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July 18, 1993|DAVID KRONKE | David Kronke is a free-lance writer specializing in TV and film

Ever since Steven Spielberg scared everyone senseless in the summer of 1975 with "Jaws," Americans have had an undying obsession with sharks. The Discovery Channel has been happy to exploit this undiluted fascination, but, thankfully, not to the point of calling them the "dinosaurs of the deep."

This week, Discovery presents its annual "Shark Week," a series of specials subtitled "We Dare You to Watch," offering both the scares and thrills we expect from these legendary ravenous creatures as well as serious environmental messages.

John McKenney, who shot much of the shark footage for several of the specials, says that there is a simple reason we remain enraptured with these long-in-the-tooth scavengers. Speaking from a boat in Bimini, he explains, "People are still excited about something they cannot comprehend or control. The fear factor is overwhelming--they're more powerful than we are. Put the strongest human you know--say, Mike Tyson--in with a white shark, and he's not going to win."

McKenney started diving at age 7 with his father, Jack McKenney, a pioneer in the world of filming sharks. After an eight-year detour as a stockbroker, "getting as rich as possible," he took over his father's business after his father's death and has never looked back.

His work can be seen in the episode "Sharks of Treasure Island," filmed at Cocos Island in the eastern Pacific Ocean, which in days of yore was where pirates stashed their stolen treasure. In that episode, he and his wife, Noreen, endeavor to film the notoriously camera-shy hammerhead shark. They also shoot lyrical footage of the chameleon-like marble ray and an awe-inspiring school of black jacks, fish in which the males turn completely black when ready to mate.

The series premieres Sunday with "African Shark Safari," with photographer Wes Skiles capturing visceral footage of the voracious beasts off the South African coast. Though he's nipped a couple of times--by seals--and loses a camera rigged to capture a victim's-eye view of a shark attack, Skiles good-naturedly shrugs it all off as part of the job.

The "African Shark Safari" also features Traill Whitthun, who takes wealthy South African businessmen on controversial shark-fishing expeditions. Despite the series' ecological bent, Whitthun's exploits, which many charge are injurious to the animals, are depicted with little editorializing, which runs counter to McKenney's filming philosophy. "I want to help engender a respect for the ocean, an environmental consciousness," he says. "Sharks are in trouble. When 250 million are killed in a year, you have to be concerned."

McKenney says this despite some close encounters in the past, which he dismisses as "good bar stories."

"In 1990, I was doing a film called 'Sand Tigers,' about tiger sharks," he recalls. "They're pretty nasty sharks; they can do some serious damage. In the daytime, though, they're pretty passive. But we were in the water around a wreck one night, and one of the sharks came to within six inches of the dome part of my camera, and then tore the light from the camera.

"It was suddenly pitch black. I knew about 50 sharks were around, and, you know, the atmosphere changed then. The camera is a false sense of security from them."

For an episode of the new series entitled "Secrets of the Deep II: Sharks on the Brink of Extinction," McKenney has devised a shark "belly-cam," which shows the inside of a shark's stomach. "There were no arms, no legs," he says. "The point of this is to educate the public as to what this animal is really about."

McKenney has devised an even more intriguing device for a "Secrets of the Deep" episode due in the fall. "It shows inner-uterine cannibalism in a female shark," he says. "We have a camera inside a live female, and you see one baby shark inside another baby shark--a two-inch shark having been consumed by an eight-inch shark in another kind of battle for survival."

When the Shark Bites

All programs air at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., unless otherwise specified:

Sunday: "African Shark Safari" (repeats Saturday at noon)

Monday: "Secrets of the Deep II: Sharks on the Brink of Extinction" (Saturday at 7 p.m.)

Tuesday: "Teeth of Death" (repeats next Sunday at 3 p.m.)

Wednesday: "Assignment Adventure: In the Realm of the Shark" (next Sunday at noon)

Thursday: "Secrets of the Deep: California Whites" (Part 1, also Saturday at 2 p.m.)

Friday: "Secrets of the Deep: California Whites" (Part 2, also Saturday at 3 p.m.)

Saturday: "The Man Who Loves Sharks," 10 a.m. (next Sunday at 7 and 11 p.m.); "Shark--The Silent Savage," 4 p.m. (next Sunday at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.); "Sharks of Treasure Island," 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. (next Sunday at 4 p.m.)

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