If you go

What: Shark Week

When: Friday-Aug. 10

Where: South Carolina Aquarium, 100 Aquarium Wharf

Price: Admission is $24.95-$29.95 for adults, $17.95-$22.95 for children ages 3-12; toddlers and members get in free

For more info: scaquarium.org/sharkweek or 577-FISH (3474)

The Great Ocean Tank and special exhibits at the South Carolina Aquarium will go into full shark mode starting Friday as the annual Shark Week phenomenon kicks off around the country.

The summertime tradition first began when cable's Discovery Channel started producing a week-long series of shows about sharks more than 25 years ago. Documentaries and special programs were aimed at raising awareness, dispelling myths and celebrating the diversity of sharks around the world. Currently broadcast in more than 70 countries, Shark Week became Discovery's biggest hit series.

One of Charleston's most visited attractions, the S.C. Aquarium regularly features thousands of aquatic creatures in more than 60 exhibits, most of which display the biodiversity of South Carolina, from the Upstate to the coast. The S.C. Aquarium is dedicated to promoting education and conservation, and Shark Week is no exception.

The S.C. Aquarium will officially kick off its Shark Week events Thursday with Dark Blue: The Official Shark Week Kickoff Party from 7-11 p.m. The adult-only party will feature local fare, beer and live music.

From Friday to Aug. 10, the Aquarium team will present daily interactive exhibits and programs in celebration of Shark Week.

"Shark Week aims to help people to learn the truth about these often misunderstood animals," says Kate Dittloff, the S.C. Aquarium public relations manager. "It's a chance to come nose-to-nose with 14 sharks in North America's deepest tank, the Great Ocean Tank. Kids and adults alike will discover the wonder of sharks at the South Carolina Aquarium during a week of exclusive shows, parties and activities."

Sharks in the Carolinas

Sharks are unique creatures with long histories and controversial reputations. They are cartilaginous fishes (as are skates and rays), which is to say that unlike other bony fish, their skeletons consists entirely of cartilage.

Sharks are effective predators with highly developed jaws and teeth, a keen sense of smell and the ability to detect electricity and vibrations in the water.

While some of the larger, predominately deep-water species, such as tiger sharks, bull sharks and great whites, have been known to fatally attack humans, the vast majority of sharks would much rather prey on fish or crustaceans than people. Under normal conditions, unprovoked attacks on swimmers and divers in local waters are highly unlikely.

In his comprehensive book "Sharks of South Carolina," local author Charles H. Farmer III, a longtime veteran of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, details the history and biology of local and global shark species. He also touches on the ongoing misunderstandings and fear of sharks that the general public perpetuates.

"Scientists and fishermen have looked upon sharks over the years with considerable interest and continue to be amazed by their diversity of form and function," Farmer writes. "At the same time, people from various walks of life, especially some of those who live by the shore, have developed a fear and sometimes even a hatred of sharks, be they large or small.

"In our mind's eye, there is one universal shark," he continues. "It is large and powerful with cold, lifeless eyes and rows of razor sharp teeth. Solitary by nature, this shark is assumed to be offensive and calculating, lurking everywhere just below the surface of the sea. It represents the ultimate predator, slowly circling its victim. It is the grim, gray shadow of slow and horrible death and the vicious killer of man. Today, this image is so pervasive that the cry of 'shark' is enough to empty the surf of swimmers for miles along any stretch of beach. In reality, nothing could be more misleading or further from the truth."

Most sharks are migratory, wandering along coastlines in search of food. Some sharks swim on or near the water's surface while others tend to rummage near the bottom. Sharks are common in both shallow coastal areas and offshore.

Some of the more common local species include the sand tiger shark, lemon shark, sandbar shark, bull shark and various hammerhead sharks.

Most of these dwell on or near the bottom in shallow coastal waters. Comparatively larger species like the tiger shark and great white zigzag between the shallow inshore waters and the deeper waters offshore.

It's unusual to come across large specimens, but they do occasionally get dangerously close to the Lowcountry's shores. Just last month, a local crew led by Captain Cal Young was participating in the Edisto Shark Tournament when they hooked a 14-foot, 1,130-pound tiger shark 20 miles off Edisto Island. The shark was so large, the crew had to tow it back to shore.

Local shark fans have enjoyed following the migration patterns of several great whites in the area in recent years, thanks in large part to the researchers for the shark tracking team OCEARCH, a nonprofit organization with a global reach for research on great whites and other large apex predators.

A great white shark nicknamed Mary Lee has frequently wandered up and down the South Carolina and Georgia coast, treating them as wintertime feeding areas, and has ventured quite close to several local beaches along the way.

With a focus on science and conservation, OCEARCH tags the fins of large sharks with tiny satellite trackers. These tags "ping" the sharks' locations as they migrate. Fans can follow movements in real time via OCEARCH's web site, www.ocearch.org.

Commonly, the smaller local sharks are most active along the beachfronts, bays, inlets and tidal rivers in the late evening and night, preying on a variety of small marine animals.

Even the smaller species of sharks can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous, though. Every year, reports pop up about swimmers, surfers or divers who've been accidentally bitten by sharks in shallow waters, usually minor bites to a leg, foot or hand. In these instances, sharks mistake a person for its normal prey, but quickly retreat once they've struck.

"This 'hit and run' behavior strongly suggests that sharks do not instinctively attack or attempt to kill humans who react and probably feel differently from sharks' normal prey," writes Farmer. "South Carolina's extensive coastal waters are generally inhabited by sharks that are fish-eaters and pose little if any threat to people. Based on available records, no encounter has occurred in our area in which a shark aggressively pursued or repeatedly bit a victim and had to be frantically beaten back."

While shark attacks around the Carolina shorelines are rare, experts emphasize the importance of treating sharks with caution and respect. Many advise swimmers to follow these basic guidelines:

Never swim at night because many species of sharks are nocturnal feeders.

Never swim alone because a companion could be very helpful in case of an emergency.

Stay close to shore.

Stay out of the water if you have a minor cut.

Refrain from wearing jewelry, as shiny objects may attract sharks in murky waters.

Discovery Channel's Shark Week

The Discovery Channel's Shark Week initially took shape in 1987 as a fun idea with a few dark twists.

Over the years, Discovery Channel executives John Hendricks, Clark Bunting and Steve Cheskin have shared stories about brainstorming ideas over drinks in a bar with some of their Discovery teammates. One particular idea about developing a shark-themed series gained momentum as the executives jotted notes on bar napkins along the way.

By the late summer of '88, the first Shark Week shows appeared on the cable network. One episode, "Caged in Fear," came together as a science/history study of motorized shark cages. It became one of the highest-rated shows of the year for Discovery.

From there, Discovery explored various aspects of sharks, from mysterious tales and old folklore to science-heavy natural-history documentaries and up-close underwater shoots with trained teams of divers and oceanographers.

Shark Week is the longest-running cable TV programming event in modern television history. It's an annual pop culture phenomenon that captures the fascination of more than 30 million viewers and celebrates and enhances fans' fears of the deadliest creatures in the sea.

In 1994, "Jaws" author Peter Benchley signed on as the series' first-ever host. Benchley was one of the first of many celebrity hosts over the last two decades.

For its 15th anniversary in 1997, the network presented Celebrity Shark Week with appearances by Julie Bowen, Mark McGrath and Brian McKnight, among others.

For Shark Week's 25th anniversary in 2012, Brooke Runnette, then Discovery Channel's director of special projects and currently the president of National Geographic Television, stated, "The earth is covered by water, and sharks are in almost every bit of that water. And yet, we know so little about them. Especially the great whites. When we do see them, we're like, 'You're bigger than me, and more powerful. You're the product of 450 million years of evolution, and you are, as sharks go, perfect. You win.' "

This year's Shark Week series will feature high-definition photography and footage, frightening testimonials of encounters and survivals, and in-depth explorations from around the world. They'll show 12 special programs and a nightly live talk show each night called "Shark After Dark," which will feature celebrity guests and shark experts.

Schedule:

"Air Jaws: Fin of Fury" (Aug. 10): Using new cameras and high tech underwater gadgetry, shark filmmaker Jeff Kurr and his team embark on a worldwide mission to track down the missing "mega-shark" Colossus.

"Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine" (Aug. 10): Said to be the deadliest great white shark of all time, "Submarine" is a 30-foot great white that has terrorized the shores of South Africa for decades. Locals believe that this shark is responsible for countless fatal attacks, but its existence has never been proven.

"Jaws Strikes Back" (Aug. 11): Marine biologist Greg Skomal and the sharkcam team travel to the remote Pacific island of Guadalupe to film the hunting behavior of the largest great white sharks on Earth.

"Monster Hammerhead" (Aug. 11): For the past 60 years, reports of a monster hammerhead clocking in at more than 20 feet long have circulated throughout Florida. Now, a team of scientists and anglers explore the waters of the world's largest hammerheads to see if these stories could be true.

"Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss" (Aug. 12): Shark researchers investigate the ocean's darkest depths in search of shark species that have never been caught on camera and get a glimpse of the elusive ghost shark.

"Lair of the Mega Shark" (Aug. 12): Shark experts Jeff Kurr and Andy Casagrande head to New Zealand to investigate the sightings of a 20-foot great white shark which leads them to the nocturnal feeding ground of a "mega-shark".

"Spawn of Jaws 2: The Birth" (Aug. 13): Dr. Michael Domeier continues his quest to unlock one of the greatest shark mysteries: the location of great white pupping grounds. This two-year mission follows the journey of a pregnant great white called Gil Rakers as she prepares to give birth.

"Zombie Sharks" (Aug. 13): Shark diver and conservationist Eli Martinez explores a catatonic zombie-like state in sharks called "tonic immobility" and sets out to solve a mystery of predators using it on massive great whites.

"I Escaped Jaws 2" (Aug. 14): Shark attack victims recount their near death experiences and reveal how they escaped with their lives.

"Sharkageddon" (Aug. 14): Massive tiger sharks and other predatory species are invading the shores of Hawaii. After a spike in attacks, including two fatalities, Hawaiian native and surf legend Kala Alexander sets out to uncover the truth behind what's disrupting the Hawaiian food chain.

"Megalodon: The New Evidence" (Aug. 15): Collin Drake returns to share new details of his case and present new evidence of the existence of Megalodon, an enormous prehistoric shark that could still be roaming the oceans.

"Sharksanity" (Aug. 15): A look at the most insane bites, strikes and close calls from Shark Week 2014. Plus viewer picks for the five craziest Shark Week moments ever.

"Great White Matrix" (Aug. 16): Shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder and Andy Casagrande head deep into the shark infested waters of Australia to investigate a series of bizarre attacks and capture the great white bite on camera.

The Aquarium's Shark Week

The events planned for Friday through Aug. 10 at the S.C. Aquarium might seem a little scary to some youngsters, but most attendees will immediately get into the fun of the Shark Week theme.

The impressive Great Ocean Tank in the center of the facility will be holding 14 sharks, including newly added black tip, black nose, sand tiger, sandbar and nurse sharks.

"You'll be an expert on the ocean's apex predators after visiting the shark education stations throughout the Aquarium," says the Aquarium's Dittloff.

The family-friendly exhibits and interactive features will include shark art in the Great Hall, daily Shark Shows with specially trained divers swimming with sharks in the Great Ocean Tank and a petting area where attendees can actually meet a bamboo shark face-to-face.

There also will be contests and activities for kids, including the search for the hidden "Shark on a Shelf" to win a special prize, shark puzzles on the gallery walls and digging for shark artifacts at the Sharkaeology station.

Thursday's Dark Blue kickoff party will run from 7-11 p.m. and is for ages 21 and over. Various seafood dishes and hors d'oeuvres from Charleston Harbor Fish House, High Cotton and the Victor Social Club will be on hand. Craft brews from the local Palmetto Brewing Company will be available, as well. Three Charleston-based musical acts - classic rock band Moxie, Americana/rock songwriter Jordan Igoe and indie-rock group Brave Baby - will perform throughout the event.

"Throw your fins in the air, it's time to party!"