Blame — or credit — “Jaws.”
Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller, based on the Peter Benchley novel, drove giant, person-eating sharks so deeply into our national psyche that we’ve been a little afraid to go back into the water ever since.
Marine biologists can tell us over and over that sharks greatly prefer seals to human sushi, but then a great white attacks a kayak off Santa Cruz, Calif., as happened earlier this month, and the scares are real again.
The Discovery Channel has fed on our fascination, and fear, since 1988, when Shark Week was born. The ratings-grabbing phenomenon has grown ever since, with this year’s event, beginning Sunday, going global with same-day airings in 220 countries.
This year’s offerings cover a lot of ocean, from New England to Western Australia to Tokyo. Shark experts weigh in with facts, but scares and silliness abound — one highlight of the eight-day week pits Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps in a race against a great white, “the ocean’s most efficient predator.”
In a promo video, Seal (the singer) is snapped up by a shark while singing “Kiss From a Rose” on a dock, a nod to the week’s catchphrase, “It’s a bad week to be a seal.”
But since 2015, Shark Week has faced a new predator, Nat Geo Wild’s Sharkfest. Is it a ripoff? Yes indeed, and Sharkfest mocked that fact by sending out a news release this year that was an edited version of a Shark Week release.
“The second-best-known week of sharks,” Sharkfest called itself, announcing programs like “Shark vs. Predator” and boasting that it had landed its own Olympic gold medal swimmer, Ryan Lochte.
(Lochte later weighed in on whether Phelps, the only swimmer to top him in gold medals, could beat the shark in a race. “Hell, no,” Lochte was quoted as saying.)
Shark Week boasts of more than a dozen product tie-ins, from Southwest Airlines (again painting shark species on one of its planes) to nail polish to cupcakes.
Nat Geo Wild’s Sharkfest has its own lurid titles but keeps things on the scientific side by rolling out experts and repeating a special looking at dangers to sharks as a species.
Shark Week has its array of scientists, too, even sending Phelps to shark school.
Shark Week hasn’t been without controversy. In past years, fake “documentaries” like “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” aroused the ire of scientists and the scorn of critics who pointed out that fiction is fine but not when it poses as nonfiction.
Speaking of fake — and proudly so: “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming” airs Aug. 6 on Syfy.
Discovery’s Shark Week
“Great White Shark Serial Killer Lives,” 6 p.m. Sunday • Every two years in October, a secluded beach on the central California coast has been the scene of great white shark attacks. Is it the same shark returning again and again?
“Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White,” 7 p.m. Sunday • “The world’s most decorated athlete takes on the ocean’s most efficient predator: Phelps V Shark — the race is on!”
“Shark-Croc Showdown,” 8:10 p.m. Sunday • Experts visit a spot in the Northern Territory of Australia where sharks and crocodiles are reported to fight over sea turtles.
“Devil Sharks,” 9:10 p.m. Sunday • Around the world, sharks congregate around volcanoes and volcanic islands. What is it about volcanoes that make them shark hotspots?
“Shark Vortex,” 7 p.m. Monday • Each summer, the Gulf Stream pushes north into the waters of southern New England, bringing with it 30 species of sharks.
“Return to the Isle of Jaws,” 8 p.m. Monday • Divers and scientists try to unlock the mysteries of this new great white hot spot, just south of Western Australia.
“Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins,” 9 p.m. Monday • The search continues for some of the world’s strangest sharks.
“Sharks and the City: LA,” 8 p.m. Tuesday • Along the coastline of LA, great white sharks are increasing, and they seem to be hunting out of season.
“Sharks and the City: New York,” 9 p.m. Tuesday • For decades, great white shark numbers were in decline in the waters around New York. But now, seals are back in New York Harbor. Can the great whites be far behind?
“The Lost Cage,” 8 p.m. Wednesday • Explorers float in a one-of-a-kind shark cage, 500 miles into the Gulf of Mexico, acting as human lures.
“Great Hammerhead Invasion,” 9 p.m. Wednesday • In early November, giant hammerheads arrive off Bimini, in the Bahamas. But why?
“Shark Exile,” 8 p.m. Thursday • Can a method of catching and moving sharks out to the open sea work in Australia?
“Shark Swarm,” 9 p.m. Thursday • What makes sharks of many kinds gather, swarm and spiral?
“African Shark Safari,” 8 p.m. July 28 • What led a great white shark to travel to Madagascar?
“Lair of the Sawfish,” 9 p.m. July 28 • The sawfish has evolutionary links to sharks and rays.
“Sharkmania,” 8 p.m. July 29 • A recap of Shark Week moments.
“Shark School With Michael Phelps,” 7 p.m. July 30 • In Bimini, Phelps gets a crash course on everything shark.
Nat Geo Wild’s Sharkfest
“Shark v. Predator,” 7 p.m. Sunday • Seals, crocodiles, octopi, bobcats and even birds go head-to-head with sharks.
“Tiger Shark Terror,” 7 p.m. Monday • Divers explore whether shark behavior changes once the sun goes down.
“Mission critical: Sharks Under Attack,” 9 p.m. Monday • A repeat special from National Geographic. Underwater photographer Brian Skerry looks at sharks’ fragile ecosystems.
“Shark Swarm,” 7 p.m. Tuesday • What is the attraction at mysterious waypoints where sharks congregate?
“World’s Deadliest: Shark Frenzy,” 7 p.m. Wednesday • How sharks feed.