For as long as he can remember, Paul Gasek ’72 has had a thing for the ocean. It’s a passion, really, and one that’s taken him around the globe and to the top of his profession.
He’s currently executive producer of Shark Week, an annual, week-long summer event viewed by millions in the U.S. and 72 other countries, a series of 15 original one-hour documentaries on sharks, entering its 30th year on Discovery Channel.
As the self-described ‘leading non-fiction channel on television,’ Discovery was taking some hits from critics a couple years ago for Shark Week’s drift toward shark tales not based on science, but mythology. Network executives noticed and hired Gasek, the former senior science editor at Discovery, who’s spent most of the past 40 years traveling, learning and honing his skills as a student of nature with a knack for telling stories.
After graduating with an English degree from Hobart in 1972, he became a commercial fisherman, then spent two years at the Boston University School of Public Communication, and has since established his production company, Stony Brook Films.
He’s currently in his second season with Shark Week, after winning two Emmys for Global Warming: What You Need To Know with Tom Brokaw and Deadliest Catch, where Gasek spent six years.
“Deadliest Catch is what really brought things full circle for me,” he says from his home in Brewster, Mass., recalling his early years in broadcasting. “It’s been fun. I had the best business card ever, ‘Producer…Explorer…National Geographic.’”
As a young boy, the son of The Rev. Dr. Stanley P. Gasek ’39, S.T.D.’65, P’72 and Mary Ellen Compton Gasek, he vacationed with his family in Northport, Maine, and Cape Cod. He recalls the short walk down a sandy road when he would find himself on the largest contiguous area of salt flats in North America – the Brewster Flats – where at dead low tide a person can walk straight out from the beach for a mile and not get wet above the knees.
“I’m sure that’s how I got to be such an ocean person,” he says, “but no matter where you’re from, Utica, Cape Cod or Kansas, the ocean is just really important, critically important to human existence.”
Life in the family’s summer home in Brewster is what ultimately brought Gasek to the Cape for good, and what kept him there for a 10-year run as a commercial fisherman in Chatham. He began on a boat skippered by a local legend named Robert Nickerson, or “Bobby Nick,” a job that imbued Gasek with confidence, his first sense of accomplishment “and the feeling that I could do something that mattered and do it pretty well.”
It was also his introduction to the world of sharks. Among his duties as a deck hand was to monitor the boat’s drift at night while the others slept, many miles from shore. “One night I decided for the heck of it to shine a light into the water, just to see what I could see besides the pitch black,” Gasek recalls. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Between the flashlight and the fish blood that was seeping out the scuppers, it seemed like every shark in the North Atlantic was around the boat, as far as the eye could see and as deep as the light would go, sharks everywhere, blue sharks, brown sharks, no Great Whites, but lots and lots of sharks. It was unforgettable.”
Nowadays it’s the Great Whites that have stolen the show on the Cape and on Shark Week. Warming seas and a booming in-shore seal population have combined to attract a growing number of Great Whites to resort beaches, to the point where people can track shark movements with computer apps, and warning signs are everywhere.
That relationship, between sharks and surfers, has been getting more attention in recent years, and it’s something Gasek is focused on today in his office: the idea that when a shark takes a bite out of a surf board, it could be more of a reflex action than a premeditated attack.
He demonstrates the relationship through video footage of a shark diver leaning over the side of a boat while a Great White swims up alongside. As the diver gently (and carefully) touches the nose of the shark, its mouth gapes open and bites while the diver calmly explains that sharks have super-sensitive noses, that even a docile shark will snap its jaws at the slightest touch; it’s just a shark being a shark.
Gasek edits the video segment from his home office, telling the stories that he and his colleagues develop with as much drama, insight and audio/visual entertainment as possible, hewing to the tenets of solid reporting.
When it comes to caring about the planet and all the things in it, Gasek walks the walk. He pens editorials for his local paper, serves as a board member for the local land trust, and takes on volunteer projects such as producing an underwater film for the herring run committee which demonstrates the species’ annual journey.
If anything much has changed with Gasek between his early career and now, it is his inner-drive to learn things about our world, not just for the sake of it, but to spread the word for the greater good, the planet and all its precious cargo.
One story he’s been interested in lately concerns a privately-owned nature preserve in South Australia, a forest meticulously curated to recreate as closely as possible what it was like in pre-European Australia. “This is part of a global effort called ‘rewilding,’” Gasek says. “The idea is that Nature remembers what to do if we just leave it alone, like what happened at Chernobyl. Maybe with more re-wilding, we can get some more of these lost worlds back.”