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Shark Week Begins with Phelps vs. Shark, and Shark vs. Croc

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The wait is finally over. Shark Week kicks off Sunday night with four premieres: The evening begins with Great White Shark Serial Killer Lives (7 p.m. ET), which uses DNA technology to confirm if the same shark is responsible for the particularly aggressive attacks that have struck California’s Surf Beach every other fall since 2008. It ends with Great Hammerhead Invasion (10:10 p.m.), which explores why great hammerheads, normally solitary creatures, congregate off Bimini, in the Bahamas, each November. In between, it’s two epic bouts: Phelps vs. Shark: The Battle for Ocean Supremacy (8 p.m.) and Shark-Croc Showdown (9:10 p.m.).

Watch the clip above of Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, cage-diving with great whites for the first time in South Africa, and you understand why “the race” that pits his speed in open water against that of various sharks involved them all swimming in separate heats. You can also better appreciate this story he told Yahoo TV: “We had a couple feisty [great whites] that were going crazy in front of the cage and on the side of the cage, and I actually almost stuck my hand outside of the cage because we lost one of the GoPros, and I saw it going down, and it was in arm’s reach. I was like, ‘Ooh, maybe I could get it,’ and I went to reach out and instantly pulled my hand back. I was like, ‘Nope, I’m not going to do this, my hand could go bye-bye.'” (Read our full interview with Phelps.)

Shark-Croc Showdown moves the action to Australia, where saltwater crocodiles — which can grow up to 18 feet and have a bite twice as strong as a great white — have been filmed clashing with other shark species over green sea turtles in a remote wilderness called the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory. Shark Week fan favorite Paul de Gelder leads the expedition. “I love that we could combine two of the world’s most ferocious animals. Everyone has this innate fear of sharks, which is justifiable because they can bite you and it really hurts, trust me,” says the Aussie ex-special forces diver, who lost part of an arm and a leg to a bull shark during a counterterrorism exercise in Sydney Harbor in 2009. “But crocodiles just get to a whole ‘nother level. Sharks generally don’t want to eat you, they’re just curious and sometimes they mistake you for a sea. But crocodiles? They want to eat you. They learn your timetable and they watch you. You can’t even go collect water from the river at the same time every day because they’ll be there waiting for you.”

One of the most nerve-racking sequences of the special is the night when de Gelder waits on the beach with a turtle as she lays her eggs. “I was creeping up, all bang-on stealthy. This is the first turtle I’ve ever seen laying eggs and I’m there for two seconds and it flicks sand straight in my eyeballs,” he says. “But just to see that beautiful piece of nature, a giant green sea turtle laying eggs, and then the tense moments where it’s crawling down to the ocean where it’s totally vulnerable… and it made it! You can’t replicate that feeling any other way.”

That night, de Gelder also joins the team members who, for the first time, tag a wild saltwater crocodile, a 12-footer they name Brutus. “A month before that I could never have imagined that I would be sitting in Northern Territory, straddling a giant saltwater crocodile. Who gets to do that stuff?” de Gelder says. “And then we got to do something that has never been done before and put a croc cam on it and look at its life for a day from the view of the crocodile. That’s incredible. To see that footage later on was just mind-blowing.”

Tracking Brutus’s diving behavior over the course of a day helps explain how saltwater crocodiles survive in hot, hostile environments and why their population is spreading around the Australian coastline and into the realm of sharks. Information as valuable as that explains the motivation for another tense moment of the special: when the team hunts, on foot, for another croc camera tag that has gone missing following a storm. Its signal leads them to a dense swamp. “To be creeping around in the mangroves, in the thick mud where it was always sucking my prosthetic leg off — oh my god, that was really dodgy,” de Gelder says. “I had a little stick, and everyone was looking at me like, ‘That’s not gonna do anything,’ but it gave me a little bit of a sense of security, so I held on to my stick.”

Dr. Mark Meekan also takes part in the expedition to count sharks and species at Cobourg Peninsula as part of Vulcan’s Global FinPrint project, as seen in the clip above. The hour will definitely give you a new respect for the tawny nurse shark, which seems to have learned how to let a dolphin’s echolocation lead it to prey in addition to knowing how to harass a crocodile who’s already captured a turtle. “I never really had much of an appreciation for them because they’re so plentiful, and, you know, they’re not dangerous. There’s never gonna be a Shark Week special on the tawny nurse,” de Gelder says. “But to see the intelligence of them, and the way that they were interacting with the dolphins and the crocodiles, really gave me much more of an appreciation for them.”

Shark Week runs July 23 through July 30 on Discovery.

Read more from Yahoo TV:
Shark Week: Charlize Theron, Tony Hale to Guest on ‘Shark After Dark’
Shark Week’s ‘Return to the Isle of Jaws’ Has a Major Discovery
Michael Phelps on His Shark Week ‘Race’ With a Great White — and the One Thing That Made Him Nervous