By Joe Queenan
August 12, 1996 12:00 PM

IT IS A MEASURE OF THE ESTEEM IN which sharks are held by the people of this great country that the Discovery Channel for the ninth consecutive year could once again devote an entire week of prime-time programming to their exploits. It’s hard to imagine any other nonhuman species on earth commanding viewer interest for that length of time. Maybe Siberian tigers could pull it off, perhaps lions, and possibly some whales. But wildebeests? Llamas? Cows? Forget it.

Yet just as certain types of sharks (great whites, hammerheads, tiger sharks) are more fascinating than others, some of the programs in the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week (Aug. 11-18) are more interesting than others.

The week gets off to a good start with The Ultimate Guide: Sharks, one of those sober, intelligent science programs that doesn’t need blaring rock music and histrionic voice-overs to get its point across. The program includes the first footage ever taken of the secretive Greenland shark, a creature so odd-looking, it actually seems to be sculpted out of stone.

The most affecting segment of this program features Australian Rodney Fox, who has been fascinated by the tigers of the deep ever since a great white shark took a huge bite out of him when he was a young man.

In one of the strangest career moves ever, Fox became a guide specializing in ferrying tourists out to see the terrifying creatures. Alas, days and days can now go by without a sighting of the beasts, who have become an endangered species. And in spite of his 462 stitches, he clearly mourns their rapid decline.

Other programs are not up to the same high standards. Tales of the Tiger Shark features a hokey recreation of a shark attack off the coast of Hawaii and some truly absurd commentary by third-tier (Quantum Leap) actor Scott Bakula. (“She gently swims in the arms of a human, perhaps symbolizing a new era of understanding between man and shark.”) Scott, get a grip.

More successful is Danger Beach, a program so scary it will make you think twice about going in the water. A mixture of unnerving statistics (100 shark attacks worldwide each year) and cautionary tales, the program features a young South African lifeguard who once told a swimmer that she was more likely to be hit by lightning than attacked by a shark. Three days later a shark took his leg off from the knee down. In a grotesque twist, the program shows the lifeguard doing a double somersault off a diving board, minus the leg.

All in all, the week’s lineup beats sitcom reruns hands down.