TV Review: Swimming With (Empathetic) Monsters


Er… Steve? Image via discovery

Before yesterday evening I would have sworn, in a document written using my own blood if necessary, that I had sat through every conceivable televisual extrapolation of man’s fascination with Great White Sharks.

I’ve watched Robin Reliant sized members of this extensively toothed species launch themselves out of the water in pursuit of Styrofoam seals, force their way into pitifully inadequate dive cages and literally hundreds of hours of footage of them swimming in the vicinity of divers armed with cameras and inadequate poky sticks, the expressions on their pointy faces suggesting they’re as bored and pissed off with the whole charade as I am.

But that was the old days, before Steve Backshall.


Sciunz. Image via discovery.

Backshall is a madman. That’s no criticism; the Discovery Channel has spent the last couple of decades pushing the boundaries of wildlife photography and some sort of lunacy is essential if they hope to emulate the success of the magnificent Steve Irwin. But while Irwin made his name by striding confidently through muddy ponds in beige shorts, shouting “crikey, I think he’s gonna bite me!” as crocodiles surged through the water towards him, at first glance, Backshall is a more refined model, groomed to appeal to the more discerning animal attack enthusiast. He’s rugged and tanned in all the right places, he doesn’t have a mullet and his mission is to swim with all manner of dangerous beasts; the trailer promises altercations with hippos, anacondas and a seriously pissed off looking squid after the Great White sharks of the first episode.

All this should instill confidence as he drops into the crystal clear waters off Guadalupe Island, near the coast of Mexico. But as curious sharks began to emerge from the blue, their interest presumably piqued by the terror the cameraman was exuding from every pore, I suddenly felt as though I’d signed up for a swim with an expert, only to turn up on the day to learn that Alan Partridge in a wetsuit was a late replacement.

Having observed the sacred Shark Week tropes: swimming with some fur seals, placing a transmitter inside a shark, popping on a white coat and talkin’ bout da science, Steve prepares to disprove the notion that Great White sharks are mindless predators that will feed on anything. In order not to repeat similar experiments conducted by, well, virtually everyone, his method is to exploit Carcharodon Carcharias’ previously untested sense of pity.

This culminates with Steve sitting atop a  perfectly serviceable shark cage, four metres beneath the surface, casually chatting to camera about the dangers of being in the water with such terrifying, unpredictable beasts. Meanwhile, the viewer, the cameraman and presumably the two rugged shark wrangler dudes brandishing broom handles just out of shot, are watching a fifteen foot female already identified as being a bit stroppy, slowly approach Steve from behind. He had no idea until, having identified the ease with which she could rip him in two and save some for later, she swims peacefully past, sadly missing the wide eyed double take from our hapless hero, visible even though he’s wearing a scuba mask.

This is hilarious at first, but as Steve repeatedly drifts unknowingly into the path of hideous bloody death, I fancy I can see the predators deviate from their line of approach, shake their heads and languidly swim off to torment some seals. It’d be like savaging a kitten, they ruefully decide, and while I’m always prepared to throw an appraising glance at footage of a  shark attack, I agree that it’s better for the world if Steve  lives to swim another day.

He’s got the hippo thing coming up, after all. Apparently they’re less inclined towards pity.

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