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Shark Week 2011: Filmmaker Jeff Kurr Talks 'Great White Invasion'

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SHARK WEEK 2011
Shark Week producer Jeff Kurr discusses 21 years of filming great whites. | Discovery Channel

Jeff Kurr knows a thing or two about sharks.

During his two-plus decades with Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the LA-based filmmaker has captured some of the most ground-breaking and dazzling footage of these feared creatures of the sea. This year, Kurr focuses his attention on the great white shark's return to our shallow waters and sandy beaches in "Great White Invasion."

To get psyched for Shark Week 2011, we sat down with Kurr to discuss all things cautious sharks, endangered sharks, and even a few frisky sharks.

What first motivated you to film sharks?

Well, very early on I thought, 'I'd really like to do that some day.' And lo and behold, through fate, luck, and being blessed, I had an opportunity to work on a Shark Week show way back in '91. It was pretty successful and I was offered another show, and another show, and here we are 20-something years later and still doing it. It's the best office in the world, to swim with sharks. It's an incredible job and I'm blessed to have it.

What has most changed over the 21 years that you have been filming sharks?

Well, it's been an incredible voyage, if you will, because really in the last 21 years we have learned so much about shark behavior and it's really due to all the great new technology out there. Filming the program "Ultimate Air Jaws," which was on Shark Week last year, we used a camera that shoots 1,000 frames per second. What that allowed us to do was to slow down the attacks by great whites from one second of real time (footage) to 45 seconds or a minute actually on tape. It allows you to see incredible detail from these sharks that you can't see with the naked eye ... you can literally count the teeth ... it's phenomenal.

Do you ever really get used to the danger that comes with filming sharks?

Diving with sharks is sort of an acquired taste, you really need to get used to it. When I first started doing it, I was very nervous because I was so affected by growing up and watching the movie "Jaws." After a while you begin to understand that these sharks are very cautious ... In fact, while filming "Great White Invasion," I had my host Chris Fallows out on a paddle board with these huge 14-foot great white sharks right off the beach on South Africa. The point of that was not a stunt -- it was because Chris and I both believe that sharks often are not always in attack mode. If you can read their body language, you can see that a lot of times they come to shallow water to relax, digest meals, and there's even been some scientific discussion that they come to suntan. So we find that in a lot of cases, great white sharks are very shy and reluctant creatures. For that very reason we are able to get very close to them and film the way that we film.

Is there anything shark-related that you have never been able to catch on camera?

I think the holy grail of shark filmmaking is capturing great white sharks mating. It's never been done, but I feel like I've gotten close to this a couple times. There was a scene that we shot in the first "Air Jaws" film back in 2000, when we had 20-something great whites eating this dead whale carcass and the scientist that I was working with explained to me that the male sharks were, um, frisky ... He was able to deduce that scientifically. I though for sure we would be able to get mating during that whale feeding, but it never happened. There are so many people with cameras now out in the wild that someone will come across two great white sharks that are actually locked up together, probably biting each other, and mating, and that's going to be sensational to see because it's never been captured. I'm still hopeful, maybe I'll get it one day.

What about the social action and awareness aspects of Shark Week?

I know that Shark Week has partnered with several environmental groups whose primary directive and initiative is to get the word out that sharks are being slaughtered worldwide at an unsustainable rate. I do think they are being fished at close to 70 million sharks per year, so we are very proactive about letting people know this problem.

I should also mention that despite a lot of doom and gloom out there about sharks being killed, in "Great White Invasion" we talk about one of the only success stories with sharks, which is the fact that along a lot of coast lines in our protected waters, great white sharks are actually coming back to levels that we haven't seen in a generation ... The fact that there are more sharks there -- that people are seeing sharks almost daily out in places like Santa Monica -- it's not a bad thing. It means that the ocean is healthy and the great whites are coming back from the brink of extinction really ... it means that they can grow up and not worry about being turned into shark fin soup.

Finally, we all know that Shark Week is wildly popular, so what makes these creatures so fascinating?

I think it varies depending on who you ask. Kids like them because they are cool, like dinosaurs and jet planes, things like that. I think people like them because the whole world has been so sanitized for our protection. All the great predators have been stripped from the main, put behind fences ... You really need to go out of your way to get attacked by a lion. There's always the thought in the back of a person's mind when they enter the water, that they’re stepping into the wilderness and anything can be under those waters. There could be a great white shark right off the beach in southern California, on the east coast, in South Africa, in Australia, you just don't know. For those people who really like a little bit of adventure in their lives, sharks are exciting. They are out there, they do have the potential for mayhem, and that intrigues people.

"Great White Invasion" premieres on Discovery Channel when Shark Week kicks off this Sunday night at 9 PM ET. Here's a sneak peak:

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