Chompie,” as the inflatable creature was named, measured 446 feet long from nose to tail, and required blowers that constantly fed air into its fins, head, and tail mounted outside of Discovery’s Silver Spring, Maryland headquarters.
Ten blowers had to shoot 2000 cubic feet of air per minute into Chompie’s body in order to keep it from deflating.
6 People Were Outraged When The Discovery Channel Decided To Use A CGI Shark To "Race" Michael Phelps
Man vs. animal-- it’s the oldest fight in our species’ existence. It’s been the basis of some pretty incredible movies and TV shows, such as The Grey, Jaws, and Caddyshack.
So when Discovery hyped up a special that would show Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps racing a Great White shark, viewers were naturally ecstatic.
Phelps, who is arguably the fastest human alive in the water, was going to get the chance to go up against an ancient predator built for speed. How could it not be entertaining?
Imagine viewer’s disappointment when there turned out to be no shark.
The beast was computer-generated, with its speed calculated based on measurements and times from real Great Whites. Not even a stand-in for the shark was used.
Viewers were quick to voice their displeasure about the blatantly misleading contest.
5 No One Has Ever Been Able To Film Great White Sharks Mating
The Great White shark, also known as the Apex predator of the ocean, is one of the most feared creatures on Earth. It has a reputation as a "man eater" that can sense fear and terror.
In actuality, though, this creature is not at all a vicious animal.
Shark Week’s documentary programs have witnessed some remarkable firsts when it comes to the study of sharks, including the first footage of Great White sharks jumping out of the water in the 2001 Shark Week special, Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa.
Even with Shark Week’s budget, equipment, professional divers, and shark experts, they have failed to capture a fundamental act of nature that has also eluded scientists for centuries: Great White sharks mating.
Great White sharks are secretive creatures and are so dangerous that scientists have been trying to develop methods to actually observe their habits and life cycles for decades.
To date, no one, not even the camera crew of Shark Week, has observed the Great White shark making Tiny White sharks.
4 It Uses Cameras That Shoot Over 1,000 Frames Per Second
When you’re producing TV shows where soft, fleshy humans have to dive dangerously close to the ocean’s most fearsome predators to capture footage of them, every second of film counts.
In 2001, Discovery Channel decided to employ cutting-edge technology to maximize the footage that they could grab from the deep. That year, Discovery Channel began using Phantom cameras, which capture high-speed, high-definition footage at over 1,000 frames per second.
Thanks to the Phantom cameras, the crew are able to capture every microsecond of action.
The cameras enable the Shark Week crew to show incredible detail in every dangerous shot of sharks. They are also able to stretch out footage for much longer than it actually takes to film.
Since their implementation, the Phantom line of cameras has been used in the 2012 London Olympic Games and the NBA Finals.
3 The Showrunners Have A Distinct Set Of Elements They Use When Developing New Programming
Shark Week has evolved from a mere collection of shark-related documentary specials into a formidable brand with a unifying vision.
The question that Shark Week producers ask themselves whenever they develop new programming is: what would be the most fun?
From there, executive producer Brook Runnette explains that the Shark Week mantra includes a list of elements.
Such elements include: the shark is the star, don’t give viewers too much reason to worry, stay outside for the colors and summertime light, and always be out in the water or on the boat.
It’s a remarkably simple formula, but one that’s paid tremendous dividends to Discovery and has helped to establish Shark Week as the pop-culture juggernaut it is today.
2 It Partners With International Ocean Conservation Agencies To Fight Sharks' Lives From Being Claimed
A lot of controversy has surrounded Discovery based on how they present sharks and their behavior to their audiences.
The network has to tred a careful line between portraying the creates as the beautiful but dangerous and playing into their portrayal in pop culture as mindless, destructive machines.
One way that they try to offset accusations of demonizing sharks is partnering with organizations and non-profits that fight to conserve the planet’s ocean life and stop the fishing and hunting of sharks around the world.
The channel itself estimates that nearly 70 million sharks are hunted fatally each year for sport, food, or for their fins.
They partner with Oceana and National Aquarium to raise awareness.
1 The idea came out of an after-work brainstorming session
The Discovery Channel was created during an innocent age when network executives labored under the delusion that people might actually want to learn facts while watching TV.
So you can imagine how many rounds of drinks must have been necessary for one of those executives to say something like: "What about sharks... a whole week of ‘em.”
As it happens, that's pretty close to the origin story of Shark Week.
According to former Executive Producer Brook Runnette, Discovery Channel execs got together for a post-work brainstorming session over drinks and started talking about what could be really fun to produce for Discovery Channel.
By the end of it, Shark Week had been scribbled down on a napkin, and the rest was history.
Do you know any other behind-the-scenes facts about Discovery’s Shark Week? Let us know in the comments!