Sharks are ready to consume our TV sets … again.
The 33rd Shark Week will be July 11-18 on Discovery and Discovery+. Spanning that and beyond is the eighth SharkFest, July 5-31 on National Geographic, Aug. 2-13 on Nat Geo Wild, and on Disney+.
Along the way, we’ll hear ominous things. A shark, one victim says, is “a submarine with teeth.” And it’s a big, fast one at that. “The first great white shark I saw was like a freight train,” said Valerie Taylor (shown here in the 1970s), who has spent generations surrounded by sharks.
But we’ll also hear actor Chris Hemsworth praise “the serene beauty of this magnificent creature.”
And we’ll hear Paige Winter – a zesty teen with vibrant hair (red on one side, blue on the other) – discuss beach life. “I always have a good time,” she says, “except that one time.”
That was the time she lost a leg and lost some functions in a hand. Her dad (a paramedic, firefighter and ex-Marine) and others barely saved her life. It was a fluke, she says, and she bears no ill-will.
That seems to be a prevailing view, typified by Taylor. “Valerie was the one who felt the water was their domain and you could play with them,” a friend, Jeremiah Sullivan, says in one of the films.
Now she’s a centerpiece in two of the three films we’re quoting from here. One (9 p.m. July 5, National Geographic) is by “Thor” star Hemsworth. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who knows sharks as well as Valerie,” he says, adding: “I grew up watching Valerie with sharks, and at 85, she still cares deeply about the ocean.”
Yes, at 85 she still dives with Hemsworth and others. It’s been an epic life, outlined in “Playing With Sharks” (streaming starts July 23, Disney+).
She grew up (as Valerie Heighes) in Sydney and in New Zealand, contracted polio at 12 and left school at 15. She was 21, living in an Australian beach town, when she began spear-fishing.
She quickly became the national champion. “She was quite lethal,” Sullivan said.
At 28, she married another champion, Ron Taylor. Gradually, she shifted from killing fish (and one shark, which she now regrets) to making underwater films – which made her a media event.
Back then, shark waters were a guy world. But here was was a blonde in red or pink swimwear; she looked like Gidget, but she was swimming with sharks.
“She was a revelation to me,” said Wendy Benchley. And to Benchley’s late husband: “Valerie and Ron were definitely Peter’s idols.”
Peter Benchley had been a travel writer, a reporter and a Lyndon Johnson speechwriter. Living on the East Coast, he’d heard tales of giant sharks; his novel had one terrorizing a coastal community.
“Jaws” became a best-seller in 1974, then a hit Steven Spielberg movie the next year. The Taylors did underwater photography for the film, which audiences savored and sea-lovers deplored. “I was very devastated,” said Jean-Michel Cousteau, a second-generation oceanographer.
In interviews, Valerie Taylor argued that this was mere fiction: “We don’t walk around being afraid of King Kong.” She and her husband (who died in 2012) became maritime activists; so did Benchley.
But others saw “Jaws” as real. They avoided beaches, hated sharks, favored nets and hunting and “slaughter trips.” There were more shark films, then Shark Week and SharkFest.
The TV projects have included science and a love of sea creatures; Benchley even hosted the 1994 “Shark Week.” But they also have had vivid accounts of sharks’ misdeeds.
This year’s “SharkFest” includes six new hours of “When Sharks Attack,” six new hours of “Shark Attack Files,” ample reruns and other new films, including one on Paige Winter (10 p.m. July 12).
That film depicts the horror of the 2019 attack on a North Carolina beach and her slow recovery. But it also shows Winters’ buoyant spirit, amid comments on how rare this is. “Being attacked by a shark is not something you should be that worried about,” biologist Michael Heithaus says.
Still, it’s hard to not worry, when sharks are consuming our TV sets.
– “Shark Beach With Chris Hemsworth,” 9 p.m. July 5, National Geographic. Reruns at 10 p.m. July 10 and 8 p.m. July 30; then moves to Nat Geo Wild, 10 p.m. ET Aug. 2. Also, streams on Disney+, starting July 9.
– “Shark Attack Investigation: Paige Winter,” 10 p.m. July 12, National Geographic. Reruns at 10 p.m. July 17 and 10 p.m. July 22; then moves to Nat Geo Wild, at 10 p.m. ET Aug. 6. Also, starts streaming July 16, Disney+.
– “Playing With Sharks,” starts streaming July 23, Disney+.
– SharkFest runs July 5-30, National Geographic, then Aug. 2-13, Nat Geo Wild.
– Six of its films reach Disney+ on July 9; also, three on July 16, one on July 23, one on Aug. 6.