Discovery Channel's Shark Week has become an annual ritual for viewers around the world – the event screens in more than 70 countries every year – and this year it celebrates its 30th anniversary on screen.
The very first Shark Week show, Caged in Fear, aired in July 1988, and healthy initial viewing figures have climbed ever since. In 2010, the show became the longest-running cable TV event in the world. Last year, it broke its own viewing records when more than five million people tuned in to watch Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps "race" a shark, although the event turned out to be a little more CGI-enhanced than anticipated. This year the event even entered the political sphere when Stormy Daniels described to the CBS News programme 60 Minutes how American president Donald Trump had forced her to sit through an hour-long Shark Week documentary during one of their encounters. "He was like: 'I donate to all these charities, and I would never donate to any charity that helps sharks. I hope all the sharks die.' He was, like, riveted. He was obsessed," Daniels said.
Shark Week has set itself a high bar to match, and following last year's Michael Phelps challenge, the show has this year turned to British adventurer, former SAS soldier and celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls to add a dash of fame to the aquatic mix. The star of Born Survivor and Man vs Wild will be hosting the brilliantly titled Bear vs Shark, although so far Discovery has been cagey about exactly what the show will involve, saying only that Grylls will go "head-to-head" with the much-feared fishy fiends.
We ask Grylls for some more details: "[I'll be] super-close and without a cage – that was the goal," he says. "It was such a privilege, though, to get to study some of the biggest, most majestic sharks off the Bermuda Triangle. I wanted to see how I'd fare when the sharks have the home field advantage, and how we can protect ourselves should you ever find yourself alone and stranded at sea, and exposed to a potential shark attack. It was totally awe-inspiring to be out there alongside these wonderful creatures and feel the sheer size of them up close, and we have such a responsibility to protect them."
In fact, rather than sending Grylls afloat to grapple with a Great White, it seems the show will focus on the protection of sharks, instead of the more headline-grabbing notion of a former SAS member wrestling them to their doom: "With the support of local shark conservationists, we tagged a tiger shark with a tracking unit," he explains. "The device serves to provide crucial lifesaving data to understand where they are moving to, their behaviour, their patterns and what they need to survive. The big lesson if you are in the water with aggressive sharks is to stay calm and not show fear. They can detect it almost as strongly as blood in the water."
It's all very well for Grylls to tell us to stay calm if we're faced with a marauding, razor-toothed killer on our next trip to the beach, but surely he must have found some of his encounters with the beasts at least a little scary? "Yes of course, I am only human," he says. "I have learnt though, through experience, to do my utmost to hold my nerve and to stay calm in these situations. Animals are incredibly astute and can sense fear a mile away. The bull shark dive with no cage at dusk in murky waters was probably the sketchiest moment. Anytime you are exposed to mother nature and wildlife, the unpredictable can happen and it brings with it significant risks to consider and mitigate. However, it's my job to try and navigate safely around the dangerous situations – it's all about being prepared for the unexpected."
Grylls says he was a big fan of Shark Week even before his own involvement, and despite the terrifying encounters he went through to film his show, it is the conservation angle that seems to have remained with him following his experiences: "I've always been a big fan of Shark Week, it's broadcast in more than 70 countries, and is a great platform to promote efforts in shark conservation – it's doing a fantastic job getting people around the world interested in the magnificent shark species," he says. "It was a total honour to host Shark Week and help people to understand more about these animals' behaviour. Preliminary research has revealed that tiger sharks can migrate over 4,000 miles each year and is providing important clues in solving the mysteries of where tiger sharks migrate, give birth and raise their young. Tagged sharks will be critical in protecting both sharks and people into the future."
Grylls adds that his experience with The Discovery Channel has even inspired him to add a shark-themed angle to his self-named theme park in the UK: "I have recently announced a dive and conservation experience at the Bear Grylls Adventure Park in the UK," he says. "Our incredible, one-of-a-kind diving experience will feature sharks and other aquatic creatures. Places and experiences such as our responsible aquarium have a positive impact on the awareness and conservation of sharks through quality education and acting as a connection between the visitors, allowing them a unique look into this incredible underwater world. The Bear Grylls Adventure will donate a percentage of each and every dive from this incredible experience to The Shark Trust charity to ensure these fantastic animals are protected for future generations to come."
Grylls can now add his shark encounters to a list of feats that includes climbing Mount Everest, circumnavigating the UK on a jet ski, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable boat and holding the world’s highest dinner party, in full formal dress, in a hot air balloon, with oxygen masks, at 25,000 feet.
I ask the adventurer whether there are any daring, improbable, or terrifying tasks left for him to tick off his list. Perhaps predictably, the daredevil isn’t done yet: “I have a huge bucket list, which seems to keep on growing,” he says. “I would still love to do some of the unclimbed peaks in Greenland – there is such huge expanses of genuine wilderness, totally unexplored and a sense of awe that is hard to describe. I’ve also always promised I would take my family to Everest basecamp one day to show them the mountain. To share that with them would be very special.”
Shark Week airs on Discovery Channel from Monday July 23