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Fin-tastic! Discovery Channel dives into Shark Week

Two entirely unrelated things happened almost exactly 10 years apart, and nobody could have predicted how they would eventually become inextricably intertwined.

Director Steven Spielberg's heart-stopping thrill ride "Jaws," based on the novel by Peter Benchley, hit theaters on June 20, 1975, turning the mysterious great white shark from an enigma into the ultimate nemesis (even if a frequently malfunctioning mechanical shark nicknamed Bruce played the title role in most scenes).

On June 17, 1985, Discovery Channel launched, and then only a bit more than two years later, on July 27, 1987, it premiered Shark Week, a programming event showcasing films exploring all things shark - and especially all things great white.

This year, "Jaws" celebrates its 35th anniversary, while Discovery marks its 25th. And starting Sunday at 9 p.m., with a special called "Ultimate Air Jaws," Shark Week launches its 23rd annual edition.

The puppet life of Brian

This year also marks the debut of a new fake shark whose name also begins with B, only this time he does a lot more talking than chomping. On June 14, Craig Ferguson, the Scottish-born star of CBS' "The Late Late Show," said on his program that he would be host of this year's Shark Week event. Helping him make the announcement was Brian the puppet shark, who inexplicably spoke with a posh British accent.

After explaining how much he loves Discovery Channel - calling it "an excellent channel, much better than CBS, that features lots of animals eating other animals, kind of my thing, really" - and making a pro forma lawyers-are-sharks joke, Brian proceeded to call upon all the sharks of the world to gather in the Bahamas, where Ferguson will be diving with sharks.

Apparently the goal is to eat Ferguson, "then finally we can get Craig Kilborn back!"

Indeed, Ferguson will be diving, along with acting as overall emcee for the week and, according to Discovery's president and general manager, W. Clark Bunting, doing the "Best Bites" special, which airs midweek.

Alas, it does not look as if Brian will be following Ferguson from CBS to Discovery.

"I don't think so," Bunting says. "Well, look, I would if I could. There are many others involved in that conversation than just Mr. Bunting's view on that. I would love to see Brian the puppet shark, because I think Brian the puppet shark is great. But there are all sorts of legal and intellectual property issues involved in that question."

Teeth are even sharper in HD

But Brian or no Brian, Shark Week - all in HD, if not yet quite in 3-D, but that's coming - promises plenty of toothy thrills.

First up is the aforementioned "Ultimate Air Jaws," in which shark expert Chris Fallows and filmmaker Jeff Kurr ("Air Jaws," "Air Jaws 2") return to the coast of South Africa to watch great whites rocket into the open air to snatch leaping seals (and lures that look like seals).

Also on Sunday is "Into the Shark Bite" (10 p.m.) created by the producers of Discovery's "Time Warp" series. Filmmakers use high-speed HD cameras to literally go inside a shark's jaws.

Monday at 9 p.m. is "Shark Attack Survival Guide," in which Green Beret Terry Schappert shows ... well, that should be self-explanatory. Also on Monday is "Day of the Shark" (10 p.m.), which recounts the stories of six people in different parts of the world who survived shark attacks.

"Shark Bite Beach" comes up Tuesday at 9 p.m., recalling 2008, when there were multiple shark attacks on normally peaceful beaches in Mexico and Southern California.

Then Wednesday at 9 p.m. is Ferguson's "Best Bites," which reviews the top moments from past Shark Week specials. Unfortunately for Brian, those moments likely don't include Ferguson's demise, but the host did have a life-altering experience.

"In large measure," Bunting says, "that transformation that you see in Craig is as he goes from, 'I'm going to get in the water, having fun,' to coming out of the water and saying, 'Oh, my God, I cannot believe what I just saw.'"

At least Ferguson knew what he was in for, unlike Mrs. Bunting.

"The first time I took my lovely wife diving," Bunting says, "I took her on a shark dive, without a cage. She didn't know. We told her after. But she was amazed how many sharks were there. We took her to the Bahamas."

Although no one predicted the enduring popularity of Shark Week, Bunting says he thinks he understands.

"It's a visceral and emotional series of shows," he says. "A lot of what we do is oftentimes more for your head. This one, you feel in your heart. You can be fearful, but there's also beauty there as well."

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