Shark Week Expert Jeff Kurr Previews 'Great White Serial Killer' (Video)
The filmmaker talks about his investigation into fatal attacks on a beach that happened exactly two years apart, reveals why he thinks it is the same shark and offers his thoughts on "Sharknado."
Natural history filmmaker and shark expert Jeff Kurr, who has been part of Discovery Channel's Shark Week every year since 1991, this year investigates what he calls a "murder-mystery with sharks."
In Great White Serial Killer, which debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday, Kurr sets out to examine two fatal shark attacks on California's Surf Beach, near Vandenberg Air Force base, using evidence found at both sites to try to determine if one shark was responsible for both attacks. Interesting, both happened exactly two years apart in the same place.
Kurr also served as executive producer, director and cinematographer Great White Serial Killer. (His previous Shark Week credits include producing 2011's Great White Invasion and last year's Air Jaws Apocalypse.)
Ahead of the debut of the special, Kurr talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his ongoing investigation into shark attacks and what viewers can expect from the show.
The Hollywood Reporter: What can you tell us about Great White Serial Killer?
Jeff Kurr: It's sort of what I call a murder-mystery with sharks. It's a very compelling story that I discovered going on at a place called Surf Beach, near Vandenberg Air Force base in Central California, and what happened there at that beach. A great white shark -- more than one, possibly -- every two years, a shark goes into that beach and attacks someone basically on the same day. It's a bizarre coincidence. The fact that the shark returned every two years led me to believe we're talking about the same shark. In the course of the show, our investigation points to this being the same shark.
THR: What kind of attacks have happened?
Kurr: In 2008 was the first attack. I found that out after I started this show. On Oct. 22, 2010, a 19-year-old body boarder was killed. On Oct. 23, 2012, a 39-year-old father of two was killed by a great white shark in the same spot. What I discovered in the course of studying these attacks and using forensic evidence was that the sharks were over 16 feet long. That's one of the biggest great whites on record. That's very rare for a shark in California waters, which leads me personally to believe it's the same shark.
THR: What happened in the 2008 attack?
Kurr: It was a winemaker named Kyle, and he wasn't injured. His board was bitten, and he actually escaped. At the time, people thought it was a random attack. Most attacks are completely random, but when I started to see patterns, I thought, "Something is going on here." In 2010, people got a little more nervous, and when the shark attacked in 2012, it pretty much cleared the beach. Very few people go to Surf Beach now. It's almost like a haunted beach. It affected people emotionally; it's a tight-knit community. I compare it to a real-life Jaws scenario. … I think it's the only beach in the world with signs warning about fatal shark attacks.
THR: What other evidence supports the idea that it's the same shark attacking every two years?
Kurr: We talked to the mother of one of the victims, and she had been doing her own research, and discovered that Surf Beach has a toxic chemical called domoic acid, at the highest levels of any place along California. It occurs in algae blooms and kills fish, and it poisons seals and makes them drunk and lethargic and easy for a white shark to catch, so that was [luring] the white sharks in for an easy meal. Something else that supports our case is that there's a great white shark female tagged with a satellite transmitter up in Northern California. They have a two-year-long migration … which fits perfectly with the attacks in 2008, 2010 and 2012. Sharks follow patterns; they're regimented in their schedule, like homing pigeons. They align in certain places on virtually the same day. It happens worldwide.
THR: What are the odds that this is the same shark?
Kurr: There are going to be a lot of skeptics who say it can't possibly be the same shark. I don't think outside the realm of possibility. But there are around 220 white sharks on the West Coast of California; if you consider [it's a female shark], that list is cut in half; then if you look at sharks over 16 feet long -- only a few sharks ever get that big -- you put two and two together, and it's a strong possibility this might be the same shark coming back.
THR: Will you go back in October 2014 to see what happens?
Kurr: I will be out there in my kayak and with a few GoPro cameras getting visual evidence of this shark. Hopefully, everything works out and I can get a skin sample, DNA genetic material, and can do an analysis and compare the DNA from the 2010 attack and be able to say if it's the same shark coming back.
THR: You've worked with sharks a long time. Do you have any fear of sharks at all?
Kurr: I have a lot of experience; I've been up close and personal with great white sharks. … I don't necessarily fear them. Sharks are not targeting people; these attacks really are an accident -- a case of mistaken identity. They are probably coming in there to attack seals and happen to run into surfers. White sharks never target people, but they share the same water, and unfortunately accidents happen. Sharks follow patterns; they learn very quickly what are the good places to hunt and [return there] over and over again. You see [in other parts of the world] the same sharks go back to the same exact spot on the same day, year after year; they learn where they can catch seals and find plenty to eat. They remember these things; they are not the mindless dangers people portray them as. They are very smart and well-evolved. When it comes to human [attacks on Surf Beach], both were single-bite incidents. They did not stick around to consume people; they realized they made a mistake and left immediately. In fact, there were other people in the water at the time, and the sharks didn't go back to get other victims. It was one bite and done and gone. So the sharks realized they made a mistakes; in these cases, the bites were aggressive, the people had no chance to survive them.
THR: Are sharks not able to tell the difference between humans and their prey?
Kurr: Like any fish, if a shark sees something at the surface that looks appealing, it's going to go up and have a good look. Unfortunately, they have no hands and can't touch it, so they basically have to investigate with their teeth. Something about these [attacks] triggered the shark, which obviously thought it was something to eat.
THR: Anything else you'd like to add about Great White Serial Killer?
Kurr: We went to New Zealand to put [TV personality and animal expert] Brandon McMillan in the water with a great white shark. There was an 18-footer, which was the biggest shark I had ever seen in 23 years of Shark Week. We got some amazing footage. Another thing about the show [regarding the title], the great white shark and serial killers do mimic each other in the they hunt and choose their prey. There have been scientific studies done on this. But obviously, their motivations are different. Sharks just want to feed; serial killers have psychological reasons. A shark isn't trying to hurt anybody; they're just trying to survive.
THR: On another note, I have to ask: Did you see Sharknado?
Kurr: I saw [clips]. I thought it was hilarious. I love campy shark stuff like that. Anything that gets the word out about sharks is good for these animals. They are heavily fished worldwide, and things like Sharknado and Shark Week take a lot of credit for turning around people's perspective on sharks. Only a generation ago, people thought that the only good shark was a dead shark. [Now], people love sharks. Everywhere you go, people go crazy over sharks. A lot of people dive [to see] sharks on vacation. And the ratings on [Discovery Channel's Sunday night special] Megalodon were fantastic. It's a good thing to have people talking about sharks and thinking about sharks. Animals that aren't talked about and forgotten about, like in the case of rhinos, can easily be wiped out.
Great White Serial Killer airs at 10 p.m. Wednesday on Discovery Channel. Watch a preview below.