When cameraman Randy Wimberg agreed to dive into the waters off Bikini Atoll in the Central Pacific, he wasn't worried about being attacked. Although Wimberg had signed up to shoot footage for Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" series of shows, he figured that wearing chain mail and sitting in a cage surrounded by aluminum mesh would protect him.
And anyway, grey reef sharks, common to those warm waters, are not known to dine regularly on humans.
But as Wimberg neared a feeding frenzy of several hundred sharks, one of them slipped into the cage, darting about like a six-foot-long bullet. The shark wanted to dive down to safety, but the cage had no bottom exit. So it thrashed and mashed until it could find a way out.
Luckily, the shark did not bite, but the incident provided dramatic footage for "Live From a Shark Cage," the kickoff program for "Shark Week '99," which features seven shows airing nightly from Sunday to Saturday.
The Discovery Channel documentary series, now in its 12th season, purports to shy from bloody attacks but still is not above a bit of nautical naughtiness, such as the incident with Wimberg.
Largely, the week's programming has worthy production values and attracts high-caliber names. "Live From a Shark Cage," for example, features the underwater camera work of Al Giddings, a veteran photographer who worked on "Titanic" and "The Abyss," and is hosted by Forrest Sawyer, a former ABC News anchor. Airing Monday is "Secret Life of Sharks," co-produced by the Discovery Channel and the BBC and narrated by the naturalist and filmmaker David Attenborough.
"The content has gotten more scientific" during the last few years, said Steve Burns, a vice president of production for the Discovery Channel. "Years ago, Discovery realized there was a lot of very useful science going on in marine biology, so we've got filmmakers and scientists who could help give us programming that could [provide] a very needed, solid view of the world of the shark."
Feeding off "Shark Week" is a lineup of shark-centric children's shows airing Sunday, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 15, from 9 a.m. to noon. It marks an expansion from last year's "Super Shark Sunday," aimed at children 6 to 14.
The part of "Shark Week" the network is hyping most is "Live From a Shark Cage," which takes place -- as the title suggests, live -- in the Marshall Islands. Bikini Atoll, part of that chain, was chosen as a site because of its largely unfished waters teeming with sharks and other sea life. Two peacetime atomic bomb tests were conducted there in 1946 and caused the evacuation of the islands' residents for half a century. One atomic test was conducted above water, the other below, to gauge how a fleet of ships would withstand the blasts.
Many of the scuttled ships, including the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and the Japanese battleship Nagato are lying on the floor of the atoll's lagoon, still intact, said Giddings who has been on location for more than a month. The sunken ships are now home to sharks, coral and other aquatic life.
"Life springs from death," said Giddings, 63, in a phone interview from offshore. "Who can imagine today it would be a pristine environment? In great detail, I see shark populations. They're here because all of the sea life is back, and it has not been fished commercially. Who would have thought atomic events would have triggered it, that it would have resulted 50 years [later] this being one of the most populated and unscathed ocean environments in the Pacific?"
He said that two tides a day for half a century have "diluted the radiation in the sea," and the land is "totally recovered." "The radiation in Bikini is probably less than the background radiation in New York City," he added. "It's not a health issue."
In part, the film will showcase the atoll as a prime destination to dive because of its clear and warm water. That's important as Bikini tries to salvage what's left of its economy by remaking itself into a divers' paradise. And divers need not fear massive shark attacks; the Discovery documentarians are going out of their way to attract sharks so they can capture on film their eating and attack techniques.
Although the filmmakers also hope to spy white tip and tiger sharks, the main focus is the grey reef shark, a 4- to 6-foot, 80- to 100-pound predator that dislikes anyone intruding on its territory. When it senses invaders, the grey reef arches its back, lowers its pectoral fins, raises its snout and swims side to side in a "threat posture analogous to a rattlesnake," said Michael deGruy, a documentary filmmaker who also will participate in the live program.
DeGruy, 47, knows first-hand about the grey reef, largely because he was attacked by one more than 20 years ago in the same waters to which he is returning.
DeGruy then was working for the Mid Pacific Research Lab run by the University of Hawaii -- where he was a student -- and funded by the Department of Energy. His mission was to monitor the radiation on land, but he also kept track of different wild- and fish life for visiting scientists.
One day, he said, he went in the lagoon with his pal Phil. "It was just loaded with big fish," deGruy recalled from his home base in Santa Barbara, Calif. "There were a couple of grey reef sharks around. I was taking pictures, saying, `Oh, this is great.' "
Then he saw a third grey reef assume the attack pose.
"My immediate reaction was to stop what I was doing and slowly back away and slowly look like a rock," deGruy said. But he noticed a scar on the shark and figured it was injured.
"I raised my camera and took a picture, and it ripped up my right arm and then my left scuba fin. Luckily, it grabbed my fin and not my thigh. I came to the surface, spewing blood every place. I swam with my left leg back to the boat. It didn't look promising," he said, laughing.
"Three-quarters of way back to the boat, I felt I might make it," he continued. Suddenly he wondered: " `Why am I not being eaten?' Then, it was like an epiphany. `Phil! They're eating Phil!' "
Phil, it turns out, was injured but not killed. But it took 11 operations during the next year-and-a-half to repair deGruy.
"I think I have a unique perspective of the danger of the grey reef, since I was [almost] killed by one," said deGruy, who has made or contributed to hundreds of natural history documentaries for the BBC and National Geographic. "I made a mistake. I was warned. They are fascinating and beautiful creatures."
He said his feelings about sharks also inform his thoughts about the attraction for viewers of "Shark Week" programming. "If anything will conjure up fear in humans, it's a situation when you're not a top dog anymore."
DeGruy said he also believes "Shark Week" has matured as an annual series, offering more than just a one-dimensional approach to sharks as nasty, brutish creatures thirsting for human blood and terrorizing beachgoers.
The series was a serendipitous idea suggested by Steven Cheskin, a former manager of program scheduling for Discovery and now the vice president of programming for The Learning Channel.
Cheskin, 40, said he was invited at the last minute to an off-site management retreat where people were thinking about programming ideas to bring attention to the network, then just two years old.
Cheskin recalled that John S. Hendricks, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of Discovery Communications Inc., said "the bigger the animal or sharper the teeth, the higher the ratings."
So Cheskin suggested "Shark Week." "John immediately jumped to it, said, `That's it, that's what were going to do.' "
Cheskin said those first few years featured a lot of acquired shark programming that focused on the dangers of the shark. But with expanding viewership, the network started to co-produce the documentaries.
Discovery's Burns, who now oversees "Shark Week," said the 10th anniversary year, 1997, drew 30 million viewers during the week, making it among the most watched Discovery programs and its biggest-hyped summer fare.
Burns added that new and different shark programming is not hard to find. "There are 350 species of sharks, and we commonly hear about five of them."
For its program-packaging prowess, Discovery's "Shark Week" was inducted July 19 into the Hall of Fame of the Alexandria-based Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing.
"They basically took what at the time was standard Discovery programming, they repackaged it, they repromoted it into something new and exciting and extended the brand into merchandising and home video," said Carolyn Blanco-Losada, who oversees the awards.
"They totally are playing upon America's fascination with this creature," Blanco-Losada said. "It's scary and kind of invigorating, and who doesn't remember the first time they saw `Jaws?' "
Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Turn on the TV
"Shark Week '99" is among Discovery Channel's most popular annual series and focuses on the science of the shark as well as the creature's undeniable potential to trigger alarm. This 12th season features several shark-centric premieres, but a few -- "Hammerheads" and "Prehistoric Sharks" -- are repeats from previous years.
The lineup this week:
Sunday, 9 to 11 p.m.: "Live From a Shark Cage," showing live footage from Bikini Atoll, hosted by Forrest Sawyer.
Monday, 9 to 10 p.m.: "Secret Life of Sharks," an overview of many varieties of sharks and a study of their behavior, narrated by David Attenborough.
Tuesday, 9 to 10 p.m.: "Big Tooth: Dead or Alive," about Megalodon, a prehistoric 50-foot-long shark.
Wednesday, 9 to 10 p.m.: "Sharks of the Deep Blue," a study of the white-tip and bull sharks, narrated by Malcolm McDowell.
Thursday, 9 to 10 p.m.: "Prehistoric Sharks," which uses computer animation and fossils to show what modern-day sharks' ancestors resembled.
Friday, 9 to 10 p.m.: "Sharks in a Desert Sea," examining the Baja California region for great whites.
Saturday, 9 to 10 p.m.: "Hammerheads: Nomads of the Sea," exploring that variety of hammer-snouted predators.