'Shark Week' takes bite out of Dog Day doldrums

Discovery Channel to air documentary series for seven nights, beginning today

Give the folks at the Discovery Channel credit for coming up with a surefire way to put the bite on a jaded TV audience every summer. It's called "Shark Week."

Here we are in the middle of the Dog Days and many of us have all but stopped thinking about our favorite TV shows. We're thinking about going to the beach.

The problem with thinking too much about the beach, though, is thinking about sharks. Sharks with terrifying blue dorsal fins poised just above the water line. Sharks flashing smiles full of teeth while they hum the theme music from "Jaws" and wait for the first sucker to stick his or her feet in the water.

This is where the Discovery Channel comes in. Every August, the cable network's "Shark Week" offers an up-close-and-personal look at those masters of a briny universe. In this, its 13th year, "Shark Week" gets even closer up, with "Shark Week Uncaged," in which host Nigel Marven and others go swimming with the sharks.

Really swimming. No cage, like actor Richard Dreyfuss used in "Jaws." Not even a protective wet suit, weather allowing. Sometimes the swimmers offer jaunty high fives, hand to fin as it were, with the sharks themselves.

All of which is intended to show that sharks really aren't so bad after all � that they are more misunderstood than monstrous.

"Our hope is that we can actually domesticate 'Jaws' and explain that this is a very intelligent animal," says Erich Ritter, an expert in shark behavior at New York's Hofstra University.

"The great white shark, especially, is a very intelligent animal," Ritter says in a phone interview from Florida, where he has been busy diving.

"They just don't look that cuddly," he adds with deadpan understatement.

Although they may look ferocious, only a handful of the approximately 350 known species of sharks pose a danger to people, according to experts.

Narrating one of the seven hour-long programs being broadcast today through Aug. 20 (check local listings for times), Marven says you have a better chance of being trampled by an elephant than of being eaten by a shark.

Even by a Greenland shark, a species so large that an entire reindeer was once found inside the stomach of one.

Sharks don't eat people, the experts say, except occasionally by mistake. They prefer blubbery sea lions and seals, which provide the high-fat diet sharks need.

So if a diver doesn't act like a struggling fish, Ritter says, the shark probably won't bother him. Ritter should know; he also swims with sharks.

"Some people think we're nuts," he acknowledges, but says he's never been so much as nipped. He attributes that in large part to understanding shark body language.

For those who don't understand shark body language, and who don't want to learn it face-to-face from a 20-foot great white, "Shark Week Uncaged" is the next best thing.

Lavishly filmed at sites from South Africa to Australia to Greenland, it puts the viewer right next to sharks of all shapes and sizes. We watch as divers even hand out chunks of fish to hungry sharks that, like trained show dogs, are careful not to bite the hands that feed them.

In one episode, viewers also can watch three-dimensional sharks, provided they stop at a LensCrafters store or other participating business first and pick up a set of 3-D glasses.

While the "Sharks 3-D" episode isn't as compelling as, say, "Giants: Sharks," in which Marven at one point grabs hold of a fin and hitches a ride, it is amusing to see a great white swim out of the television from time to time.


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