Y! Big Story: Shark!

Vera H-C Chan

Twenty-five years may be a drop in the water for the ancient shark breed, but a quarter-century's a milestone for Discovery Channel's "Shark Week." The anniversary, marking the longest-running event in cable TV history, and the restored "Jaws" cinematic masterpiece have unleashed a frenzy of affection for — and news about — the serrated-toothed predators.

Here's a roundup of shark tributes, ancient finds, and conservation efforts for the threatening, but threatened, species.

Jawing about 'Jaws.' No. 37 isn't normally a stand-out anniversary, but the Blu-ray Aug. 14 release is reason enough to celebrate. Stephen Spielberg waxed nostalgic with "Ain't It Cool News" last year about the ultimate summer movie. The director revealed tidbits about how, in those pre-CGI days, a pivotal protagonist-munching scene involved "a lot of raw chicken." The infamous mechanical problems with the shark and weather conditions on the set snuffed Spielberg's urge for another go: "I would have done the sequel if I hadn't had such a horrible time at sea on the first film," he recalled. Jeannot Szwarc ended up directing the sequel.

[Slideshow: Movie shark attacks]

A beer, a cocktail napkin, and thou. The 1976 movie "Jaws" endowed sharks with a fearsome rep that scared a generation away from the beach, but the Discovery Channel's annual tribute has become the sea dogs' much-needed PR machine. A fine profile by the Atlantic crowns "Shark Week" as a national holiday that has infiltrated every nook and meme of pop culture. Its creative origins, regretfully, have been lost in a boozy haze, but a sketch on a bar cocktail napkin was involved. Despite a quarter-century of shark education, executive producer Brooke Runnette says that human beings still know little about the planet's most ancient denizens.

The Earth is covered by water, and sharks are in almost every bit of that water...And yet, we know so little about them. Especially the great whites. When we do see them, we're like, 'You're bigger than me, and more powerful. You're the product of 450 million years of evolution, and you are, as sharks go, perfect. You win.' (August 8, Atlantic)

The 2012 episodes include "How 'Jaws' Changed the World," "Shark Fight" (victims devoted to advocacy), and "Shark Week's 25 Best Bites."

[Related: Shark Week]

Hemingway, lawyers, and jumping the shark. So how deeply have sharks sunk into our cultural consciousness? Discovery's roundup of the creatures' greatest moments in pop culture roams indiscriminately from Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" and "Mack the Knife" to the Roger Corman-produced TV movie "Sharktopus" starring Eric Roberts (oy, Roberts, what won't you do?). NPR's "Living on Earth" claims the predator, perhaps more than any other animal, stalks our language, with metaphorical allusions about feeding frenizies and lawyers, financiers, and other hustlers as sharks.

While the phrase "jump the shark" has already leapt past its prime, it's worth looking at how a television show steeped in baby-boomer nostalgia gave rise a decade later to a catchphrase brimming with Gen X derision. To "jump a shark" signals the turning point of a cultural phenomenon's decline, and the action scene came from the 1970s sitcom "Happy Days," just one year after "Jaws" terrorized beach-goers: Arthur Fonzarelli, the mechanic who epitomized 1950s cool, water-skied over a shark in beach shorts and iconic black leather jacket. Nearly 30 years later, scriptwriter Fred Fox Jr. defended episode 91, but couldn't remember who came up with the idea. Credit may be due to the parents of the man who made the momentous leap, as Henry Winkler, aka The Fonz, explained on an NPR quiz show:

We went to Hollywood...And I had to water ski. Which I knew how to do. And my very short German parents would write me letters, and they would say: 'Tell the producers you know how to water ski. This is a great thing here. You could tell them that you could do this.' I finally showed the producers the letter as a joke. (Sept. 10, 2011, "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!" NPR)

Getting too chummy? The jump did foresee another shift: shark tourism. Humans have embraced our underwater foe, perhaps a wee too much: Shark cage tourism is booming, and in Las Vegas tourists can whip down a glass-encased water slide through a three-story shark tank. The cage dives that involve chumming the waters have come under churning controversy; some fear the practice will change the sharks' behavior and encourage sharks to come closer to shore. Western Australia, which saw four fatal attacks, is working to ban cage dives.

[Related: Shark attack survivor fights to save sharks]

An endangered danger. Affection doesn't always translate to advocacy. Sharks have survived for millennia, but no thanks to us. Too-close encounters still guarantee news headlines, even though a mosquito's bite is deadlier than a shark's. Yet from hunting sharks to slicing off their fins, human beings have been far more adept at sending them to their watery grave (an estimated 38 million per year). Conservation efforts, including some led by shark-attack survivors, could be making more headway. California, for instance, will become the fourth state to ban shark fin, a key delicacy in Chinese cuisine, in 2013. (The United States prohibits shark finning in general, the process of keeping the fin and dumping the rest of the shark.)

No sharks are listed as endangered, but studies — such as the latest report from the IUCN Shark Specialist Group — have listed several shark species on the critically endangered list. Environmental groups just this week petitioned the National Marine Fisheries to get the California's great white sharks under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

In honor of all things shark, a few sights and sounds:

"MythBusters" dissected 25 tropes, including the odds of punching out the fish in the schnozz.


The intro that freaked a generation of swimmers (fortunately, actress Susan Backlinie survived to talk about swimming naked in the water decades later): 

The classic understatement, uttered by Roy Schneider, in "Jaws":

Mike Coots lost a leg to a tiger shark in Hawaii. Fifteen years later, he's determined to fight for all sharks.