Sharks have both fascinated and frightened us for decades. Movies such as Jaws, and the endless string of sequels and imitators that followed, has left a generation asking "Is it safe to go back in the water?" Of course, the world of these magnificent creatures is much more diverse and complex than Hollywood could possibly portray. From the majestic and gentle whale shark (the world’s largest fish) to sharks small enough to fit into the palm of your hand, the study of these animals is a fascinating and challenging endeavor for even the most knowledgeable researcher.
This is the focus of an outstanding PBS documentary entitled Shark Mountain. The program follows the work of Howard Hall and his wife Michelle, two of the most respected underwater photographers in the country. Along with their associate, Bob Cranston, Howard and Michelle (with their forty cases of equipment in tow) journey to the idyllic Coco’s Island, off the coast of Central America. Affectionately known as "Shark Mountain," these waters are some of the world’s most densely populated in ocean life. In fact, twelve miles of it have been set apart as an underwater national park.
As the expedition begins, "Shark Mountain" quickly lives up to its name as Howard and Bob see a school of hammerheads so dense that it blocks out the sun. The footage taken is completely breathtaking, and reminded me why I’ve always wanted to learn how to scuba dive. I’ve never seen such a beautiful and pristine representation of the undersea world. In addition to the sharks, we are also shown the amazing diversity of the biosphere. From the graceful beauty of manta rays to the outright weirdness of the frogfish and red-lipped batfish, we are reminded once again that creation has many faces.
We also learn some important facts about shark anatomy. Interestingly, one of the main ways that sharks track their prey is by organs that detect electrical impulses in moving objects. This enables the sharks to hunt even in complete darkness. Sharks also possess an uncanny ability to track their prey by following changes in the water’s current. "Shark Mountain" also contains a graphic scene of the very violent making ritual of white-tipped reef sharks. Several males brutally attack the female, latching onto her gills with their teeth. The shark’s bodies slash and gyrate intensely until the process is complete. The female then slowly swims away, exhausted and bleeding.
These beautiful waters take on an entirely different feel at night, as Michelle makes an attempt at diving into the eerie darkness, with the only significant light coming from a hand-held flashlight. The journey becomes even more frightening as she encounters some particularly aggressive silky sharks lurking on the ocean floor. The program also gives us other looks at nature’s darker side, such as a ritual known as the "baitball feeding frenzy," in which sharks and other underwater predators force game fish to the water’s surface, where an intense competition with carnivorous birds takes place.
Of course, there is much more to Coco’s Island than the undersea life. The terrestrial aspect of the island has a wondrous beauty all its own. The lush plant life is stimulated by the island’s frequent rainfall. In fact, we are humorously told that there are only two weather conditions: Its either raining, or getting ready to rain. We also get a look at the unusual birds which are native to the region, such as the fairy turn. This bird’s unusual approach to nesting requires it to do an almost gravity-defying balancing act with her eggs.
As the program draws to a close, we a treated to an encore appearance from the hammerheads, as their strong, yet graceful shadows once again dance across the ethereal ocean blue. This is a fitting finale to an excellent presentation that is as much artistry as science. Although this will admittedly sound somewhat cliché’, the team succeeds brilliantly at creating a "oneness" between the viewer and the topic, making you a participant in the frightening, yet stunningly beautiful world of the shark. Nonetheless, the question still remains unanswered:
"Well, is it safe to go back into the water?"