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Marine biologist Austin Gallagher: ‘Shark Week’ 2023 all about pushing boundaries – UPI.com




“Belly of the Beast” kicks of “Shark Week” Sunday. Photo courtesy of Discovery

NEW YORK, July 23 (UPI) — Marine biologist Austin Gallagher says he was thrilled to hear his program, Belly of the Beast, was chosen to kick off Discovery channel’s 2023 edition of Shark Week on Sunday.

“It’s a huge honor to have the opening show this year and, rightfully so. When we were shooting this one, we knew we had the chance to do something really special,” Gallagher told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

“This year was all about pushing boundaries and new innovations and really thinking of taking a ‘next-generation’ approach to Shark Week and a next generation approach to shark science.”

In Belly of the Beast, Gallagher and his 25-member crew used a life-size whale decoy to film a shark feeding frenzy off the coast of South Africa.

“Moving through the country with all this equipment and a huge fake whale decoy was a lot of logisitics, but the payoff was just unbelievable,” Gallagher said.

“You’re going to see things on the show that you have never seen on Shark Week before,” he added.

“We found the largest white shark ever in South African history. That is completely legit. We measured it with a drone. … The network was excited about it, but what I am really excited about is how the fans are going to react.”

Monster Mako: Fresh Blood, premiering Thursday, shows Gallagher and free diver Andre Musgrove use a clear, acrylic diving bell to study 12-foot-long mako sharks as they compete with great whites for meals off the coast of California.

“We were able to work with some of the largest sharks in the ocean — white sharks and makos — in two places that are known as white shark hot spots,” Gallagher said.

“Both shows [Belly of the Beast and Monster Mako] were focused on the concept of what are sharks doing with feeding and what are some of the prey items they might be focusing on and how can we get close to them?”

Gallagher pointed out that finding and tracking the largest examples of any species of shark is difficult.

“These are the breeding individuals. These are the ones that sustain the population. Those are the ones we need to keep around,” he said.

“They move around a lot and they don’t get that big without learning a lot. Sharks are very long-lived — they can live to 50 or 60 — and white sharks can live over 100 years, so they gain a lot of knowledge.”

They don’t like people or go out of their way to eat them, Gallagher emphasized, contradicting the way sharks are often portrayed in films and TV shows.

“We are not a natural food item for them,” he said.

Alien Sharks: Strange New Worlds premieres Monday and follows wildlife biologist Forrest Galante to the tip of South Africa, which is known for unusual sharks that exhibit bizarre behaviors.

“What was most rewarding to me was the opportunity to showcase so many unique species that are underrepresented by the media,” Galante said.

“Every year, on Shark Week, we see a whole bunch of tiger sharks and great white sharks and hammerheads and bull sharks and this was a chance to let the little guys shine.”

Belly of the Beast and Alien Sharks were filmed around South Africa because the region provides ideal conditions for a diverse array of creatures to make it their home.

“You have the mixing of two different oceans — the warm Indian Ocean and the cold Atlantic Ocean — and, when those two come together, you now have a third zone, which is this mixing zone,” Galante said.

“Any time you have that many habitats that close together, you have a high level of speciation where you have all kinds of different animals,” he added. “For a shark lover, it’s just a dream come true to go there.”

Even though these waters can be treacherous, Galante tries to focus on the positive when heading out on his adventures.

“I think everybody should enjoy and appreciate the ocean because that allows us to fall in love with it and falling in love with it allows us to protect it,” he said.

“But I’m not going to sit here and sugarcoat it. It’s freezing cold. It’s incredibly turbid,” Galante added. “Any time you’re entering into the ocean, you are signing a mental waiver that says anything can happen and you’re not in your own realm.”

Marine biologist Tom Hird stars in both Monday’s Great White Fight Club — which offers evidence that female white sharks dominate the oceans — and Cocaine Sharks — which is about how sharks act when they consume drugs dumped in the ocean. It debuts Wednesday.

Cocaine Sharks, I was very lucky to be hosting that and directing myself. That really played into my strengths in terms of my experience. I’ve studied a lot of behavior in fish, so we were primarily looking at behavior and shark diving, plus it was a crazy idea,” he said.

“As my old man would say, ‘We were carving history,’ because we didn’t know! So, we were looking for unique behaviors in the sharks and the fish that we saw,” he added. “Different chemicals will affect different fish in entirely different ways.”

Hird, whose nickname is Blowfish, felt privileged to be involved in Great White Fight Club, which he described as sharkologist Michelle Jewell’s show.

“She invited me along for it. She basically said: ‘Fish, I’m going to New Zealand. I hate diving in cold water. Do you fancy it?’ And I went, ‘Hell, yeah!’ Because I like cold-water diving,” Hird said.

“It’s brilliant to be able to work under someone like Michelle who has really clear ideas and she is willing to discuss things.”

Shark Week is wildly entertaining, but also important from a conservation standpoint because it inspires viewers to care about these animals and their environments, and, will, hopefully, get them to consider how they can personally help the cause, according to Hird.

“You’ve got so many — certainly, here in the U.K. — a lot of very prim, proper, stuffed shirt [type scientists,]” he said.

“I look like an orc that was kicked off Lord of the Rings for being too damn ugly,” Hird laughed. “As a presenter, of course, you have to talk to the camera, but I try not to be the center of attention. I’m not worth being the center of attention because here you have animals that are so interesting.”

Aquaman and Game of Thrones icon Jason Momoa recorded promotional material and introductions for the various Shark Week programs before the Screen Actors Guild went on strike earlier this month.

Sadly, Hird didn’t get to interact with Momoa at all.

“The Aquaman and the Blowfish are yet to lock horns, but, one day, it will happen!” Hird quipped.

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