The narrator on "Anatomy of a Shark Bite" says right off the pier how rare shark attacks are against humans. But you'll have a hard time convincing Floridians. This week, on the normally placid Gulf coast, there were two attacks within a three-day span—one of them fatal. A teenaged girl lost her life after being bitten 100 yards off shore. In the newspapers, experts explained that she was well past the beach into open water, and therefore more susceptible to attack. But two days later, a teenaged boy lost his leg when he was bitten while standing in three feet of water, fishing.
Hearing about that last attack made me cringe as I watched "Anatomy of a Shark Bite," which aired as part of Discovery Channel's popular Shark Week in 2003. As the narrator reminds us, prior to this incident a shark attack had never before been captured on camera. "Anatomy of a Shark Bite" records and explores the unfortunate accident to behavioral scientist Dr. Erich Ritter, who was severely bitten by an eight-foot-long, 400-pound bull shark while standing in waist-deep water. We even get two views of the attack—both below and above water. As the shark moves in and turns its head to grab onto the scientist's leg and tries to roll him over—presumably to drown him and drag him off to eat—I couldn't help but think about that poor young man in the Florida Panhandle. FYI, there's some pretty graphic footage, and not just the swirl of fins and tail in murky water. The attack footage is quite clear and runs in slow motion about 20 times during the program. It's a brief clip, and one we don't need to see quite so many times, but producer-director James Younger obviously wanted to milk it for all it was worth. There's also a pretty clear shot of Ritter's leg out of water, where you can see his entire calf bitten away, and the producers trot out other members of the shark attack survivors club. We see stumps and scars and, the most traumatizing, home video shot two years after Ritter's attack of a young woman swimming off her boat in the South Pacific . . . and the 20-foot-long Great White that swirls around her and then bites off her entire leg.
Despite scientists' efforts to educate the public, and no matter how infrequent they say shark attacks are—worldwide, less than 100 are reported per year—the attacks still happen often enough for the average person to continue to be both terrified and mawkishly fascinated. These creatures are beady-eyed throwbacks to prehistoric times that inspire nervousness. Once, in Barbados, I was swimming some 50 yards off-shore over a colorful reef when I noticed two reef sharks about ten feet below me. Needless to say, I swam for shore with my heart pounding and my ears thumping to the "Da-dum, Da-dum, Da-dum" music of "Jaws." I'd venture to say that I'm not the only one that reacts in such a way, and that fear-factor fascination is what makes Shark Week and shows like this popular. Combine this format with the forensics approach—another TV staple—and you've got a winner.
Ritter's attack happened on April 9, 2002 in the flats of Walker's Cay, Bahamas. Ritter, who is Chief Scientist for the Global Shark Attack File—an outfit that studies sharks, specifically to better understand the causes (and possible preventions) of shark attacks—is standing in shallow water with nature show host Nigel Martin. He's demonstrating how it's possible to get right in the middle of a large group of bull sharks and safely interact with them when one big shark bumps him from behind and takes a chunk out of his leg. Then it's chaos as they try to get him, blood spurting, out of the water and into the boat. Martin looks stunned, and well he should.
Personally, I would have been content to see this footage only several times, then have Ritter talk about sharks and their behavior while showing clips of these graceful, constantly moving killing machines. But that wasn't Younger's intent. "To understand what happened to him," Ritter hooks up with other scientists and animatronics experts to recreate the bite and the attack. Color me skeptical, but I don't quite understand how enlisting The Shark Factory—who produced lifelike animatrons for such films as "Flipper" and "Free Willy"—to launch a real-looking Mako model at Ritter in a pool is going to tell him anything more that he couldn't see from the film. Then again, I'm not a marine biologist.
After doing the model recreation, it's on to the bite tests to gauge how much force the big fish used to sever Ritter's main artery in his leg and easily tear off his entire calf muscle. For this, Ritter visits Jim Sharits at Techniflex, Inc., where a mechanical shark is created so that the scientists can measure the bite pressure. Again, I think that far too much time (and too much melodrama) is spent on the mechanical bite tests, with the creature in a studio surrounded by flashing concert lights and stage smoke. It's fascinating, but drawn out and overdone.
By the time they bring out the woman who lost her leg to that Great White so that she can "deal" with her attack and understand what happened to her, I feel sorry for her having to endure all this stagey showmanship. But she gamely goes along, as they insert a specially constructed artificial human leg that closely approximates the bone and flesh and muscle structure and texture into the jaws of a mechanical shark and bite clear through the bone.
The episode ends with a consideration of the most famous shark attack, when 900 sailors from the USS Indianapolis went into the water in the Philippine Sea and only 316 survived. As Quint tells it on "Jaws," the rest of the men were eaten alive by sharks. We're told that the Oceanic White-Tipped Shark has been blamed for the attack, but Ritter uses the mechanical shark and the jaw test to prove it was more than likely another culprit from the shark family.
After all is said and done, Ritter offers up reasons for shark attacks which, again, he could have concluded without all of these robotics and mechanical shark demonstrations—but, what fun would that be? Sharks attack in some instances, Ritter says, because of competition for food and territory. Other times they attack when they think you're prey. And finally, they attack when they're curious. Curious sharks always use a light exploratory bite, but for humans that's still an awfully powerful and damaging bite. What can you do to avoid an attack? While Ritter doesn't get too much into that—after all, the focus of this show is on the bite itself, including the how and the why of it—you can certainly learn from his own example. Amazingly, as this huge shark had a hold of his leg and he was obviously in pain, Ritter still had the presence of mind to raise his leg in order to try to get the shark into a vertical position. That way, the gill slits constrict and the shark is forced to let go. I doubt that the rest of us would have the presence of mind or strength to do that, but it's certainly fascinating watching this man react instinctively and then pursue his research and get right back in the water again.
The underwater photography for the show is quite good, though, as I said, too much time is spent on studio or pool recreations.
Video: Though the picture is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio and "standard" definition," the photography is pretty good. If you've seen the "Blue Planet" series, the clarity and definition isn't as strong, but the footage that's professionally shot for this disc is still pretty good. There's slight graininess, but overall most viewers will probably be happy with the quality.
Audio: Same with the audio, which, though it listed on the box cover, appears to be Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (again, except for rough video not shot professionally).
Extras: The only thing that makes "Future Shark" an extra is that this Shark Week show from a previous year is presented without the scene selection options that you get with the feature. In a way, that's too bad, because I can envision a number of people wanting to skip ahead. Despite it's own robotic-sounding title, "Future Shark" is much more of a standard nature-research show than "Anatomy of a Shark Bite." The premise is that technology has advanced so much over the past few years that scientists are able to study some of the sharks anew, as if for the first time. It's the "future" of shark research that's alluded to in the title, but really scientists pursue their studies of three species: the bottom-dwelling angel shark, the gigantic whale shark, and the barbelled nurse shark. The footage for this show is quite dramatic—even the above-water exteriors, which include Honduras—and there's a copious amount of underwater shots for each of the sharks. To be honest, nature-lovers may find this episode more enjoyable and enlightening than "Anatomy of a Shark Bite."
Rounding out the extras are a Shark Smarts Quiz that's pretty standard trivia (medium difficulty level) and a preview for the "full throttle" TV-on-DVD Sony shows. As for paper products, there's just an insert advertising Sony titles.
Bottom Line: Though "Anatomy of a Shark Bite" bogs down a bit in sensationalism and repetition, the premise and the footage are still enough to make the show interesting and fun to watch. It's not for the squeamish, but if you grimmace and bear it, you'll find plenty to hold your attention.