Dickie Chivell doesn't have a lot of fear when it comes to sharks. But he did have a theory, which is why he ended up on a flimsy-looking homemade decoy while multiple great white sharks swam below him.
Chivell, a young man who grew up in the fishing town of Gansbaai, South Africa, suspected that male great white sharks could be lured to the surface by a female decoy. So he built a 14-foot contraption, named "Parthenope" after a siren from Greek mythology, that mimicked the movement of a female great white. Chivell convinced Jeff Kurr and Chris Fallows, who were in Gansbaai working on a documentary for "Shark Week," to let him test his theory out on camera.
The scene plays out in "Air Jaws: Fin of Fury," which premieres Aug. 10 at 9 p.m. (MDT) on the Discovery Channel and kicks off the new programming for "Shark Week" 2014.
As Chivell pilots the decoy across the water surface, the great whites grow in numbers and start to show aggressive behavior. "Dickie, this is not looking good, man," says Kurr, who is watching from the boat.
“I like people who have a passion for sharks, and he has no fear at all," said Kurr, who has been producing "Shark Week" specials since 1991. “Although I was nervous about him, I thought if anyone can do this and pull it off, it would be Dickie.”
Kurr and Fallows have done their share of improvising and risk-taking while filming the "Air Jaws" series, which began in 2001. In fact, Chivell said he was inspired by the filmmakers' own "whack contraptions." Among those is the "seal sled" Kurr was laying on when a massive great white breached, or jumped out of the water, just feet away from him in 2011.
In addition to Parthenope, "Shark Week" 2014 will introduce more inventions and gadgetry — from "sharkcam" to "shark spy" to "fincam" — designed to get the perfect shot. It's all part of the technology and ingenuity employed to give viewers something they haven't seen in the previous 26 seasons of "Shark Week."
The perfect shot Kurr was seeking in "Air Jaws: Fin of Fury" was one shark in particular — a 14-foot male the team encountered off Seal Island in South Africa while filming "Air Jaws Apocalypse." The shark, which they named "Colossus," followed the boat around for two weeks.
When Kurr took to the seal sled in an effort to film a breaching great white up close, it was Colossus who attacked the decoy. Kurr remembers "looking up and seeing this giant white belly flying over the top of me.”
But the shark, which has a distinctive dorsal fin, disappeared soon after that. "Air Jaws: Fin of Fury" chronicles a two-year journey across an ocean to find Colossus.
"He was a real camera hog," Kurr said. "We just grew to really become fond of him. That’s why it was so weird for us when he completely disappeared. Being so close to Colossus, being closer to a breaching white shark than any human ever has before, that made him special to me personally. A lot of the show is a personal journey for me.
“I’ve always been attracted to the uniqueness that is Colossus. … Maybe it’s because he didn’t crush me on the seal sled.”
The team starts the search off Seal Island — lethal but special waters where great whites leap above the surface while hunting. Colossus was the "dominant shark there," according to Kurr.
Along the way, the team travels to both Gansbaai and Stewart Island, New Zealand. The filmmakers pull out all the stops, using a remote control helicopter to tow a seal decoy in choppy waters, sending Chivell out on Parthenope and introducing a new invention called WASP (water armor shark protection), which is basically a compact, one-man shark cage. Fallows takes WASP 50 feet down, where he's circled by a dozen great whites — including an 18-footer. The precarious situation makes for some mesmerizing footage.
On Monday, Aug. 11 at 10 p.m. (MDT), marine biologist Greg Skomal puts sharkcam back in the water during the premiere of "Jaws Strikes Back." Sharkcam is an automated underwater vehicle that follows tagged sharks. Skomal's team researches great whites off the shores of Guadalupe, where they prey on enormous elephant seals. Sharkcam follows the sharks 300 feet below the surface, but ends up being the hunted.
Kurr also heads up "Lair of the Mega Shark," which premieres Aug. 12 at 11 p.m. (MDT). He teams up with wildlife cameraman Andy Casagrande to search for a legendary 20-foot shark near Stewart Island. "Lair of the Mega Shark" features the use of two unique new cameras (sharkspy and fincam), documents great white hunting behavior at night and ends up being what Casagrande calls his scariest dive ever.
Kurr said his stock-in-trade is “giving people something new and fresh to look at.” As groundbreaking as the "Air Jaws" franchise has been, it would have "run out of steam" if it continued to just feature breaching sharks, he said.
“I’m very cognizant of making this visually amazing," Kurr said. “I have a checklist of things that before I retire I would definitely like to capture. It’s really important for me to come up with stuff that no one has seen before.”