Shark Week Travels Far and Deep in ‘African Shark Safari’ and ‘Lair of the Sawfish’

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Two new specials premiering Friday on Discovery drive home the heart of shark research and Shark Week: “We’re trying to learn where these sharks are going, and the reason being is that in some locations, sharks are protected and in other locations, sharks aren’t,” marine biologist Dr. Craig O’Connell says. “The fact is, we know where those boundaries are, but the sharks don’t.”

In African Shark Safari (9 p.m.), O’Connell and renowned underwater cinematographer Andy Casagrande want to find out where great whites go when they migrate away from South Africa every year. As seen in the sneak peek above, they work to identify and tag large female whites, which are known historically to make the longest journeys, and ultimately discover that two swim more than 2,000 miles to Madagascar. They then set out to capture the first footage of a great white in the waters there, proof necessary to begin lobbying for protection in that country.

In Lair of the Sawfish (10 p.m.), marine biologist Luke Tipple heads to Southern Florida for a similar reason: Sawfish, which are named for their long, toothed nose and can grow up to 18 feet, are a critically endangered species. Together with local experts, he wants to help tag and study juvenile sawfish in the shallows of their mangrove nursery and, in the hour’s most intense sequences, dive to deep-sea shipwrecks in the hope of filming the even more elusive adults.

As you see in the clip above, a dive to a small wreck at 110 feet is treacherous enough — on the way back up, Tipple and his team are mid-mandatory decompression stop when an 11-foot tiger shark spots them. But it’s the 230-foot descent to the Queen of Nassau wreck that is the most dangerous. The special is dedicated to Rob Stewart, the famed Canadian conservationist and filmmaker who died last January after a dive in which he, too, sought to film sawfish there. Capturing images of an adult sawfish at the wreck is crucial evidence that the species returns there seasonally. What makes it so difficult? For most of their descents, Tipple and his team of technical divers have only 10 minutes to explore the wreck before they must begin the hour-long journey back to the surface with all the necessary safety stops.

While that is believed to be the deepest dive in Shark Week history, O’Connell and Casagrande also make some history of their own in their special. As the clip above reveals, they are likely the first people to ever dive in these remote waters off Madagascar.

“Not knowing what you’re going to see when you go into the water is both equally exciting and equally terrifying, because you could be going in the water in a shark-infested spot in Madagascar that no one ever went in and you don’t know how the sharks are going to respond,” O’Connell says. “We didn’t have a cage when we were there, so we were just going in and exploring. Yes, it’s also a little nerve-racking, but it is the opportunity of a lifetime, definitely an experience that I’d never trade in for anything else.”

As viewers will see in the special, O’Connell finds a set of great white jaws at a market in Madagascar first. “That was a very sad moment,” he says. “Andy was doing an interview back at the hotel, and I was walking through the town to go to the fish market to see what all came in. And as I was walking through the town, I saw these jaws. They were very old, a lot of the teeth were broken. I don’t think I ever ran so fast in my life, back to get the film crew to show them there’s direct evidence right here [that great whites are in those waters]. That was something that opened our eyes and gave us a lot more motivation to go out there and see if there’s any living white sharks in Madagascar.”

At the risk of spoiling the end of their journey, it’s important to note that they did see one great white there that was alive and healthy. “So that means that there’s still hope. We can still go out and try to protect these animals before it’s too late. That’s what we’re going to do,” O’Connell says. Although he’s a little nervous to return to Madagascar himself after a “horrendous infection” almost forced him to have his leg removed, he’s teamed up with a nonprofit there. “The lead scientists there are going to be taking some of our findings and making an informative, educational poster about what a white shark is so that people can see it, understand why it’s important, and take the proper steps to try and conserve it,” he says. “Which means if they catch one, they let it go.”

Shark Week continues through July 30 on Discovery.

Read more from Yahoo TV: