'Shark Week': Inside 'Return of the Great White Serial Killer'

Shark Week continues July 6 with the premiere of Return of the Great White Serial Killer (9 p.m.), the follow-up to the 2013 special investigating a series of attacks at California’s Surf Beach. It’s the kind of hour that animal expert Brandon McMillan believes Shark Week has been lacking in recent years: “Shark Week traditionally has been all about just filming big shark, big shark with not a really strong story,” he tells Yahoo TV. “Great White Serial Killer is based on true events that, in my opinion and everybody else, who watches it, it’s almost like a real-life Jaws story.”

So here’s the tragic tale: In Sept. 2008, a great white attacked surfer Kyle Knapp on his board at Surf Beach, California. In Oct. 2010, there was another attack, on bodyboarder Lucas Ransom, and this one was fatal. In Oct. 2012, it happened again, and surfer Francisco Javier Solorio Jr. was killed. Return of the Great White Serial Killer was filmed in Oct. 2014, waiting to see if there’d be another strike in the area. It turns out there were four, starting on Oct. 2, with a surfer, and then, as you see in the clip above, kayakers were struck on Oct. 3 — twice. All survived.

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McMillan’s studied Surf Beach and knows why it’s a hunting ground. “Usually, you’re surfing in pretty shallow water, four-to-10-foot-deep water. Now this beach, just outside the surf break, it drops a good 40 to 60 feet. That’s what great whites need to get the steam to actually go in full predation mode and launch at something. That’s what’s happening at this beach,” he says. “And now, why is it happening every two years in October? There’s a lot of theories out there [one being that it’s a large female, since they prefer two-year migrations], but theories are just theories.”

The goal is for Ralph Collier, a leading authority on Pacific Coast shark attacks, to match the DNA of a shark with the DNA extracted from tooth fragments left in Ransom’s board — not only to bring some closure to his family, but to tag the shark and track it so surfers have a chance of being warned when it’s in the area. McMillan and Collier followed the shark’s presumed path, and in late November headed to Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, where massive great whites (between 16 and 20 feet) are believed to gather to mate.

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McMillan descended in an open-top cage with shark diving expert Jimi Partington, who’s identified over 30 large female white sharks in these waters during his career, to video the sharks so they could be identified should they show up at Surf Beach. “Oh, there’s no guarantee the sharks can’t attack the top or knock the cage on its side,” McMillan says when asked the cage’s safety. “We nicknamed that cage the Jack in the Box, for obvious reasons. You can just kind of pop out the top. The first thing you do learn when diving with sharks is you have to have very good peripheral vision. When you put a mask on underwater, that peripheral goes away. You can pretty much see right in front of you and maybe, like, 20 percent in each direction. You have to quickly turn your head and have eyes in the back of your head, and I don’t want to say a sixth sense, because that really is not going to save your life, but you have to trust your instincts about what’s behind you.”


And what’s beneath you. Partington knew to warn McMillan that 14-foot great white Emma makes up for her relative lack of size with a big attitude, and before long, she’d bit their backup safety gear, forcing them to cut the dive short. “Let’s say hypothetically, worst-case scenario, those cables broke on that cage, and our hookah, as we call it, our air lines that go right to our regulator were cut, and we’re underwater with no air, and there are several big sharks around. We can’t take the chance of swimming to the surface because in that 10 seconds of swimming to the surface, we can get eaten,” McMillan says. “So we have to have backup safety gear underneath the water, which is basically a buoyancy compensator, which is a vest, and it’s also a scuba tank with a regulator, which gives you the air in your mouth. She destroyed that, so now if something went wrong, we’re screwed. Instantly, we had to abort the dive.”


He admits Emma frightens him. “The scariest part of Emma is with an attitude like that, when she gets 16 to 18 feet, I can’t imagine… She was between 14 and 15 feet — that’s big enough to take out a human easily. Anything over 10 or 12 feet will take out a human. Maybe five years from now when she’s 18 feet, I’ll be doing another documentary, Serial Killer Part 7.”


With Emma being too small to be the Surf Beach shark, which Collier estimates was at least 16 feet, McMillan turned his attention to the queen of those waters, the larger Lucy. In the end, her DNA was not a match, so the search will continue. But not before we pause to acknowledge that there are big great whites named Emma and Lucy. “It’s funny, because I trained animals for the movies for about 15 years. We had lions and bears, and these are all as scary as it gets. We’d always name them really cute names, Hanna-Barbera names like Fred, and Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm, and Pebbles. So, yeah, I guess it is traditional,” McMillan says. “But the reality is, the more you work around a shark, the more you realize they’re not that scary. They’re just large animals with a big bite. Jaws definitely got it wrong; they’re not bloodthirsty killers. They’re definitely not mindless, as we once thought. They’re probably one of the more intelligent animals in the world, and a fact to back that up is, these animals have been around for hundreds of millions of years. How have they survived that long if they’re stupid? They don’t.”

Monday night’s second new special is Alien Sharks: Close Encounters (10 p.m.), the third installment of the franchise that exposes viewers to the fascinating, little-seen sharks of the deep. While the biofluorescent creatures in the clip above are definitely more aesthetically pleasing, it’s the first-ever tagging of a mega mouth shark that will have viewers talking.

Paul Clerkin, the 30-year-old graduate researcher at the Pacific Shark Research Center Moss Landing Marine Labs who’s discovered 16 new species of sharks on his own, returns. With his mentor, Dr. David A. Ebert, he headed to Taiwan in late May, and in between two typhoons, they had two days to find and tag one of these sharks (first recorded in 1976) with the help of local fishermen and their net. “The whole time I was there, I would have mega mouth dreams whenever I went to sleep,” Clerkin tells Yahoo TV. “It was definitely on my mind like crazy, because there were so many factors in the air about whether we were gonna see one, and if we saw one, how we would tag it.”

In the end of Day 2, Clerkin jumped into the dark water and tagged what he estimates was a 20-foot female secured in the net. “We’d been out there waiting for days and hours, and when the mega mouth came up, I still kinda felt like I was caught off-guard,” he says. “My main thing was, I was trying to make sure I had all my gear, made sure I knew what I needed to do. Being nervous or scared really didn’t cross my mind until afterward. In retrospect, I think I was a little bit nervous, but I just couldn’t really tell.” (Though the large-mouthed shark has small teeth, it could have bit him or dragged him down into the deep when it was freed, or, Clerkin himself could’ve become tangled in the net.)

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If all goes well, the $4,000 tag will stay on for four months before popping off and floating to the surface to transmit data via a satellite. “That’s gonna tell us everything that the shark is up to — the location, the depth, the light level that it’s at, salinity, all that stuff,” Clerkin says. “It was an incredible experience. Nobody gets to see these animals, let alone hop in with one and tag it. The whole thing was mindblowing. It was such a big, beautiful animal, and the fact that she just came up from out of the deep, a world that I have no access to, and there I am hopping in and meeting her and tagging her.”

How does one celebrate that kind of scientific first? “We talked about it the whole time,” he says, laughing. “The plan was, one of the guys who was with us us in Taiwan was gonna give us the best Taiwanese scotch. We were gonna go to a karaoke bar. We were gonna do all this, and we were gonna do all that. What we wound up doing was going back and going to sleep because we were all so tired. It was 16 hours on the boat, an hour or two steam. We really weren’t sleeping too much.”

Shark Week continues through July 12 on Discovery. Discovery and its conservation partner Oceana have teamed for the new initiative Change the Tide, which aims to create a coalition of engaged organizations and individuals to help preserve and restore our oceans.