Shark Week Shark Week

In July of 1916, a great white shark terrorized the New Jersey shore, devouring all or parts of five swimmers (four died) and inspiring the plot for a future film that would thrill and terrify the world. The movie is Steven Spielberg's 1975 summer classic Jaws, in which Richard Dreyfuss stars as Matt Hooper, a marine biologist on the trail of a murderous monster. Who better, then, to narrate Ocean of Fear: The Worst Shark Attack Ever, which kicks off Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week with a two-hour premiere on Sunday, July 29 (at 9 pm/ET)?

Yes, it's time to whip your trembling tootsies out of the surf again. The most jaw-dropping week of summer television, Shark Week, turns 20 this year, and to mark the occasion, Discovery is offering an all-out programming assault worthy of a great white: eight outrageous new premieres in prime time and, for the first time, a variety of shark documentaries airing back-to-back from 9 am to 3 am daily.

How has Shark Week survived for two decades? Because creatures like the great white never go out of style. Not only was it reality TV before "You're fired!" became part of our vocabulary, but it appeals to the religious (a great white may have swallowed Jonah) and feminists alike (shark females are bigger and more powerful). A great white cannot be taught or tamed, so it's reassuring in a retro-thriller kind of way.

And it makes great TV. Ocean of Fear: The Worst Shark Attack Ever, the documentary that jump-starts Shark Week, shows just what havoc the creatures are capable of wreaking. It tells the true-life tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, a military ship sunk by torpedoes in the Philippine Sea on July 30, 1945. Eight hundred sailors bobbed helplessly in the water for four days, prey to hunger, dehydration, madness, and hundreds of vicious, circling sharks. The horrific incident has spawned countless books and TV shows, but Ocean of Fear purports to offer something new: the first scientific investigation of the attacks. University of Florida shark-attack expert George Burgess opens the 62-year-old attack file, while survivors give first-person accounts and real sharks are used to reenact the nightmare for television.

And that's only the beginning. Other highlights of the week include Top 5 Eaten Alive, Shark Feeding Frenzy, Shark Tribe (about shark whisperers in New Guinea), Sharks: A Family Affair (about a South African scientist who's passed his love of sharks on to his children Storm, Cruise and Wilder) and Sharkman (about a man on a quixotic quest to hypnotize the great white shark).

It may only be on the small screen, but it's powerful stuff. Enough, anyway, to keep well-fed, seal-shaped humans in front of the tube rather than on the inner tube for a week, if not the rest of the summer.

Michael Capuzzo is the author of the best-seller Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence (shop, the saga of the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks that inspired the plot of Jaws.

Let our Online Video Guide reel in some choice video "bites" from Shark Week.

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