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8/16/2012
11:26 AM
Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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The Jaw-some Tech Behind Shark Week

As Shark Week celebrates its 25th year with jaw-filled images, a slew of new technologies drive both content production and distribution.




We humans might take pride in our upright posture and big brains. But as an evolutionary experiment, we don't compare well to sharks. These sea predators first appeared more than 400 million years ago and managed to survive the great extinction that reduced dinosaurs and most of their Mesozoic contemporaries to fossilized museum attractions. What's more, sharks did so while undergoing relatively little revision in the millennia since. It's almost as if nature reasoned, "If it's not broke, don't fix it."

Shark Week, on the other hand, has evolved plenty since it swam into the Discovery Channel's programming on July 17, 1988. In that first year, the primetime ratings nearly doubled the channel's average audience numbers. By 2011, at which point the annual tradition had aired a whopping 143 different programs, viewership had grown to 26.6 million. It now holds the distinction of being cable television's longest-running programming event; so ingrained is Shark Week in popular culture that when a character on the sitcom "30 Rock" declared, "Live every week like it's Shark Week," the advice actually registered as earnest and wise.

The 2012 line-up, which has been airing on the Discovery Channel this week, marks Shark Week's 25th anniversary. The impact of new technology on the event is particularly clear in the current iteration, with new--or, in some cases, newly affordable--gadgetry enabling researchers to study the creatures more closely. Sophisticated devices have likewise allowed producers and documentarians to share the results of these studies in increasingly dynamic ways. (It looks like those big brains are useful after all.)

Some of these advances include the application of special cameras that are capable of extending sharks' most ephemeral and intimate moments into slow-motion television that allows viewers to carefully observe details. Others include new tracking technologies that have allowed scientists to learn just what sharks are up to when they're not inspiring anxiety among beach-goers. For those who prefer to keep sharks safely enclosed in the digital realm, Discovery Channel has also beefed up its online offerings, producing not only a more robust website replete with dozens of factoids, photos, and videos but also an iPad App and social networking integration that have allowed shark enthusiasts of all kinds to bond over their shared interest in gaping maws and ominous dorsal fins.

The programming's trademark quirkiness--marked by, among other things, the continued participation of the "Myth Busters" team--has advanced by virtue of technology as well, with this year's programming including not only a life-sized recreation of the prehistoric Megaladon, which was so massive it could bite a Tyrannosaurus Rex in half, but also, and even more ostentatiously, a shark cage in the shape of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Dig into our slideshow to take a look at the full range of Shark Week tech.


Mary Clare Baquet, creative director for branded entertainment at Discovery, said in an interview that she initially tried to "steer [Shark Week sponsor] VW] away" from planning on a Beetle-inspired shark cage that could actually cruise across the ocean floor like the 2012 redesign of the iconic vehicle cruises along highways.

"We were not sure it would work," she claimed, noting that she was delighted by the final cage, which was manned by marine biologist Luke Tipple.

Matt Katzive, an executive producer for branded entertainment, said in the same interview that they had only two weeks to build the Beetle and film the project, meaning that they basically had to produce the footage in true documentary fashion, without an assurance that everything would work out. Rough seas at the crew's Bahamas location complicated the task but Katzive said he was glad they made the effort.

The Beetle was custom built from aluminum pipes that had to be filled with water in order for the vehicle to submerge. To equip the cage for underwater driving, engineers included twin propellers and an on-board air propulsion system. The finished product was capable of traversing the underwater terrain with a two horsepower force. "Luke was like a kid in a candy shop," said Katzvive.

In keeping with the somewhat idiosyncratic identity that Shark Week has cultivated, the Beetle cage included rearview mirrors that read, "Sharks in mirror are closer than they appear."

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More open than a conventional shark cage, the Beetle did allow "a few sharks to actually get in the cage," said Katzive. Even so, he added, "the sharks were pretty leery. [The car] didn't freak them out. They just went about their business and would just kinda get out of the way."

While the vehicle was underwater, driver Luke Tipple used a mic in his dive mask to communicate with producers and crew above the surface. "We could hear what he was observing firsthand," said Baquet.

Topside, there was no physical tethering between the vehicle and the crew. As a result, Baquet said they needed "awesome, kickass guys" who were used to delivering under such challenging conditions. It was an "incredibly large team effort, a total group effort," Katzive added.

Around 60 hours of footage were captured to document both the Beetle's construction and its subsequent underwater adventures. Unlike many of Shark Week's earliest programs, this high volume was manageable thanks to advances in digital cameras. The crew was equipped with a Red One, produced by Oakley founder Jim Jannard's camera-making start-up. The camera captures cinema-style images and has been used on films including David Fincher's The Social Network, which earned an Academy Award nomination for its cinematography.

The Red One was not well-suited for all aspects of production, particularly situations in which a small, compact camera was necessary. To accommodate those instances, the crew also used a fleet of GoPro products as well as a Canon 5D Mark II. We "documented [the production] from every angle," said Baquet. With material being recorded to so many devices, Katzive said the team had to acquire enough external storage drives "to store the Library of Congress."

With so much footage, a lot of material did not make it into the final special. In the past, this content would have been discarded on the cutting room floor (or, in the modern digital world, the computer's recycling bin). Discovery opted to use the additional content on the Web, however, extending the Shark Week domain from the television into the virtual space.

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For "Sharkzilla," which aired on Monday, researchers built a full-size animatronic version of the prehistoric Megaladon, the largest shark yet discovered. Because sharks' bodies are almost entirely cartilage, however, the design had to be reverse-engineered from fossilized teeth--the only traces of the ancient animals that still remain.

The living animal was up to 60 feet long and weighed at least 50 tons. Its jaws measured six feet wide and eight feet tall. Brooke Runnette, Shark Week's executive producer, said the animatronic model's foundation was composed of hydraulic jaws built around a steel frame. Inflatable material was used to fill out the rest of the body, which included a seven-foot dorsal fin. The final product was approximately the size of a city bus.

"CGI is never as cool," claimed Runnette in explaining the decision to reincarnate the creature through a physical, rather than digital, approach.

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"Shark Week's Impossible Shot," which aired Sunday, saw wildlife cameramen travel to Gansbaai, South Africa, where they attempted to capture an aerial view of a great white breaching the ocean's surface.

Brooke Runnette said in a phone interview that the crew used a Phantom camera to capture this unprecedented shot. Capable of recording up to 1,000 frames per second at full resolution, this device allows filmmakers to slow high-speed footage down to the 30 frames per second that most television broadcasts use. The result is an immersive slow-motion documentation of the event that enables viewers to peruse each detail of the shark's behavior.

The camera was suspended above the shark with a balloon to capture the desired moment. A decoy used to attract the shark was synched to the Phantom, allowing filmmakers to work around the whims of the animal; sharks, after all, are not known for taking direction.

Prior to the digital revolution, such dynamic footage would have been impossible to achieve.

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In "Great White Highway," which airs Thursday, a team of researchers led by Stanford marine sciences professor Barbara Block uses new technology to track the great white sharks that migrate to the Northern California coast between August and February of each year.

Randall Kochevar, a Stanford researcher on Dr. Block's team, said that the historical method for tracking a great white shark involved archival satellite tags that were physically attached to the shark using a pole and a dart. This task can be more than a little hair-raising; to affix the tag, researchers have to position themselves within a few feet of the sharks, which can be larger than the vessel in which the scientists are perched.

Kochevar said these tags ride along with the sharks, collecting data about the temperatures, depths, and light characteristics that it encounters. After a pre-set time, the tag releases from the animal, at which point it--no longer blocked by water--can relay data back to the scientists via satellite.

A new method, he said, involves acoustic tags, which, at around $300 each, are much cheaper than conventional devices. They're attached in the same death-defying manner but prove more durable once they're out in the ocean; one tag, he claimed, was collecting data over 1,500 days after being deployed.

These newer tags release an acoustic ping that can be picked up by special underwater hydrophones. Data in some cases is stored locally and must be periodically downloaded when researchers visit the devices for maintenance. In other cases, the data can communicate data to researchers in real-time, allowing them to see where sharks are headed on a minute-by-minute basis.

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Block's team released a free iOS to the app store that allows shark enthusiasts from around the world to track individual animals in real time, using data not only from acoustic tags but also a new tracking system involving wave gliders built by Liquid Robotics. These gliders can be controlled remotely and move at speeds between one and two knots per hour, allowing researchers to reposition them when a shark enters the vicinity.

The app, Kochevar said, "gives people a personal way of connecting with wildlife." It offers a map with real time updates of a specific shark's locations, and even sends a push notification to the user when one of the animals shows up near a tracking point. The app additionally includes photo-realistic 3-D models--as well photos and video--of the great whites that have been tagged.

Kochevar said sharks have individual personalities, and scientists can use dorsal fins, which are to these large fish what fingerprints are to humans, to differentiate one animal from another. By allowing users to identify particular creatures, the app grants users some insight into this individuality, somewhat erasing the longstanding perception of sharks as indistinguishable killing machines.

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Kochevar said the bigger picture around his research, and his team's Shark Week participation, is using new technologies to help the public understand the importance of preserving the Pacific Coast of the United States. The coastline supports a vast bio-diversity that includes not only sharks but also blue whales, elephant seals, and leatherback sea turtles.

Kochevar contrasted the West Coast with the East Coast, which has been "hammered" by more than a century of industrial use and excessive fishing, and the Gulf of Mexico, which he characterized as "a mess." Pacific Coast resources have not been exploited or polluted to the same extent, he said.

Conservation efforts such as Kochevar described are at the heart of Shark Week. Its partners, which include the non-profit Oceana and The Pew Charitable Trust, are listed on the sharkweek.com fan site. Through its collaborations with various environmental advocacy groups, the Discovery Channel has helped to put a particular dent in shark finning. Though its programming has come to include a lot of bleeding edge gear, the channel has been turning to a tried and true method during this year's broadcast to perpetuate its anti-finning message: public service announcements.

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