Shark Week: ‘Ocean of Fear’

For all these years, the goal of Discovery’s programming has been to blend the interest in the horror-story appeal of sharks — the “Jaws” effect, if you will — with the very real need to educate the public about conservation of the critters.

Sunday night’s entry, “Ocean of Fear,” weighs heavily on the shock and ewwww angle, exploring the real-life tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, which sank in shark-infested waters in 1945.

Although billed as “The Worst Shark Attack Ever,” the gore of the situation wasn’t as disturbing as the psychological trauma the men went through.

(Sharks, ever the efficient predator, focused their attention on the men who had already died; some of those who were stranded said they didn’t see a shark the entire time they were at sea.)

After being hit by two Japanese torpedoes, the Indianapolis — which had just dropped off parts for the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima — sank in the Philippine Sea.

During four days under a hideous tropical sun, the men grabbed on to whatever would keep them afloat — rudimentary rafts, life vests, ropes with cork floaters — and waited to be rescued. And waited. And waited. Sharks, drawn by the sound of the initial explosions, took just hours to start circling.

Interviews with survivors were interspersed with reenactments of the days at sea, as well as with testimony given afterward.

The perils the men faced were ghastly, which beg a litany of disturbing questions. Which would be worse: Dying in an explosion at sea? Drowning as the boat sank? Succumbing to dehydration and exhaustion? Slowly losing your mind, and with it, any kind of lucid control — then drinking seawater? Or being eaten by a shark?

These are not questions you can fathom answering in your day-to-day life, but these are all threats that the survivors of the Indianapolis faced.

It’s a gripping opening to Shark Week, and one that would be just at home on the History Channel as on Discovery.