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Plumbing the Depths of Intrigue

By Susan C. Young
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 2, 2009

No one wants to be a shark's chum, but viewers are more than eager to kick back for a week every summer to dive into shark lore.

Shark Week, which begins Sunday on the Discovery Channel, features six new documentaries. Discovery shark adviser Andy Dehart acknowledges that Shark Week has been known to sensationalize the animals -- even this current crop includes a new film about the 1916 attacks that inspired "Jaws." But he said the yearly marketing campaign has helped change people's views on sharks.

"People have always been fascinated by sharks, but instead of hating them they now respect them," said Dehart, who also is director of biological programs at the National Aquarium in the District. "I think Shark Week has a lot to do with that paradigm shift. People know they aren't just mindless eating machines."

Dehart and Shark Week photographer Jeff Kurr hope public awareness will result in better shark conservation efforts.

"I grew up in the 'Jaws' generation and was afraid of sharks, because I thought I would be attacked," Kurr said. "But I discovered sharks tend to keep their distance from people. Getting to see them underwater is the biggest thrill you can have. They are like fighter planes. Just a flick of the tail and they are off like a rocket. But I've never come close to being hurt by any of them."

After more than two decades of churning out shark stories, Kurr said it gets more difficult each year to come up with a dynamic new angle. When he first filmed the iconic image of a great white jumping out of the sea to grab a seal in "Air Jaws: Sharks of South Africa," released in 2001, it was something new and exciting that few had ever seen.

"Now, everyone is out there shooting sharks," Kurr said. "You have to dig to find interesting stories that have never been done or seen. A lot of the new ideas for shark documentaries come from advancements in technologies."

And that's where Thursday's new documentary "Shark After Dark" comes into play. Scientists know sharks can be active and quite aggressive during the day, Dehart said, but they know very little about what the predators do at night.

Armed with infrared heat-sensing cameras and new night-vision technology, divers captured that behavior on film.

"We need no light at all to shoot them in their hunting grounds, so we have footage you could never imagine having even a short time ago," Kurr said. "With some of this new technology, like refined high definition, we can redo stories in a whole new way. The detail is incredible."

The documentary "Blue Water, White Death," released in 1971, was one of the first documentaries on sharks. Just getting a shark on film was a major victory back then, Kurr said. He marvels at what he can shoot with the new gear, yet it all comes down to being able to capture that special moment.

"You are getting hit by 20-foot waves; sharks are splashing. It is terrible on gear. We flood the cameras all the time, and salt water and electronics don't mix. You are putting a $100,000 camera into a situation where it can be ruined," Kurr said. But "the behaviors you capture, you might not ever get again."

ONLINE: Chat live with shark expert Andy Dehart Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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