Aug232009
My Thoughts on Shark Week
Written by WhySharksMatter

Ready for a bite out of Summer? Shark Week appeared on the Discovery Channel this month, featuring series of documentaries of what they say are the most mystical animals of the sea world--the sharks.  

The week featured series like Blood on the Water and SharkBite Summer.

David Shiffman, aka Why Sharks Matter, at the Southern Fried Science blog, was kind enough to let us in on his take on the Discovery Channel's Shark Week.

David certainly has the cred to comment on this topic.  He  is a graduate student in South Carolina studying shark conservation and  the author of the upcoming book “Why Sharks Matter: Using New Environmentalism to Show The Economic And Ecological Importance of Sharks, The Threats They Face, and How You Can Help”.

This is David's repost from the Southern Fried Science blog where he is a regular contributor alongside creator Andrew Thaler. 

I just finished watching Shark Week. Overall, while most premieres were not as bad as some of my colleagues claim, I was disappointed by the fearmongering and lack of conservation focus. The Discovery Channel can and should do better in the future.

Some general things that disappointed me included:

  • The “Shark Week” logo sometimes appeared to be dripping blood
  • The Ocean Conservancy “Save the Sharks” ad only appeared once per premiere (twice during the two-hour “Blood in the Water), and the ad itself didn’t do a good job of educating the public. It said that “together we can end shark finning”, but didn’t say what shark finning IS.
  • The pop-up ads at the bottom of the screen only once mentioned anything vaguely conservation related… during “Great White Appetite” it said “Learn all about the Great White Shark, log onto Discovery.com/Sharkweek”. Every other pop-up ad was either a plug for shark week merchandise or letting us know what show was on next. I distinctly remember pop-ups in past Shark Weeks saying things like “Learn how you can help sharks, log onto the website” or “Learn why sharks are important, log onto the website” and I am disappointed that this trend has stopped.

I must say that I was amused (though not from a shark conservation perspective)  by some of the ads.

  • I particularly liked how an ominous, dramatic voice announced that each “Shark Week premiere is presented by Febreeze fabric softener”.
  • I also liked the GI Joe tie-ins. For example “Every day sharks are in more danger of extinction. This summer, when the human race faces the same demise, they will count on one team to save them”.  In other words, a movie so bad that producers wouldn’t let critics see it in advance has more of a conservation message than half the shark week premieres.
  • Also, “A shark’s speed is one of it’s best weapons, but for the soldiers of GI Joe, it’s the Delta Six accelerator suit”. Excellent tie in.

That’s just awesome. I bought some Febreeze and will go see GI Joe right away.

And now, for a detailed review of each of the six Shark Week premieres:

 

Blood in the Water

By far the worst of the bunch (from both a conservation and entertainment perspective), Blood in the Water was a failed historical re-enactment of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired the movie “Jaws”. While the old-style bathing suits and cheesy dialogue were amusing for almost five minutes, this show really didn’t need to be two hours. It is a testament to my dedication to my readers that I watched the whole thing, because my roommates were begging me to turn it off because they were bored.

Some amazing quotes from this gem include:

  • “A new species of prey was entering their world- humans”. Yup, because no human ever went in the ocean before 1916.
  • “Today, we know that they’re BOTH capable of killing humans”. While accurate, this line of the narration was said right after the historical re-enactment shark scientist said that sharks were not that dangerous to humans. In other words, not only does this premier lack a conservation message, it actively mocks a conservation message. Score one for the Discovery Channel.
  • “The lifeguard pulled him away before it could finish feeding…the killer is probably still hungry”. There are several things wrong with this. Sharks don’t eat people. They sometimes bite people by mistake, but they almost always release the person when they realize that we aren’t food. Also, there is simply no way that a lifeguard could pull a person out of the jaws of a 14 foot great white if the shark really wanted to keep the person. I had trouble out-muscling the little three foot bonnethead in my picture on the sidebar, and that was on land.
  • “The full moon has made the creek saltier than ever” for a day or two, which supposedly allowed a great white to swim miles up a creek. I’m pretty sure tides don’t affect salinity for days at a time, and I’m pretty sure that great whites have never been documented inshore. It was probably a bull shark, though I wasn’t there.
  • “It’s primordial brain can’t resist a new, warmer target”. Actually, many sharks are scavengers that would prefer a meal that doesn’t involve so much work.
  • And by far my favorite line of Blood in the Water, something that has already become a running joke between me and my roommates…”Science has no comment”. Indeed.

Overall grade: F minus.

Deadly Waters

This was Survivorman Les Shroud’s attempt to chronicle the world’s deadliest waters and describe what makes them so deadly. At the very least, the production value was better, and it was not boring. There was even a strong conservation message… for coral reefs, not sharks.  The science content of this premiere was nothing short of spectacular (insert sarcasm here). He referenced the “warm, nutrient rich” waters of the Caribbean. Actually, tropical waters are relatively nutrient poor… that’s why they are so clear. Good job with the basic oceanography, though. Also, I particularly enjoyed the nurse shark on the screen while Shroud’s voice mentioned “diving with the deadliest animals in the South Pacific”.

Though this was a special about sharks attacking humans, they did a great job explaining what kinds of conditions contribute to these attacks (murky water, swimming alone, limited access to medical care,  how even “sample bites” can result in death, etc). However, at no point did Shroud say something like “Shark attacks are incredibly rare”. He did mention that 20,000 people a year visit the reefs of the South Pacific, and 125 people have been attacked there ever, but again the rarity of shark attacks wasn’t really stressed. They did mention that some shark attacks are considered “provoked”, but they didn’t describe what that means.

At one point, Shroud hand fed a large great white, which is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen a person do. He did note that the “shark did not care about the boat or the cage, only the tuna”.

Finally, I wonder how the parents of my SeaCamp shark biology students would react to learning that the waters off the coast of Florida are the deadliest waters on earth.

Overall grade: C minus.

Day of the Shark 2

By far the lamest title of this year, Day of the Shark 2 chronices a series of recent shark attacks, including interviews with survivors and witnesses. Though it had graphic images (recreations and old pictures) of shark attacks and wounds, the message that most of the survivors shared was not one of hatred towards the sharks.

Some quotes include:

  • “I’m certainly more respectful of sharks now”
  • “Let the sharks have the ocean that day. I’m aware that I’m sharing”
  • “I respect them. I was in their area. We’re trying to get the same food”
  • “I hold no grudge against the animal that attacked me. I really felt that the shark was just doing what sharks do”. (This last was from a young girl who wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up)

This show was primarily interviews and was very jumpy and disjointed, but it did have a conservation message presented by one of the dive operators interviewed. He is hoping to portray “sharks as ambassadors” and is “trying to get people to change their minds about sharks, not as monsters but as critical parts of marine ecosystems”.

Overall grade: C plus

Sharkbite Summer

This premiere chronicled the shark attacks of the summer of 2001, what Time magazine dubbed “the summer of the  shark”.  It was similar in style to Day of the Shark 2, but was more professionally edited. It also had a series of really, really stupid quotes.

  • “He’s fought off a 10 foot bull shark… and won!” I often fight things off and then lose, but that’s just me.
  • “I survived a shark attack and might not live to tell about it”. Review the definition of ’survive’, friend.
  • “The shark was big and was totally underwater”. As opposed to the infamous air shark?
  • “The odds [i.e. shark attacks being unlikely] mean nothing when it happens to you in real life”. Actually, the odds haven’t really changed. A one in four million chance doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. Also, thanks again for not only not promoting conservation, but actively mocking conservation efforts.

Other parts of this cinematic masterpiece include the fact that three surfers were bitten in one day on the same beach. HOLY CRAP, CLOSE THE FREAKIN’ BEACH.

Also, my roommates tell me that I’m a bad person for making fun of the name of a shark attack victim, but seriously, who names their child “AveMaria”?

This special ended on kind of a high note… it noted that the “summer of the shark” was actually a below average year for shark attacks and claimed that “little changed that summer except for the way we told the stories and the impact that they had” and mentioned a “feeding frenzy of the media”. Seriously, Sharkbite Summer, are you actually criticizing sensationalist media coverage of shark attacks? Hey kettle… you’re looking a little black today.

Overall grade: D plus

Great White Appetite

This was an ecology-minded special (kind of) that tracked great whites around the world and documented what they eat and how they hunt. They did a series of “science” experiments (actually pretty solid except for the lack of repetition) to show what choices great whites make when hunting. It showed that given the choice, sharks prefer tuna or seals to people, which is kind of conservation-y I guess.

There were a couple of fearmongering quotes:

  • “What drives the great white’s appetite for destruction?”
  • “They attack first and ask questions later”

However, this show also had a strong conservation message:

  • “The great white is listed as ecologically vulnerable, and the world’s preeminent scientists are using new techniques…to help us to understand and preserve their habitat”. It then showed scientists using stable isotope analysis on great whites, which one of the world’s MOST preeminent shark scientists (ahem, me) uses on sandbar sharks.

This was also the first show so far that focused on interviews with shark scientists  (though Day of the Shark 2 had a brief interview with Neil Hammerschlag and Blood in the Water had a historical reenactment of a shark scientist).

My main problem with this movie, other than the few fearmongering quotes, was how it awkwardly jumped around between locations around the world. I seriously doubt that Charles Ingram really flew Australia to South Africa to Mexico to South Africa to Australia- this was probably just a weird editing job.

Overall grade: B

Shark after Dark

In his interview with me last month, Discovery Channel executive Paul Gasek stressed how this premiere was eco-friendly… and he was right! By far the best premiere of this year, Shark after Dark attempted to chronicle never-before-seen nocturnal behaviors of sharks around the world. It was fascinating and very well done. They observed great whites hunting at night for the first time… and if you think that breech feeding looks sweet during the day, check it out in night vision. They became some of the first few humans to interact with the normally deep-water sixgill shark using SCUBA gear by partnering with a dive operator who discovered that they feed at night by the surface, and talked about the importance of shark nurseries.

They even mentioned a specific threat to sharks- pollution of ocean waters- and how to stop it. They showed scientists taking biopsy plugs to run toxicology tests on.

Andy Dehart of the National Aquarium got a couple of GREAT conservation messages in there, including:

  • “It’s really important to learn as much as we can about these animals and their habitat…we have to protect it if we want these sharks to survive”.
  • “Hopefully diving with them and learning about them might help them to stick around another 200 million years”
  • “They know what to bite…humans are not on a shark’s menu, and they’re pretty good at reading the menu with or without light”

The worst part of this one was Andy Dehart’s horrible SCUBA diving technique. Honestly, dude, there is no such thing as a reverse giant stride entry, and TAKE YOUR FREAKING MASK OFF YOUR FOREHEAD when you talk to the camera. You’re making me want to jump in and rescue you.

Overall grade: A minus

Conclusions

I really wish that the Discovery Channel would focus more on conservation efforts and less on fearmongering. Living Ocean’s movie “Requiem”, National Geographic’s “Great White Odyssey”, and anything done by the BBC shows that eco-friendly programming can be entertaining and profitable. At the very least, I wish that the Discovery Channel would go back to putting conservation messages in their pop up ads. Their website has a lot of good conservation information, but you need to direct people to it more.

Again, though most shows were not as bad as my colleagues claimed, some were. I am very disappointed in the Discovery Channel, and I hope that they will do better next year. As always, I welcome your comments.

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