Shark Week: Inside 'Shark Trek,' 'Island of the Mega Shark,' 'Monster Mako'

Mandi Bierly
·Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Discovery’s 28th annual Shark Week begins Sunday, July 5 with three new specials: Shark Trek (8 p.m.), which has Dr. Greg Skomal investigating why the Florida coast is the new great white winter hotspot; Island of the Mega Shark (9 p.m.), in which Jeff Kurr, Andy Casagrande, and Dickie Chivell head to Mexico’s Guadalupe Island to film some of the largest great whites ever recorded and test out Kurr’s new “ghost cage”; and Monster Mako (10 p.m.), which finds two teams in the Gulf of Mexico trying to determine how fast the fastest shark species can swim and if it really breaches, like its great white cousin, to ambush prey. Here’s a closer look.

Related: Shark Week: Ranking The Titles of This Year’s 14 New Specials

Let’s start with Island of the Mega Shark, which, as you see in the clip above, culminates in Casagrande filming what turns out to be a massive, 20-foot pregnant female off Guadalupe. Fun fact: Females grow larger than males, and their skin is tougher so they can withstand the biting necessary to hold them together during mating. 

Evidence suggests that Guadalupe is a mating ground. The fact that males and females, who aren’t typically seen together, all circle the Plexiglas ghost cage when Chivelll enters it trying to lure larger, more cautious great whites up from the deep by looking like prey, is a good sign. Not good in the clip above: the door to the cage won’t stay closed in the water, and Chivell has to hold it shut as the sharks keep coming.

Great whites are also the subject of Shark Trek. Skomal tracks great whites he’s tagged off Cape Cod down to Florida. Without the same amount of seals and dead whales floating in the water to feed on, what’s drawing them there? As seen in the clip above, it could be that massive aggregations of black tip sharks are a food source.

Other memorable sequences include Skomal having to cut one dive without a cage short because of dangerous bull sharks, and Skomal standing in a small boat trying to tag a 16-foot great white so he can deploy the SharkCam, which would latch on to the tag’s signal, follow the shark, and perhaps show why it likes the Jacksonville area (is it the dolphins? right whale calfs?).

“When I’m in the moment, I’m poised and ready to go, and I felt OK at the time, but when that shark showed up, it was really just a shadow, and that was the eeriest look I’d had at a white shark in a long time,” Skomal tells Yahoo TV. “Even tagging off of Cape Cod, where we balance ourselves on the side of boats or up on vessel pulpits, you can see the shark much better than we did in Florida. When I’m laying in bed at night, I tend to reflect on what I’ve done over the course of the day, and I thought how frightening it would have been had I fallen into that soupy, coffee-colored water where I could barely make out the image of this shark, and that kinda spooks me.”

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Along for that trip is 10-year-old shark advocate Sean Lesniak. “Sean is a great ball of energy, and he reminds me of perhaps, in many ways, a young Greg Skomal, who was untainted by the politics, the fundraising, and the mechanics — all the things that you accumulate in life that take the shine off what you do, to some degree. Sean is innocent and committed to what he loves. And I am too, still,” Skomal says with a laugh. “But the older you get, the more baggage you pick up in terms of, ‘OK, well, if I want to do this, I gotta do that, and that’s gotta happen, and we gotta do this.’ He just thinks, ‘I love sharks, and I want to save them,’ and that’s great. That innocence is welcoming, and his commitment and his passion and his raw enthusiasm is very attractive.”

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In the end, Skomal didn’t get to deploy SharkCam (”Shark wins,” he says in the special. “Yep, shark wins.”) “Making this show is really remarkably similar to conducting the science in the sense that you typically have a budget, you have X amount of time to achieve it, and you have a lot of variables and a lot of factors that need to line up, and a lot of things that could go wrong,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time on the ocean over the last thirtysomething years failing miserably at a project, and it wasn’t necessarily being filmed. It was just that things didn’t line up. You’re studying an elusive animal in a big ocean, and you need good weather, you need all your equipment to work, and you need to draw an animal in that’s not really easy to find. My initial thoughts on this project was finding a white shark in Florida was going to be extremely challenging and really analogous to a needle in a haystack — in a moving haystack. I knew it would be difficult. But I think what the film shows is that while we don’t always achieve what we set out to do, we learn something along the way. I’m happy with what we achieved. We’ve learned from it, and we’ll try again.”

Related: Shark Week: Eli Roth On His After Show, Kissing a Shark, Prepping for ‘Meg’

The Monster Mako breach team did score the shot they were after — the first ever of an elusive mako propelling itself out of the water not to free itself from a fisherman’s line but to attack.

To put the feat in context, shark expert/filmmaker Joe Romeiro reminds us that great whites breach right off shore in South Africa, and it took filmmakers until Air Jaws to capture it. “It happens right off shore, and nobody ever saw it before. Now we’re gonna go 100-plus miles out into the ocean, it’s gonna be a lot more difficult to witness,” he tells Yahoo TV. “Especially when you’re not really sure exactly what their prey items are. … With mako sharks, 90 percent of their diet consists of what they individually choose as a predator. They’ll pick out a certain type of fish, and that’ll be 90 percent of their diet, and if that fish fell off the face of the planet, they wouldn’t be able to rebound because they don’t know how to hunt the other fish as well.”

Once they figured out what mako sharks in the Gulf of Mexico prefer, it was still a waiting game. “I remember the guys being there, like, ‘We never have to put this much time into white sharks.’ I think we were all expecting it, but we were all still very surprised at how long it took. We were all sitting on the deck filming in different directions trying to catch a breach. We would sit there for hours with a camera on our shoulders, and it would just be drilling us into the ground,” Romeiro says. He believes his colleague Devon Massyn had it the worst. “I think it beat up Devon the most because Devon had the heaviest camera, so watching him kneel on the deck and doing all these things just looked painful to me. It took a long time to get it. It happened so many times in front of us, where we would just turn at the wrong second and miss it. During my interview, one jumped behind me twice.”

Romeiro’s crew got a good look at the speed of a mako when they were towing bait to encourage a breach, but it was another team who was charged with catching and tagging a mako to get a reading of its top speed (bursts of 40 mph, in this case). They had to worry about a mako jumping into their boat as it tried to free itself from the lines. “Lines are super dangerous in the water, and this is a very, very strong shark,” Romeiro says. “We were approaching their boat to put me into it, and I’m like, ‘Guys, you’re gonna have to slow the boat down because I can’t keep up with you. I can’t catch up to the boat,’ and they’re like, ‘We’re not moving the boat. That’s the shark pulling us.’ And it turned out to be the largest mako they ever caught.”

Both teams had their challenges with the elusive mako, but in the end, they each succeeded. “That’s so rare in wildlife filmmaking where you can make a goal — and these goals are really far out there, these goals are like the unicorn of goals — and achieve it. When it happens, it’s one of those satisfying moments,” Romeiro says. “And there’s still so much more we could do and see and know about the mako,” he adds. 

Maybe for Shark Week 2016? Romeiro is certainly a fan. “I’ve been to Iowa and had men and little kids sit there and talk to me about great white sharks and know all these different things about them. How do they learn it? They watch Shark Week.”

Shark Week kicks off July 5 at 8 p.m. on Discovery. Shark After Dark, a nightly after show hosted by Eli Roth, airs Sunday through Thursday at 11 p.m. Discovery and its conservation partner Oceana have teamed for the new initiative Change the Tidewhich aims to create a coalition of engaged organizations and individuals to help preserve and restore our oceans.