Discovery kicks off its 24th annual Shark Week on Sunday, July 31, with the all-new special Great White Invasion (9 p.m. ET). It’s a fascinating examination of why great white sharks are swimming closer to shore in Southern California, Australia, and South Africa, and who’s really at risk – us or them. (Spoiler: It’s them.) Jeff Kurr, a filmmaker who’s been a part of Shark Week since 1991, noticed the phenomenon while shooting last year’s Ultimate Air Jaws special with wildlife photographer Chris Fallows. In Great White Invasion, Fallows wants to show people that great whites won’t always just attack for no reason. It leads to two of the most mind-blowing minutes in Shark Week history.
“We decided that it would be a good idea for [Fallows] to paddleboard with these 14-foot giant sharks in shallow water,” Kurr says. “I was a little bit nervous watching it because he’d only been paddleboarding a couple of days, and I saw him stumbling a little bit when he first started out.” You can watch the clip below:
"He relies on his expertise, 20 years of working with [great] white sharks, and was extremely confident about it -- he knew the sharks wouldn't knock him off the board. That's what I was hoping for, " Kurr jokes. "We did some serious last-minute training on that paddleboard to make that scene come off. But it was with a point, it wasn't to be a stunt. It was for him to again show that the white sharks are not these crazy killing machines that are gonna attack everything. People are paddleboarding with them all the time and they don't even know it. We saw that from helicopters looking down along the coastline. Just fly over the beach in Malibu any July day and look down, and you're gonna see white sharks with the people. People are happily paddleboarding and white sharks are going right under their boards. If white sharks wanted to come in close to shore and kill us all, they could do it very easily because they're there, and they're there in increasing numbers. But they don't. They're there for other reasons. They use Southern California waters as a nursery to raise their pups because it's warm, and there's a lot of little fish for them to eat. They come in close to warm up, scientists think, maybe to get sun-tanned. They get darker, I've seen it."
So how is Fallows able to paddleboard safely with great whites when we know others have been attacked or bumped? For starters, he only did it after studying the shark's body language and seeing that it was more in the mood for a spa day than a stealth mission. "It shows you how curious they are. They see something like that in their territory, and they have to check it out. They're predators. That's what they do. You can see the shark looking up at him, but I think the shark probably thought, 'This is something that I really don't have any interest in eating, and I'm just gonna look at it and see what it is and hang around. Maybe if it bleeds, I might want to bite it.' It could have bitten the board in two, but it didn't," Kurr says. "When you're talking about sharks breaching [in South Africa], the shark has made a full commitment to kill whatever it sees on the surface. That's why it gets that speed going. But in the case of people getting bumped off surfboards in Southern California -- it happens a lot and you don't really hear about it -- that's just the shark not sure what it's getting into. They don't have hands, they can't reach out and touch things. So they will bump it or bite something and determine this is not what I want to eat. Ninety-nine times out of 100, they leave people alone. But it's always harrowing for people to have that experience."
Kurr is already looking forward to next year's 25th anniversary of Shark Week, and recently returned from South Africa, where he's filming a fourth Air Jaws installment. For 2010's Ultimate Air Jaws, they built a floating cage that Fallows rode as it was towed behind a boat so he could capture a great white breaching to attack a decoy that tailed behind him. For Air Jaws 2012, it’s Kurr who got in the seal sled. “I’m the second person who’s done it and survived. We had just a humongous shark breach about 10 or 12 feet away from me,” he says. That’s the picture above. “Here I am, [saying], ‘Chris, why don’t you get in there and paddleboard?’ ‘Chris, kayak with the sharks, it will be fine.’ I had to put my money where my mouth was and say I’ll do this.”
The Air Jaws specials, the latest of which was just nominated for a cinematography Emmy, are perhaps those most associated with Shark Week. “People didn’t get that white sharks could actually fly. Most people’s perception of white sharks was they’re slow, lumbering, not that intelligent. To see a shark go from 0 to 25 miles an hour in two seconds and fly 15 feet in the air and do back flips and spins and outsmart a seal and catch it on the fly – that really changed the way people think about great whites,” Kurr says.
If hearing that great whites are moving closer to shore changes the way you think about getting into the ocean, don’t. Just understand it’s a part of nature. “That’s the cool thing about the ocean: One step into the ocean, you’re in the wilderness,” says Kurr. “I don’t care where it is because there could be a tiger shark there, a great white, a bull shark. People have to know that it’s not really a swimming pool. How do you protect yourself? You watch Shark Week and get educated about sharks, and you understand that there might be sharks there, I should be cautious – not panicked, but cautious.”
But just out of curiosity, is it still the nose and gills we go for if we’re attacked? ”If it came to that, it might be a little too late,” he says. “The shark is so fast. I think the most important thing to do if you ever encounter a shark is just to face it. Don’t try to swim away from it, just face it off, maybe back away from it. I’ve found that sharks, if they get that you see them, they’re not gonna try to rush in and attack you because so much of their success is ambush and surprise. If they think, ‘Ah, the jig is up, the guy saw me,’ they might look at you, but they’re probably gonna swim away. You look at most of the horrific attacks that do happen, and they are very rare, they never see the shark coming. Most attack victims never see the shark. Even after it’s over, they’re like, ‘I think I got hit by a shark. My leg was torn off, but I don’t know what hit me.’ So if you see a shark, that’s a good thing. Because you’re probably not gonna be attacked.” That’s comforting.