Ah, Shark Week. The Discovery Channel’s favorite time of year. The 20th anniversary of cable’s longest-running event kicks off July 29 with Survivorman Les Stroud (pictured), a self-proclaimed child of the Jacques Cousteau era and one of our recently-crowned EW 100, serving as master of ceremonies through August 4. He also hosts his own special, Shark Feeding Frenzy, a look at what’s really on various species’ menus, premiering July 31 at 9 p.m. ET.
I recently phoned Stroud at the Ritz-Carlton New York opposite Central Park — the man can’t rough it all the time — and since he’d been traveling all day, and I’d just accidentally left the notebook with my questions for him in the wilds of the Virgin Megastore where I’d been interviewing Hanson, we opted for the survival technique commonly referred to as “winging it.”
Entertainment Weekly: Was there anything that you yourself wanted to do, but [producers] wouldn’t let you?
LS: Yeah. Be in the water without the cage with the Great Whites.
EW: Why would you want to do that?
LS: I don’t know. I just felt confident with the shark experts there. Mark Rackley, who was filming with me, he and I became brother-dudes. “Dude, did you see that shark?” “Oh, come on, when we go down we’ll go out of the cage. They won’t be able to say anything.” We were conspiring. He’s been in the face of every shark, so he’s very highly-skilled and he saw that I was calm, cool, and collected about it. And then another time was with the hammerhead shark. We were waiting hours for a hammerhead shark to show up, and I’m the in water, and all of the sudden we get the call: “Shark! Hammerhead! Hammerhead!” (Laughs) So the producer starts yelling, “Get Stroud out of the water! Get Stroud out of the water right now!” And while he’s yelling that, I took a big, deep breath and dove down so I could pretend like I couldn’t hear him. I was with Manny Puig, who is the shark expert, and we worked together to get me to ride on the back of a hammerhead shark. So I was being a little of a bugger there for my producer.
EW: I’m silent because my mouth is hanging open.
LS: I’m so jazzed that I had that experience, and I did not feel any sense of fear. I felt very calm. I tell you where I’m scared. I’m scared with polar bears. Polar bears will chase you down and eat you. They definitely scare me. But the sharks are different. Predators like that don’t want to be hurt. They fear being injured because if a predator is injured, he’ll die. If a herbivore is injured, well he can sit and graze for awhile and hide. But a predator gets injured, that’s it, he can’t eat anymore. I saw a 16-foot Great White coming right toward me flinch and move away because I moved my arm. He got jittery and left — and he was 16-feet of Great White teeth, you know. It’s calculated risk. It’s still way riskier to drive on the freeway.
EW: Wait, so you did or did not get out of the cage with a Great White?
LS: (Laughs) Oh no, now my producers are gonna find out, huh? What happened was, we got this big square cage, right? Well this big cage had a big sliding door on the side. As soon as it got down in the water, Mark opens up the big door, and he’s hanging out the cage, and he’s goin’ “Come on, hang out here with me and we’ll get a great shot of the shark coming in for ya.” So we kinda poked our heads out of that cage. But again, I’m with a guy who’s got so much shark experience. You’re still very careful and cautious about the interaction. You’re not reckless.
EW: Why don’t I recall seeing footage of this in the special? Did they use it?
LS: No, what you see is the footage Mark got leaning out, of the sharks coming in close. (Pauses) But you didn’t hear any of this from me. (Laughs) I’m not gonna be one of these guys who shows up and reads lines.
EW: Obviously, the message of Shark Week is still that these are not purposeful maneaters, but sometimes I wonder if that message has gotten through so well over the last 20 years that Discovery feels it has to give us sensational titles like Shark Feeding Frenzy and Top 5 Eaten Alive to keep us coming back.
LS: We run into that conundrum: As people who care about the natural world, you don’t want to create a culture of fear and sensationalize a creature that needs to be protected. On the other hand, when you hear about someone having their arm chomped off while they were surfing, you can’t not want to hear that story. I fear getting in a car and going out on that freeway more than I do getting in the water with sharks. The problem is that people die in car accidents every day. It’s not sexy anymore. A shark attack is sexy and horrific, so we gravitate toward it. It’s hard as someone like yourself or myself who’d like to see it done right, but then again say, “Hey, what story is this? Oh, the guy gets ripped apart? Let me see that.” (Laughs) We’re caught.
EW: Oh, I’m totally watching that Top 5 Eaten Alive special [premieres July 30, 10 p.m.]. The woman who gets taken down by the leg between tourist boats. I love her.
LS: Oh, yeah. I know. I think there’s excitement caught up in the fact that this is a big apex predator that we’re dealing with, that we do have horrific tales that obviously sell well. I would not like to see the shows sensationalize the shark attack scenario. On the other hand, doing some of the testing we did with the different types of meat does create a fairly exciting scenario, because now you’re watching a 12-foot tiger shark rip into a turkey, and it kinda brings it home: Okay, that’s not natural. If he’s willing to go after that, then it would only make sense that he’d attack a human being if the opportunity would be there. I’m a stickler for the truth in everything I do: Let’s just show it as it is, and if it’s cool, it’s cool.
EW: How do you kill all those hours while you’re waiting for the sharks to show up?
LS: We watch more shark porn on the DVD on the boat. (Laughs) Well, for me, if I can find myself a guitar at a pawn shop, I sit and play guitar and write songs. Otherwise, we read and we wait. There’s a band called the Northern Pikes, they’re fairly famous in Canada. And we’ve banded together to become Les Stroud and the Pikes. We’re releasing a CD in the fall. It [sounds] kinda like Coldplay and Neil Young mixed together. I’ve been a player since I was a kid, so I’m having a blast with it.
EW: Last question: It’s the 20th anniversary of Shark Week. Why are we still fascinated?
LS: I think it’s because this creature is a near mythical beast. It comes from prehistoric times. It lives in a place that we’re not allowed to live. When you get into the water with a Great White, it’s so beautiful and powerful, and yet inspires such incredible awe and fear. The message is still the same: These bad shark encounters are extremely rare exceptions to the rule that sharks just exist [in the ocean]; they’re not there to eat us. They would much prefer fish. If there’s any kind of conservational message attached it’s that we’re losing up to 90 percent of the shark species in the ocean thanks to shark finning. If we kill off the sharks, we kill off the ocean. We kill off the ocean, we kill off us. So it’s gotta go beyond a really cool TV show. (Pause) And, don’t forget that a new season of Survivorman premieres August 10. (Laughs) Drop the plug in.
For more info on this year’s new Shark Week specials, click here.