Shark Week: Swimming with Phelps, in search of a 'serial killer'

A great white shark in Discovery’s “Great White Serial Killer Lives,” premiering on Shark Week on Sunday

“We’re the only species on earth that observes Shark Week. Sharks don’t even observe Shark Week.”

— Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), Community

Call me inhuman, but, like sharks, I don’t observe Shark Week.

Plenty of people do, though, enough to have kept the Discovery Channel’s annual programming stunt going since the summer of 1988, and for the eight-day Shark Week to have attracted a rival: SharkFest, six days of fin-filled programming Nat Geo Wild proudly promotes as “the No. 2 week of sharks.”

That both kick off Sunday night seems dumb: Why make people choose? Unless they’re expected to fill their DVRs with great whites and hammerheads to get them through the shark drought between the end of Shark Week and summer TV’s next fin-filled event.

Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, with its catchy, crowdsourced tagline, “Make America bait again,” premieres Aug. 6 on Syfy.

“Against the Sharks, we need every man we got.”

— Riff, West Side Story

Any way you look at it, it’s a lot of sharks. Only Discovery, though, has Michael Phelps. The 28-time Olympic medalist is going to be seen racing a great white shark in the waters off Cape Town, South Africa, at 8 p.m. Sunday in Phelps vs. Shark: The Battle for Ocean Supremacy. (SharkFest, like an annoying little brother, is using Olympian and Dancing with the Stars veteran Ryan Lochte to promote its programming. He will not, however, be racing any sharks.)

Michael Phelps

Phelps has a second special, next Sunday, Shark School with Michael Phelps, in which, Discovery says, he’ll be taught to safely dive with sharks, and “how to stay calm when a hammerhead swims two feet above his face.”

Discovery’s  “race,” for which Phelps will be wearing a mermanlike monofin, reportedly involves timing each participant swimming in a straight line for 100 meters in open water — not a head-to-head contest.

Sharks don’t swim for medals — and probably can’t be promised a gold medalist for dinner — so what’s the shark’s motivation? A great white is supposedly capable of hitting 25 m.p.h. If it’s even half trying, it should blow Phelps out of the water. If it doesn’t, will the other sharks laugh?

“Here’s some advice I wish I would’ve gotten when I was your age: Live every week like it’s Shark Week.”

— Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), 30 Rock

Do sharks laugh? If I watched Shark Week, I might know this.

The truth is, I mostly approve of Shark Week, from a safe distance. I love whale-watching trips. I grew up watching Flipper. I’m pro-science. I’m happy that Discovery seems to have retreated from schlock like the 2013 mockumentary Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, and that Shark Week viewers will have the opportunity to donate to the oceans-conservation group Oceana.

I do wonder, though, how many fans of Shark Week are, like too many Game of Thrones watchers, just in it for the blood. I want to think it’s for the science, or for the cleverly titled shows like Sharks and the City: LA and Sharks and the City: NYC (9 and 10 p.m. Tuesday), the latter narrated by Sex and the City’s Mr. Big himself, Chris Noth. Or Shark Week’s Eli Roth-hosted late-night show, Shark After Dark.

Preceding Phelps’ “race” on Sunday, though, is a 7 p.m. special, Great White Serial Killer Lives, the latest in a series of  Shark Week programs to use “serial killer” in documentaries about shark attacks. Who do they think they are? CBS?

According to Discovery, “every two years in October — in 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014 — a secluded beach on the central California coast has been the scene of great white shark attacks. Is it the same shark returning again and again? … Dr. Michael Domeier believes the Surf Beach attacks may be more than a tragic coincidence. With the help of shark experts Ralph Collier and Cal Lutheran, and using satellite tags and DNA technology, he wants to out the killer once and for all.”

Feeling nature-friendly, but not into sharks?

PBS is also taking on Shark Week, with Sunday’s premiere of the three-part event Wild Alaska Live (8 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday, and July 30, WHYY12).  Hosts Chris and Martin Kratt (Kratts’ Creatures) take viewers to the summer feeding grounds of bears, wolves, whales, eagles, and other creatures that don’t yet have a week of their own.

Or an Olympian to race.