Naturalist, writer, filmmaker and producer of some of the most popular and highest-rated Shark Week specials since 1991 including “Great White Invasion” and the “Air Jaws” series, shark expert Jeff Kurr is back with a new special, “Great White Serial Killer,” airing Aug. 7 on Discovery. He gives us a sneak preview, and explains why his boyhood terror turned into a lifelong fascination with sharks.
MNN: When, how and why did you first become interested in sharks?
Jeff Kurr: I first became interested in sharks after seeing the movie "Jaws" in the theater when I was a kid. It left me completely traumatized. I was scared to death of sharks! I guess it's pretty ironic that I've made my living the past 23 years filming animals I was once terrified would attack me if I even set foot in the ocean. Now, after making 30 or so shark documentaries I've become obsessed with telling shark stories and sharing my passion for these animals. But, it only took one dive for me to figure out that sharks are not bloodthirsty man-eaters.
Why are they so fascinating?
In part because no other animal in the history of this planet is so perfectly evolved and so well adapted to its environment. In many ways, they are superior to us, and more advanced. They have better hearing, better eyesight, a better sense of smell, built-in GPS, are disease-resistant, and have survived 400 million years. No other family of animals can compare! Another part of this fascination with sharks I'm sure is rooted in fear. They are quite capable of killing us in waist deep water off any beach in the world. It's extremely rare, but it does happen and that's pretty scary. We love our monsters, and sharks are the last real "monsters" left in a world that's been "sanitized for our protection."
Are sharks misunderstood?
I think they are still generally misunderstood, but not like they were a generation ago. I think Shark Week has gone a long way in debunking the myths surrounding sharks and inspiring people to learn more about them. The most important thing Shark Week has done is to get people talking about sharks. People love sharks now — and they love Shark Week!
Tell us a few things we don't know about them, and that we'll learn about during Shark Week.
There are so many things we don't know about sharks. Great whites are probably the most high-profile, most studied of all sharks, yet we've never observed them mating, giving birth nor do we fully understand why they migrate to offshore aggregation points. We don't know how long they live. But every year it seems like we uncover another piece of the puzzle. This year, in my special "Great White Serial Killer," we'll learn that these animals have some pretty distinct patterns that bring them back to the same beaches again and again, sometimes with fatal results (for humans). Understanding those patterns could actually save someone's life.
What makes for a great Shark Week special? Is it a challenge to find new angles every year?
I think a great Shark Week special must have several ingredients. The first is a dash of eye candy. The footage must be spectacular. The second is new behavior, which is hard to get, but something I'm always after. And third, it must have a great story with compelling human characters, which gives the audience something to relate to. It's always hard to complete that recipe, but we've been pretty successful through lots of research and constantly talking to shark experts worldwide. They're on the water every day and are the best resource for story ideas.
How has new technology enabled you to bring new perspectives to the programs?
Technology is crucial in carrying Shark Week to new heights. I'm all about using high-tech methods to film sharks, using things like remote-controlled helicopters, robotic seals, submarines, underwater surveillance cameras, night vision, thermal imaging and super slow-motion cameras to capture sharks as no one else ever has. This, to me, gives an entirely new perspective to an animal that some might think is "over-filmed." If you believe that, you're just not paying attention.
Which of your shark encounters were particularly memorable? Have you had any scary close calls?
I guess the most "scared" I've ever been was riding on the "Seal Sled" for 2012's "Air Jaws Apocalypse." Basically, I was towed behind a boat on a tiny tin-metal raft through the most notorious great white hunting grounds on the planet. My objective was to get the closer to a flying great white shark than any other human, and to achieve that I towed a seal decoy about 10 feet behind the Seal Sled. If you've seen the show, a 14-foot great white named Colossus comes flying out of the water, with the decoy in his mouth, while flying right over the top of me. Had he landed on me, I wouldn't be here now. Or, had he missed the decoy and hit the Seal Sled, I would have likely been knocked out, or knocked into the water and eaten. Anything for a good shot I guess!
You have 8-year-old twins. What have you taught them about sharks? Are they as interested as you are?
Frankly, my kids are only mildly interested in sharks. My son loves baseball and my daughter is into horses. I think when they get a bit older, they'll realize their dad has the coolest job ever!
Are you concerned/involved with shark conservation at all? What do you do to help?
I'm very concerned about the state of sharks around the globe. Commercial fishing is the biggest issue. We've all heard about the 70 million or so sharks that are slaughtered each year, primarily for their fins. Sport fishing is an issue to a much lesser degree. Recently, a world record 1,300-pound mako was caught and killed by some "sport" fishermen off California. It's a shame they couldn't have released that animal because it may be one of the last of its kind. Kind of like chopping down a 2,000-year-old giant sequoia tree.
Talk about "Great White Serial Killer.” What can we expect to see and what's exciting about it?
I've made over 30 Shark Week documentaries since 1991, and this has to be the most compelling story I've ever come across: Identical fatal shark attacks at the same beach exactly two years apart, by what may be the same shark. We can't make this "serial killer" claim frivolously. Forensic evidence tells us in both attacks the shark was about the same size (over 16 feet) and recent tracking data shows great white sharks (females) migrate past this beach every two years, like clockwork. And best of all, a recent scientific research paper found startling similarities between great whites and human serial killers. Of course, the big difference is motivation. The human is killing for some kind of thrill; the shark just wants to eat. Best of all, we discover that a toxin in the water may be attracting sharks to this beach. You couldn't make this stuff up.
Are you involved with any other Shark Week programs this year?
Yes, Discovery is dedicating a one-hour special to "Air Jaws," a show that I created and produced back in 2001, that has spawned three sequels. These have been some of the most popular specials in the history of Shark Week and it's become the Shark Week franchise. The cool thing is, the viewers will get a "behind the scenes" look at how we've captured these flying great white and just how dangerous and difficult it is working with 2,000-pound predators flying out of the water at 25 miles per hour. I'm very excited for this one!
What's next for you?
Well, I see a lot of sharks in my future. And it appears that Shark Week is, after 26 years, more popular than ever. I'm still passionate about sharks, and I'll continue with Shark Week as long as I feel that I have great stories to tell.
Are you already planning for 2014's Shark Week?
Absolutely! In fact, we've already starting shooting the next "Air Jaws" special, "Finding Colossus." Colossus is the 14-footer that flew over me as I rode on the "Seal Sled." He also destroyed most of our cameras during the filming of "Air Jaws Apocalypse." But strangely, he disappeared from his favorite hunting grounds and we're out to find him. In typical "Air Jaws" fashion, we're going to give the viewers quite a nail-biting thrill ride as we search for him. I'm all about raising the bar in these specials, and I'm pretty sure our viewers won't be disappointed!
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