Discovery’s 27th Annual Shark Week officially kicks off Sunday, Aug. 10 with the premiere of Air Jaws: Fin of Fury (8 p.m. ET). Veteran filmmaker Jeff Kurr led his team on a two-year hunt for Colossus, the aggressive “mega-shark” with a deformed dorsal fin he famously captured breaching at Seal Island, South Africa, in 2011. Here’s a sneak peek of two of the hour’s most tense moments, with commentary from Kurr.
Moment No. 1: Local shark wrangler Dickie Chivell boards “Parthenope” to aid the search in South Africa.
To lure the massive male Colossus from the deep, Kurr and his frequent collaborator Chris Fallows agree to test the 14-foot female shark decoy created by the enthusiastic Chivell. They tow Parthenope on the surface behind the boat—while Chivell lies on top of it to create her swimming motion.
EW: What was going through your head when Dickie first pitched this idea?
KURR: I wasn’t really sure that Parthenope would even float at first. I have this rule of thumb: I like to be pretty high out of the water when I’m dealing with great white sharks. Dickie thought it was okay to be right there on the surface with the sharks. He was basically swimming with them because there was really nothing in between him and the sharks. He was on this tiny craft, which offered a little bit of protection but not a whole lot, in the name of research and discovery to try to find Colossus. I commend him for that. We couldn’t have had a better guy piloting Parthenope because Dickie has literally grown up with sharks, living in South Africa. He takes tourists out every day to see these animals. He’s an incredible water guy and diver. He’s very qualified to do what he did.
But how nervous were you?
I was incredibly nervous watching Dickie. In fact, I had a hold on Parthenope [by] a thin little line there. It didn’t make it in the show, but that line actually broke once, and he floated about 300 feet behind our boat all by himself with the sharks, so we had to go retrieve him. But he kept his cool the whole time. The sharks were really, really interested in it. In fact, they had bitten it a couple of times when Parthenope was floating alone by herself. I found the difference was once Dickie was on Parthenope, the sharks knew he was on there. That’s how smart these guys are: They actually knew that there was somebody piloting Parthenope, and that was the point of having a guy on there to pilot—to make it move like a real shark. So they were a lot more cautious when they sensed a human being was piloting our shark decoy.
Why do you think that is?
In general, they’re cautious predators. That’s how they survived a million years, because they don’t just rush in and attack things that might bite them back. They were very hesitant once Parthenope started moving, which was an interesting sidebar to our story: They seemed less likely to approach something that was moving in the water than something that was stationary. When Dickie gets on, all of a sudden they back off a little bit—but it was just enough of a window for us to pull all the sharks in the area up to the surface, examine them, ID them, and determine no Colossus in that area.
I love how at one point, you guys tell Dickie, “Don’t worry—yet.” Is there a code amongst people in your field for when s–t’s about to hit the fan?
There’s always a little bit of gallows humor going on, working with an animal that’s big enough to take you out, but we do understand enough about the behavior of these animals where we can judge them individually. So we were looking at individual sharks to determine which ones might be a problem for Parthenope and for Dickie, and which ones were safe to stay in the water with. For the most part, the sharks that we had around the boat were pretty mellow. We could tell that just from watching their body language, basically. How they approach Parthenope, how they interacted with each other. That was a really interesting part for me, seeing which signals these sharks were giving off.
Moment No. 2: In New Zealand, Fallows descends in the Kurr-designed WASP (Water Armor Shark Protection) and comes under attack by a gang of great whites.
EW: Tell me about designing the WASP.
KURR: Last year, when I was in New Zealand filming Great White Serial Killer, I was in the cage and I kept looking down at the bottom of the ocean, the sea floor, and seeing all these sharks down there, and wondering, what are all those sharks doing down there. A lot of them wouldn’t even come up to the boat. So I got to thinking we need to come up with a way to explore the bottom without risk of injury because the sharks in New Zealand are extremely aggressive, and they seem to have no fear of boats or humans. When I came back from New Zealand, I started drawing sketches, and I wanted to do something that looked maybe like a Transformer or some sort of a robot that could be a one-man operation where a person could get in it, pick it up, move it around, and cover a lot of ground. Plus, it had to be safe. That’s where the idea for WASP came from.
How does one test it?
When we first got to New Zealand, we took it out in places where we knew there wouldn’t be any sharks just to make sure that it would sink properly and it would react properly underwater: We could actually drop it down and pick it back up again, which is very important—you always want to be able to retrieve it when there’s somebody in it. Once we worked out all the kinks, we took it where all the sharks were. Although Chris Fallows was pretty hesitant at first because I’ve put him in some pretty wacky contraptions over the years: the shark tube, the submarine, paddleboarding his first day on a paddleboard with white sharks. Once he got in the WASP, he loved it. He didn’t want to come out. He thought it was the greatest thing ever for exploring the white sharks’ underwater world. That’s something that very few people have been able to do just because it’s not that safe. I think WASP worked out incredibly well because it allowed Chris to walk along the bottom, open up the hatch, pull out his camera, get ID shots, and then move to the next spot. The only thing about the WASP that was a little troublesome was the colors it was painted: It was painted black, silver and yum yum yellow, which was a little bit by design because sharks really seem to like the yum yum yellow. I think they demonstrated that in our WASP sequence.
I kept wondering, what if Chris tips over and he can’t get up?
He did tip over a bunch of times. In fact, there’s another scene—all the best scenes never make it in the show—but he actually got knocked over by a couple sharks working in tandem. He was knocked over like a bowling pin, but we had designed sort of a self-righting system in WASP where it would right itself if it got knocked over. He was actually laughing about it when he came back up. He said he felt like a bowling pin because the sharks kept knocking him over. That was the cool thing about WASP: You didn’t have to worry about it. In a way, he was on his own down there, but obviously we had eyes on him, safety divers. He was able to get away from the boat, and once he did, the sharks kind of knew that, so they took advantage of that a little bit. I’m sure they’ll take WASP out again to explore areas where white sharks hang out. Personally, I don’t think getting out of the cage with a great white shark is the greatest idea. In New Zealand, there’s no way I would want to do that.
I feel like most of the time on Shark Week, we see great whites on their own because people get the breaching shots everyone loves. But seeing them in a gang is amazing. How much does that up the anxiety when you’re filming? Especially when communication goes out with Chris?
I’ve never seen a higher concentration of great white sharks in one spot in my life. There’s shots in this program where you see four great white sharks in one frame—all big ones, all males. You just don’t see that anywhere else in the world. In South Africa, you’ll see the odd shark here and there. Off Guadalupe Island, you’ll see one shark, maybe two. Here in New Zealand, you have three or four sharks, almost as if they’re working in tandem to investigate and possibly figure out how to prey on WASP. To me, it was fascinating that they seemed to be working in a loosely associated group to achieve some sort of goal. You look at things like that, and you can learn a lot about the animal. They’re smart enough to communicate with each other, and I don’t think people knew that just a few years ago—that white sharks have this sort of communication within themselves on how they’re going to approach a possible prey source.
SPOILER ALERT! I won’t say how you ultimately find Colossus, but where does that day rank in your career?
I was very happy—happy and relieved. Really, finding one shark is like trying to find a needle in the haystack. We were counting on the fact that these sharks always seem to return to the same places. They always seem to come back to their favorite hunting grounds. These sharks face a lot of dangers on the open sea, mostly from people and commercial fishing, so it proved to me that he was still alive and well. In fact, after the show was finished being edited, a guy from South Africa sent me this beautiful photo of Colossus with the sun setting behind him. That dorsal fin, you could tell it was him right away. I just thought that’s great—he’s still there, still hanging around. If you go down there now, hop on a plane, you’ll probably see Colossus. He came back after a little journey somewhere, who knows where he goes, but he’s back, he’s alive, and he’s well. I think he’s the most famous great white shark in the world right now.