Watch ‘Caged in Fear,’ the Film That Kicked Off Discovery’s First Shark Week in 1988

shot from the shark documentary
Film and Television Associates Ltd./Screenshot from Internet Database
A great white shark approaches a man in an experimental mobile diving cage in the documentary Caged in Fear

Discovery’s long-running summertime programming event tradition, Shark Week, returns for its 2023 installment beginning Sunday, July 23.

Shark Week has, of course, become a huge pop-culture phenomenon over its now 35 years on the airwaves.

image from the 1984 documentary "Caged in Fear." It is an extreme closeup of the head of a large great white shark, near the right of the photo, as it swims up toward the surface, its jaws opened wide as if it is after something.

Film and Television Associates Ltd./Screenshot from Internet Archive

A shot from the 1984 documentary Caged in Fear, which led off the first Shark Week on Sunday, July 17, 1988


In 2022, more than 28 million viewers tuned in for the event, which has grown to feature hours and hours of new specials filmed especially for the event that offer fascinating facts about these still pretty mysterious predators while also heightening the drama and, yes, tinge of fear associated with them. Shark Week has also attracted participating celebrities for many years (Jason Momoa is the 2023 Shark Week host).

I don’t recall if I tuned in to the very first Shark Week, which began on Sunday, July 17, 1988, but it’s likely I watched at least one of whatever specials they had that year, given my interest in sharks. It seems as if there weren’t many specials at the time, and probably only a very few, if any, produced by Discovery itself.

If I did watch any of the event, I’m assuming I did not catch Caged in Fear, since I’m fairly confident I would have remembered it.

Having recently discovered this 1984 documentary that Discovery premiered to kick off the very first Shark Week in 1988, I find it to be as enjoyable (and intense) as any of the other numerous sharky specials that have followed over the ensuing 35 summers.

Running about 40 minutes, Caged in Fear follows abalone divers/harvesters in South Australia as they test out a new mobile cage that they hope will minimize their risk of attack (and injury, if not death) from the great white sharks that swim in the same waters where the men make their livelihood.

The testing process comes in stages; first, a cage is tested to see if it is even seaworthy. Next, an empty cage is teased in front of sharks to see what they will do.

Finally, they draw lots to see who among them gets to be the guy who goes into the cage and see how a shark responds (a diver named Herb is the lucky winner).

All throughout this film — which was cowritten and -produced by shark expert/filmmaker/conservationist/famed shark attack survivor Rodney Fox and Justin Milne, and directed by Milne — there is amazing underwater footage and plenty of extreme closeups of great whites testing this new object in the water with them (and taking tastes of other parts of the boat, for good measure).

The moments when sharks are circling Herb while he’s in the cage and having occasional goes at it have a similar intensity to the fictional scene in Jaws, when Richard Dreyfuss‘ Hooper is underwater in a shark cage that is being pummeled by the beast.

Speaking of Jaws, there is also a scene in Caged in Fear, when the divers are gathered around a fire on the beach at night before they head out for testing the next morning, when we hear about some of their (and others’) close encounters with sharks.

And these are as terrifyingly mesmerizing to listen to as the tale Robert Shaw‘s Quint recounts via his famed USS Indianapolis monologue in the classic 1975 thriller.

scene from the 1984 documentary "Caged in Fear," the first film aired during Discovery's first Shark Week in 1988. From the left, a large great white shark is going after an experimental cage, on the right, which contains a SCUBA diver inside

Film and Television Associates Ltd./Screenshot from Internet Archive

I hope someone on the boat had a nice, cold Foster’s lager waiting for Herb after this.


Caged in Fear seems to have been a fitting choice to start Shark Week off over three decades ago. It certainly has all of the elements fans have come to expect from the event, especially the thrills that come from seeing these incredible creatures in their natural setting.

Yet while it does offer plenty of excitement and close calls, there also seems to simultaneously be something a bit quieter and lovelier about it than some of the subsequent specials. There is not a lot of razzle-dazzle, no major Hollywood starpower.

Just an interesting chronicle of some amiable and funny Australian blokes trying to find a way to coexist with these ancient predators they seem to regard as fascinating animals with a right to exist even while they could pose a threat to the existence of their livelihood — or lives.