The Discovery Channel launched in 1985 and delivered its first annual Shark Week in 1988, which celebrated the iconic fish with a number of all-new programs. While the event was popular each year, the 2001 event and the premiere of Air Jaws took the tradition to an entirely new level, as the program captured footage of massive great white sharks breaching completely out of the water to eat seals off the coast of South Africa, delivering audiences jaw-dropping images of the impressive creatures. Directed by Jeff Kurr, the series became so popular that it has earned a number of follow-up specials, which includes the upcoming Air Jaws: Ultimate Breach Off.
In the new special, three teams of researchers return to one of the last hunting grounds for Air Jaws. They will use decoys, drones, and underwater cameras to count the number of breaches and collect data on hunting techniques to see if the shark population is rebounding.
ComicBook.com caught up with Kurr to talk about the legacy of the Air Jaws series and his love of sharks ahead of the premiere of Air Jaws: Ultimate Breach Off this Sunday, August 9th at 8 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel.
ComicBook.com: This could be the toughest question or it could be the easiest question, but do you have a favorite shark?
Jeff Kurr: I absolutely have a favorite shark. My favorite shark is Colossus, the great white shark, that breached, flew out of the water, about 10 feet away from me in South Africa as I was laying prone on a craft called the "seal sled." Definitely my favorite shark of all time.
Wow, I was just expecting a favorite species so having a specific shark is even more impressive.
Interestingly, great white sharks have personalities a lot like people do, so on occasion, we give them names, and usually it's befitting of some aspect of their personality that stands out. Colossus: big shark. Obviously it makes sense. We had one shark named "Rasta." He was pretty mellow, so you can see how that works. It's a little bit of fun for us out in the field when we're floating on the boat for day after day after day. We actually start naming the sharks, not sure if that's good or bad.
Yeah that sounds miserable to be on a boat in South Africa watching 20-foot sharks leap out of the ocean right near you for days on end.
Can't complain about that. Luckily, great whites seem to live in really cool places like New Zealand and South Africa. And here's a fun factoid for you that most people don't know. Wherever there's great white sharks, there's usually really good red wines. They're in New Zealand, great red wine there. Off the California coast. A lot of them up off of Northern California, near Napa Valley. And then South Africa, you've got a ton of great whites and you have incredible wine there. So I don't know what the correlation is, but I think there might be a show there someday.prevnext
In my experience, everyone loves sharks when they're kids and when some people get older, they lose that fascination with them. Plenty of other people, however, never lose that wonder of them. Do you remember when it was that your casual interest in sharks became more of a passion?
Well, I'm from the Jaws generation. I actually saw it in the theater when it came out and was completely floored and blown away, terrified by that movie. So I would say that I, initially, was scared to death of sharks. For years, I worked in entertainment, I worked in television news. I worked in a lot of other genres. Then an opportunity came along 30 years ago to get involved with his fledgling series on Discovery Channel called "Shark Week."
During the first couple of years when I was working on the series, I became reacquainted with the shark, but still had this Jaws thing hanging in the back of my head that they were man-eaters, killers, but it only takes a few dives with one of these animals to understand that there's a lot more to the shark than what's been portrayed in movies like Jaws. So my interest grew by just basically getting in the water with them and seeing how incredible they are, how smart they are, beautiful they are, streamlined, athletic, and it just grew from there. I never thought I'd be doing it 30 years in a row, but here we are.prevnext
Shark Week Revival
Obviously the first Air Jaws changed the face of Shark Week, but back to before it premiered, was there any nervousness on your part about making it? That you wouldn't capture this behavior you had heard about or that audiences wouldn't connect with it as strongly as they did?
Air Jaws was definitely brand-new territory. I'd never seen a great white breach before until a friend of mine sent me a video from South Africa, and I almost thought it was photoshopped. I go, "This can't be real." And he told me, "Yeah, it happens almost every day." So based on conversations with my friend Chris Fallows, I had a pretty good idea that we'd be able to capture that. I was very excited by it because I knew that once the world saw these images of these white sharks blasting out of the water, it would be a complete game-changer. And it really was. In 2001, there were even a lot of shark experts that questioned what we were filming. They couldn't believe it themselves, let alone the general public. Air Jaws really changed Shark Week.
This was a time when I think Shark Week really needed a boost back in 2001. I had executives from the network telling me, "We need something different, we need something new. We feel like we've done it all." Shark Week had been around since '88 and when I brought back the first images of these flying sharks and showed it to the network, they just couldn't believe it. So they built the whole Shark Week event in 2001 around Air Jaws. It was everywhere. I remember it was a big article in TV Guide, and it was promoted as "See Sharks Fly," and people couldn't believe it. So it really generated this new interest in sharks, it reignited Shark Week and started a momentum that's continuing today as Shark Week gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger every year.prevnext
Obviously the footage you captured speaks for itself, but what else do you think about making Air Jaws resulted in the series being so impactful?
I remember the first breach I saw, sitting on the back of the boat. I think we'd been towing for maybe 45 minutes. I had the camera on my shoulder, and was a little bit nervous, and had some butterflies. "Am I going to be able to capture this?" And then the shark came blasting out of the water, and right then and there I got goosebumps, and I knew that this was going to be huge from that point. And then it just snowballed. It just took off.
It was interesting because normally we shoot these shows and three weeks later they're on the air. This show was shot a year in advance of airing, and that has everything to do with the timing of the sharks. The sharks really don't start breaching until June. And Shark Week in 2000, was in July. So we didn't have time to get the show shot and back to Shark Week for the year 2000. We had an entire year to edit it and work on promotional stuff and that's a luxury we don't normally get, because Shark Week is 20-plus new shows every year. You're really on a deadline pace to go out and get these stories, but that was one episode where having an entire year made it so much better.
We actually had 70 days in the field to shoot that show. I was there June, July, and August of 2000 shooting it. It just made it such a better show, because we had things happen, like that dead whale showed up, and we had at least 27, 28 great whites feasting on that dead whale. And that was an unbelievable scene in Air Jaws to go along with the breaching, just the different behaviors we were able to capture. Having the luxury of 70 days on the water, you just don't get that anymore in today's television world. You've got to get it done in two or three weeks or you're not going to make your deadline. So that was one thing that was really unique about Air Jaws.prevnext
The name "Air Jaws" is obviously playful, while you've also worked on shows like Shark Feeding Frenzy, Jaws of the Pacific, and Return of the Great White Serial Killer. I love sharks and I know you love sharks, but as you mentioned, people have one perception of sharks as man-eaters, and that's not the reality. How do you find the balance of representing the sharks accurately while also enticing viewers with sensational titles?
Well, you can't judge a show by the title. People have to understand this is television, this is a competitive medium. We want people to watch and a mundane title is probably not going to get as many viewers as a more sensational title. And I caution people, when they see a title like "Great White Serial Killer," not to judge the program strictly by the title because there's a lot of great information and a lot of great science in there. I've done five of these serial killer episodes, and definitely people have had objections with the title. I hope that didn't preclude them from actually watching the show because there's a lot of great science in there.
The idea of that title actually came from a scientific paper from a friend of mine, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, a very respected shark scientist from the University of Miami, who worked with an FBI profiler and they discovered a lot of incredible similarities between the way white sharks hunt and the way serial killers stalk their prey. It's uncanny how they use the same methods of singling out a vulnerable prey as white sharks will single out seals that are eating in specific locations over and over again where they've had success. Human serial killers do the same thing. A lot of unbelievable similarities between human serial killers and great white sharks exist.
Now, everybody knows that a great white shark is just trying to eat. There's no malicious mal-intent there. There's nothing malicious about a white shark. They're just simply trying to eat. They're not trying to target humans, but it's fascinating to me that they have these patterns that they follow that are similar to what a serial killer does. And specifically, we based a lot of those serial killer shows on incidents at Surf Beach, California, where you had a fatal shark attack happening every two years in the exact same spot, which was, I thought, more than coincidence. And it turns out when we brought in a Dr. Michael Domeier to investigate what was happening there, that the white shark is on a two-year migration pattern. And why sharks, like a lot of animals, follow these patterns exactly. They come back to the exact same spots, in the exact same location, at the exact same time of the year and they're very consistent about it. And it's just unbelievable to me that they can navigate the ocean, they have that ability to find these spots and return to them again and again.
And unfortunately, in the case of Surf Beach, it resulted in two fatalities on humans. I could go on and on about that program. Another thing that was interesting about it was after the shows came out, people stopped going to that beach, especially in October when the shark attacks happened. And I think people learned from that episode that it's not a good idea to surf at Surf Beach in October every other year, because that's when the sharks return.prevnext
You've been able to accomplish a lot not with just the Air Jaws series but with a number of other programs, is there a bucket-list project you still hope to pull off one day? Possibly something you just couldn't find the right timing or schedule for?
I've been pretty lucky because I've been able to do almost every project that I've wanted to do over the years. Some of them take a few years to get rolling. A lot of times we'll have to go scout a location and see if it's really going to work, but I've been really fortunate. I guess, maybe, when you do it for 30 years and you have a little bit of success, the network has a lot of trust there and they think, "Well, if he says he can do it, he can do it." So we've been extremely lucky. And, I guess, maybe lucky in terms of having all the preparation, and having all our T's crossed and I's dotted and having a really good idea before we go out and film something.
So what's left after 30 years? Really, for me, it's about locations where we haven't filmed before and finding white sharks in these new locations. There's a couple of interesting spots that haven't been explored where, I know for a fact, you have white sharks, huge white sharks. I would like to mount an expedition to one of these places to go see if we can be the first ever to film white sharks in these areas and see how they are adapting to these areas. These areas, I'm purposely not describing in detail because, hey, there's a lot of competition out there now for shark films.
But there are a couple of spots where I think that people would be surprised to know that white sharks live. And it would be really interesting to get there and be the first ever to film them, because one of the things that drives me, after 30 years, is trying to be the first to do things. We did a show in 2019 called "Air Jaws Strikes Back," where we had white sharks hunting in this bay in South Africa at the base of a 200-foot cliff. You could watch the whole thing on the top of the cliff, look down and see them hunting seals. And no one had ever filmed there before or shot the stuff that we were able to shoot, which is basically a complete hunt of a cape fur seal by a white shark from beginning to end. You can see the whole thing from above. It was really fascinating stuff. So there's going to be a lot of people out there now filming in that area. And that's great, but it's nice to be the first, it's great to be a pioneer.prevnext
Since Shark Week and Air Jaws has such a wide range and is viewed by people who can't directly take action to help protect sharks, is there any advice you can give to people about what they can do to help protect sharks?
It's awesome that Shark Week has increased awareness, and having done it 30 years, I'm often asked how things have changed the perception of sharks. 30 years ago when I started, I think the prevailing attitude was the only good shark is a dead shark. And today, if you go out and catch a shark and hang it up on a dock and take a picture, you're going to get destroyed on social media. People hate that stuff, and people have actually been prosecuted. I know it happened in Florida a couple of years ago for purposely harming sharks and filming it, and being dumb enough to put it on social media. So there's definitely an awareness out there now. And that's really what we try to do at Shark Week is, just make people aware that sharks definitely have a lot of challenges. And that's really the theme of our new show for this year, Air Jaws: Ultimate Breach Off, that sharks have a lot of challenges.
In South Africa where they used to be dominant, now they're facing regional extinction in some places. So if you live in the Midwest and you're unable to get to the beach, or dive with sharks, like a lot of people are able to do, it's just great to be aware of what's going on and get involved with these conservation groups however you can, like Oceana, who Discovery partners with every year. Just be aware of what's going on out there, and speak up if you see things that are anti-shark.
We were able to help get finning banned in the United States due to Shark Week. Just increasing awareness is, obviously, the first step in anything, and Discovery's made sharks the most popular wild animal in the world, and that's not just on the coast. That's in the middle of the country, Canada, South America, everywhere. People love sharks, and a lot of that is due to Shark Week.0comments
Shark Week launches with Air Jaws: Ultimate Breach Off this Sunday, August 9th at 8 p.m. ET on the Discovery Channel.prev