Sharks have a bad rep. Thanks in no small part to Steven Spielberg, who cleverly played on our primordial fears with his blockbuster thriller Jaws, these majestic creatures are generally thought of as little more than mindless killing machines.
Shark (BBC One), the Natural History Unit’s spectacular new three-part documentary coinciding with Jaws’ 40th anniversary, aims to change that.
Rather than portraying sharks as bloodthirsty predators bent on terrorising human beings at, say, a New England beach resort, the opening instalment went to great lengths to improve their PR.
Two years in the making, this was a hymn to their intelligence, teamwork – and eccentricity.
Indeed, much of the episode focused on the sharks with the most fascinating quirks. Take, for instance, the fantastically named tasselled wobbegong.
A master of disguise, this bizarre species of carpet shark is able to camouflage itself against the coral reefs, where it lies in wait, its glinting tail mimicking a small fish to lure prey in.
“It’s beeee-hiiiind yoooouuu,” said narrator Paul McCann in a jarringly jaunty tone, as the shark finally pounced in glorious close-up.
There was also neat footage of a goblin shark, a hideous brute whose jaws come hurtling out of its head in a manner reminiscent of the phallic monster in the Alien franchise.
The Greenland shark, meanwhile, cut a forlorn figure. Living for up to 200 years and found at depths of 2,200 metres below sea level, these squinting, manatee-like creatures drift along in solitude, the surface of their eyes chewed on by parasites until they go completely blind. Theirs is a particularly plaintive existence.
Just as captivating was a balletic sequence involving a gathering of blacktips. Working together like a pack of wolves, they herded a shoal of 10 million anchovies and suddenly unleashed hell. It was a massacre.
Elsewhere, we saw a mako, the fastest of all 510 species of shark, capable of swimming at 46 miles per hour, giving chase to a speedboat. (“Think of it as a torpedo with teeth,” said McCann.)
It wasn’t until the end of the programme, though, that the great white made its grand entrance. To watch these ferocious aquatic titans hunt down seals with ruthless efficiency is to witness a force of nature; one that inspires as much awe as it does terror.
Strange, then, that a soporific quality was allowed to permeate this scene; McCann’s meek delivery felt in stark contrast to the thrashing, primeval nature of a great white. Still, it goes without saying that the NHU – who spent a total of 2,646 hours underwater – have conjured something beautiful here. Maybe it’s time for a new sequel, Jaws: a Tail of Redemption.
This article was first published by The Telegraph on 07 May 2015.