SHARK WEEK Key Art 2023 | ©2023 Discovery

SHARK WEEK Key Art 2023 | ©2023 Discovery

Discovery Channel/Discovery+’s SHARK WEEK kicks off its thirty-fifth anniversary beginning Sunday, July 23, available on both cable and streaming. This year’s SHARK WEEK host is Jason Momoa, whose big-screen outings as Aquaman have given him at least a little familiarity with the famed genus of fish.

The Sunday, July 23 documentaries include BELLY OF THE BEAST: FEEDING FRENZY, JAWS VS THE MEG, SERIAL KILLER: RED SEA FEEDING FRENZY, and SHARK WEEK: OFF THE HOOK (this last is a compilation of moments from SHARK WEEK’s greatest hits, plus previously unseen footage).

On Monday July 24, the programming includes ALIEN SHARKS: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Wildlife biologist Forrest Galante, a host on both Discovery+ and Animal Planet, leads a team in the waters off South Africa to find some lesser-known sharks that look positively otherworldly. While shooting, Galante and company also got extremely rare footage of sharks mating, and found that some sharks actually enjoy being tickled.

In an exclusive Zoom call, Galante discusses ALIEN SHARKS: STRANGE NEW WORLDS.

For starters, Galante laughs at the question of whether the documentary’s title suggests that sharks are more likely to have extraterrestrial origins than, say, other life forms on Earth. “No, they’re not extraterrestrial organisms. They’re ‘alien’ in the sense of, they are such unique and interesting creatures from their morphological adaptations to their biology to their behavior. The title ALIEN is just a fun way of getting people excited.

“My goal for ALIEN SHARKS is for people to fall in love with these underrepresented species, care about them, and want to preserve and protect them. Every single year on SHARK WEEK programs, you hear about [Great] White sharks, tiger sharks, thresher sharks, mako sharks, all the big ones. This show is a tribute to the little guys that don’t get the spotlight.

“We set out to do a showcase, a sort of show and tell, of South Africa’s unique, endemic shark species. We got everything we set out for and more, and that’s usually how it goes. You usually have a plan, and you hope for the best, and then, if you can showcase everything along the way, then everybody wins. We always hoped we’d get pyjama sharks, we always hoped we’d puff adder shy sharks. Really, our mission was to get the broadnose sevengill, but we didn’t know, because the sevengills themselves were gone, or so it seemed.”

Two wild orcas, nicknamed Port and Starboard due to their curled dorsal fins (Port’s curls to the left, Starboard’s to the right), have proved to be such formidable predators of sharks that they appear to have scared off not only the broadnose sevengills, but even larger Great Whites. “Part of our mission was to try to uncover where [the sevengills] may be hiding, due to the immense pressure of these orcas.”

Is it known whether the sharks are capable of warning one another in some way about the orcas? Galante replies, “The truth of the matter, regardless of what anyone will tell you is, we don’t know the answer yet. We don’t fully understand things like shark communication. What we do understand is that you can read certain body language from a shark. When it’s aggressive, it hunches its back, it locks its pectoral fins, and shows off its dorsal fin, arches its neck. There are little cues that we as humans have been able to pick up on, but we don’t really understand if or how sharks communicate between them, and it’s not so much that the orcas have scared them off, it’s really more of a matter that those two orcas, Port and Starboard, have actually annihilated the majority of the population. There really aren’t a lot of [Great] White sharks or sevengills in South Africa’s coast any longer, because those orcas have hammered them so significantly.”

It seems extraordinary that only two animals could do so much damage to entire populations of sharks. “It’s a great case study to think about how a small population of highly intelligent organisms can do so much damage to a large population of another species. It’s really a mirror that I think us as human beings should take a look at, and go, ‘Wow. When you’re smarter than the other creatures, you can really destroy them, even if you’re not a giant group of people putting pressure on them.’ And it’s really a good parallel to draw to our own fisheries and treatment of the ocean.”

Galante is quite familiar with South Africa, as he’s from Zimbabwe. “I spent my whole childhood in that part of the world, and I’ve been to South Africa more times than I can count.”

Many shark documentaries are made off the coast of South Africa. What makes it such a hub of shark activity?

“You have two unique oceans that are mixing,” Galante explains, “the warm-water Indian and the cold-water Atlantic coming together and creating a high turbidity zone. And any time you have two unique habitats like that coming together, that creates a third habitat, which is that mixing zone. And so, when you have all three habitats like that, you have incredibly high levels of diversity, very nutrient-rich and dense waters, and that creates a high level of endemism, which means creatures that occur nowhere else in the world.”

Something that occurs in ALIEN SHARKS that perhaps occurs nowhere else in ocean documentaries is footage of sharks mating. “I think that was remarkable,” Galante opines. “I don’t know if anyone has ever captured that before – I don’t believe they have, I’ve certainly never seen it – but to actually film sharks mating is an astounding thing, and whether or not it’s been filmed before in other species, I can’t say, but we did a little bit of a deep dive, and could not find any footage of striped pyjama sharks mating ever captured before. So, yeah, that was a significant thing, so much so that you [hear] our cameraman, Jay Clue. ‘In all of our years of traveling around the world and filming sharks, I never thought we’d see two of them humping on the bottom of the ocean,’ I think are his words.”

The sharks are aware of the presence of cameras, Galante points out. “Your camera, like any electronic device, emits an electromagnetic frequency, [as do] the batteries, the energy you’re generating. Sharks have an incredible sensory organ known as the ampullae of Lorenzini, which are the small little pits that you see along their nose. Those gel-filled sacs are able to detect micro-traces of electrical energy.

“And so, I’ve seen sharks, particularly in the Maldives, where we were filming tiger sharks with camera traps, where you basically plant a camera on the [sea floor] underwater, come in out of nowhere and go straight for that camera, pick it up and chew on it. Other sharks that tend to keep a further distance from them, because they’re picking up those electrical signals. So, especially some of the more apex sharks, sharks that are higher up in the food chain, that have a more advanced, specialized sensory organ, tend to be very, very aware of the cameras and the electricity that they’re putting off.”

Galante says it’s hard to choose a favorite species among those featured in ALIEN SHARKS. “There were so many fantastic ones. Catching the white-spotted wedgefish was magnificent, because our odds were so, so slim. Getting to see the shy sharks under the UV light in that incredible, otherworldly way that sharks see, for me, was magnificent.

“And hands down, my favorite moment was, well, it was the sharks mating, but leading up to that, when those striped pyjama sharks literally came in for a cuddle, they were nuzzling in and nosing in, and I was able to rub that ampullae, and they showed genuine affection, which is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in sharks before. I don’t like to promote [handling wild] animals, but I do like it when animals choose to seek attention from a human. And what am I going to say, ‘No,’ and push them away? That’s just as mean,” he laughs. “I love when animals come to investigate a human as a foreign presence in their environment. They were continually coming to me for that stimulation, and that was my favorite moment of the show.”

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Article: SHARK WEEK: ALIEN SHARKS – Wildlife biologist Forrest Galante on new series – Exclusive Interview


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