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Shark Week Returns to Discovery

Cue the ominous tubas from John Williams' "Jaws" score. Check for dorsal fins.

Shark Week is back.

Discovery Channel's popular annual fin ... er, fan favorite summer programming block returns Sunday (9 p.m. ET/PT), aiming to scare, educate and entertain viewers with the first of six premieres, Blood in the Water.

The docu-drama is the latest account of the 1916 shark attacks that killed four people off New Jersey's coast, setting off an early-century media frenzy. The events, which inspired Peter Benchley's novel "Jaws" and Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster, continue to fuel an often-misguided fascination over one of the world's most misunderstood predators.

Shark Week attracted more than 29 million viewers last year, high tide in terms of viewership during its 22-year run and a 7 percent jump from 2007. Discovery Channel president John Ford says he's not surprised by the series' popularity.

"It's entertaining, fun and hits on all the buttons that make it a great brand," says Ford, who realized just how much the series had become part of beach lore when he was at the Delaware coast last summer and heard lifeguards discussing Shark Week.

The scare factor may lure a big audience, but Discovery also hopes to educate viewers and help preserve the species. Series adviser Andy Dehart, director of biological programs at the Washington, D.C., National Aquarium, notes that worldwide only 59 attacks were reported in 2008, down 17 percent from 2007, and just four deaths. Moreover, at the apex of reported attacks in 2000, the odds of a shark attack were just one in 11.5 million, and the likelihood of a fatality was just one in 264 million.

Discovery is running a series of public service ads to help end the illegal practice of killing sharks for their fins - prized as delicacies in Asian markets - and is partnering with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) to promote conservation. Kerry has introduced the Shark Preservation Act of 2009 to strengthen enforcement.

Dehart says more than 250,000 sharks are killed each day, half of them for their fins alone.

Why should we care? Sharks help balance marine ecosystems. In one study, sharks had kept a regional stingray population in check. When the shark population shrank, the stingrays decimated scallops. "All these ecosystems are interconnected," Dehart says. "Remove one element and there are big problems."

Shark Week also explores the storm of attention on sharks in "Sharkbite Summer" (Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT), during a series of 50-plus attacks in 2001 off U.S. beaches. TV crews got to some bloodied victims before medical help arrived.

Also designed to lure viewers:

-- "Deadly Waters" (Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Survivorman's Les Stroud examines shark-infested waters.

-- "Day of the Shark 2" (Monday, 10 p.m. ET/PT). What happens when sharks show up uninvited? They may not make your day.

-- "Great White Appetite" (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Former Marine Charles Ingram checks out one the most feared predators, which patrol the shores of more than half the world's inhabited coastlines.

-- Shark After Dark (Thursday, 9 p.m. ET/PT). Armed with night-vision technology, divers examine the species' little-known nighttime habits.

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