Sharkfest Summer

The 2024 installment of National Geographic’s annual Sharkfest kicked off at the tail end of June, with a whopping 26 hours of new and original programming about one of nature’s most awe-inspiring and ancient predators to debut across ​​Nat Geo, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo Mundo, Disney+, Hulu and ESPN2.

“Sharkfest was kicked off with the need to have shows that were more critically based on real behavior and scientific facts,” says Janet Han Vissering, senior VP of development and production at National Geographic, on the development of the event. “Our shows have been entertaining and informing audiences for over 12 years, and there’s still so much more to uncover about these incredible and crucial creatures we share our home with.”

Filling tons of programming real estate with brand-new, entertaining, fresh and educational content is not an easy feat, but Han Vissering notes that “year-round research and cutting-edge technology” allow for “no shortage of fantastic shark content.”

This year’s slate is led by a New Orleans-focused special helmed by Marvel hero Anthony Mackie and a Big Wave Productions-produced challenge title with sports star and shark advocate Ross Edgley. “Star power is a key ingredient to ensuring each season of Sharkfest feels fresh and exciting to audiences,” says Han Vissering. That notoriety allows the programming to “continue to deliver scientific firsts, as well as raise awareness about these incredibly important creatures and how the impacts of climate change are affecting their species.”

On his special, entitled Shark vs. Ross Edgley, Edgley says, “I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and all its inhabitants as a child, but this turned into an obsession in 2018 when I set the record for the world’s longest staged sea swim.” He continues, “I spoke to the wildlife geniuses at National Geographic, and the idea for Shark vs. Ross Edgley was born.”

“What we tried to do in this documentary is push the boundaries of investigative journalism by literally following in the footsteps of four incredible sharks,” adds Edgley. “We haven’t seen anyone combine shark science and sports science to try and bring ocean conservation to a new audience.”

On Nutopia’s Shark Beach with Anthony Mackie: Gulf Coast, Han Vissering says: “Anthony Mackie brought such a unique and personal perspective to Shark Beach this season. We shot in his hometown of New Orleans, in waters he grew up boating and fishing in and still fishes in today, where he connected with leading scientists and local fishermen to learn more about the future of shark conservation in the region.”

Following their Nat Geo premieres, Shark vs. Ross Edgley and Shark Beach with Anthony Mackie: Gulf Coast have become available on Disney+ and Hulu. Nat Geo WILD will air Shark Beach on August 2 and Shark vs. Ross Edgley the next day.

Finding the balance between keeping the familiar legacy of Sharkfest and pushing the boundaries of the factual genre every year is key to making the slate stand out. “While we continue to expand the boundaries of our understanding of sharks and their habits, they remain excitingly unpredictable,” explains Han Vissering. “This keeps our teams and scientists on our toes—or fins?—which ensures thrilling content for viewers.”

Staying true to Sharkfest’s mission of education, too, is crucial. Han Vissering says: “The goal has always been to deliver fact-based programming that is entertaining and informative. To deliver this type of engaging content, the Nat Geo production team stays in lockstep with the experts, and they are constantly updating each other, which helps inform planning and filming.”

National Geographic Society (NGS) Explorer and marine biologist Dr. Diva Amon, who features in the Arrow Media-produced eight-parter Shark Attack 360, notes that blending entertainment and education is “a hard balancing act.”

Dr. Amon calls Shark Attack 360 “informative, insightful and scientific,” made with the pursuit of that balance in mind. “It helps the audience to understand the natural behavior of sharks; they ultimately don’t target humans. The series is also visually stunning because we use incredible technology, imagery and expertise to investigate [shark and human] interactions.”

Successful nature content must be “rooted in scientific facts,” notes Dr. Amon, with “everything informed by scientific evidence.” She says the second tenet is the need “to be rooted in empathy, whether that is empathy for the animals that we are working with, the ecosystems or the people who are depending on and interacting with them.”

Shark Attack 360 debuted this week on Nat Geo, Disney+ and Hulu and is set to land on Nat Geo WILD on August 1.

Sharkfest’s Dr. Mike Heithaus, an NGS Explorer and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education (CASE) and professor in the department of biological sciences at Florida International University, says, “I am always trying to make sure that we are bringing the excitement of the animals and our work to audiences so they are engaged and entertained. At the same time, I am always making sure that we are only conveying accurate, interesting and important information.”

“This involves a lot of work before the shows, even reaching out to colleagues to hear about their latest work and discoveries,” adds Dr. Heithaus. “The production team and scientists are always collaborating to make sure we get the information right.”

So, what should audiences take away from Sharkfest?

“What people don’t understand is sharks are vital to all marine ecosystems around the world,” says Edgley. “Should we remove them, life in the ocean would cease to exist as we know it.”

Sharks are “a keystone species, responsible for keeping ocean ecosystems in balance,” says Dr. Amon. “We need to be rethinking our relationship with these incredible animals because that’s ultimately going to benefit us and benefit all life on planet Earth.”

Dr. Heithaus adds, “Coupled with that, sharks are in trouble—their populations have been massively overfished—and they are not mindless killing machines. Sharks need our protection.”

From this, producers can glean another lesson: the most vital takeaway from Sharkfest is, ultimately, that the mission gives the event its mass appeal. Content with a greater intention will always shine through. “Sharks have been historically misunderstood and widely feared,” says Han Vissering. “We see Sharkfest as an opportunity to help destigmatize and better understand these critical players in ocean ecosystems.”