5 Lies Shark Week Taught Us, According to Science
The Discovery Channel has found a renewable event that has become borderline appointment viewing for the general public (or just those seeking something to say in a dead conversation around July or August): Shark Week. For seven days, they air a collection of content based on our toothy not-quite-friends under the sea. Supposedly, it’s in the name of awareness and conservation, but we all know that even the most honorable of programming intentions would go out the window without ratings to match. I think the success is more due to a discovery of a subject that can paint itself as educational, while also appealing to American TV viewers deep love and need for the possibility of grisly violence.
Whatever the case, marine biologists and actual shark experts have begun to develop a distaste for the event. Complaints are that the scientific and educational value have dropped — not particularly surprising, given that Discovery’s programming nowadays focuses more on wonders of nature like… moonshiners and pawn shops. Marine biologist David Shiffman, along with five other scientists, recently laid out both a research paper and an article highlighting a series of complaints on behalf of fellow scientists everywhere about just how much Shark Week gets wrong.
Here’s some of the salient claims…
Shark Fin Soup
Based on the attention paid, you’d think that shark fin soup is the biggest threat to the shark population in the world. You’d think, myself included, that barrels of shark fins ready for mise-en-place are single-handedly putting sharks in the danger zone. Let’s not talk it down too much, “finning” is cruel and disgusting. The least you could do after cutting just the fins off a shark for a mediocre soup is give them the courtesy of a John Wick-style double tap instead of tossing their limbless, helpless bodies back into the ocean.
The problem here, though, is the overemphasis on finning versus other less exciting things like unsustainable fishing methods that accidentally catch sharks the same way they can catch dolphins and other unlucky casualties. Not only is shark fin soup only a piece of the extinction puzzle, we’re talking about programming broadcast in the U.S. — a place where nobody outside of maybe some weird billionaire trying to naturopathically beat death is eating it. But according to Shiffman, out of the six episodes (of 202 total) of Shark Week programming that gave actual actionable conservation advice, half of them were just about shark fin soup.
The word “expert” is bandied about pretty liberally these days. I mean, when you’ve got them on shows like Ancient Aliens, it cheapens the term a little bit. There’s also almost undoubtedly an emphasis on charismatic, camera-ready people, exactly the kind of people who are more than willing to whistle fake facts out of their ass. You’d think that, given that you’re producing a week of content about sharks, it would pay to have some actual scientists on speed-dial. But looking through all 32 years of shark week content, our actual scientists summed up their findings with the beautifully catty quote below: “When we analyzed episodes by the type of scientific research they featured, the most frequent answer was ‘no scientific research at all,’ followed by what we charitably called ‘other.’”
One particular catcher of shark-research strays was wildlife photographer Andy Casagrande, who, by all accounts, is a phenomenal cinematographer, with the Emmys to prove it. Where the scientists’ brows furrowed was finding that he was the single most heavily featured expert across all of Shark Week. I don’t doubt he has some insight about marine life, but the general sentiment was, “Who died and made you the King of Shark Research?” His case isn’t helped by the fact that he had tips that included filming Great White Sharks on LSD. Not exactly a controlled environment.
Already Discovered “Discoveries”
The exclusion of serious shark academics resulted in some other embarrassing gaffes for Shark Week. One episode that got particularly skewered was an episode called “Island of the Mega Shark.” Weird, because that title sounds so accurate, and not at all like a Kaiju movie. Scientists sounded off en masse about the episode, pointing out a variety of mistakes that they might not have made if they had brought at least ONE scientist with them.
Maybe the most glaring was the scientists pointing out that the people on the program apparently did not know how to measure a shark, which seems pretty important for a show about big sharks. They even pointed out that the same shark got measured twice, inexplicably jumping from 12 feet long to 16 feet long between shots. They were pretty sure about this too, since they actually KNEW that shark, apparently named Lucy.
Even the “megashark” featured was a known shark named Tailscratch. The show described her as “possibly the largest shark every videotaped.” According to the scientists who actually measured these specific sharks, not only is Tailscratch not even close to the biggest recorded shark, she’s not even the biggest shark ON THAT ISLAND.
Michael Domeier of the Marine Conservation Science Institute summed his thoughts up in a Facebook post: “The program describes an important mission to help scientists, meanwhile no scientists were on the trip and many of the films ‘discoveries’ have been been previously discovered and published in scientific papers. Ugh!”
Harassing the Sharks
Being wrong is one thing, and, on some level, fairly understandable given the stretched truths that make up almost all of entertainment content these days. An internet content creator being hyperbolic? Never. However, one bar you’d hope for them to at least clear is to not actively harass the animals they’re supposedly helping conserve. A bar that Discovery seems to have run straight into, perhaps confusing it for a finish line.
The episode in question is entitled “Zombie Sharks.” Again, not expecting any great info out of this, but still. The purpose of this program was painted as a very scientific, very valuable experiment to induce underwater tonic immobility in a massive great white shark. Stripped of the three-dollar words, what they were trying to do was to flip a great white upside down, which can induce a catatonic state in sharks.
Instead of the researchers going, “Oh, wonderful! We eagerly await your results!,” they mostly just asked, “Hey, stop fucking with the sharks.” Scientists already have plenty of their own research on tonic immobility, research that is a whole lot more valuable than what I assume is a montage of quick cuts of a scuba diver trying to flip a great white over in a less-than-controlled environment.
Again, a real-life scientist, the Director of Research at the New England Aquarium, shared their confused feedback: “I certainly don’t see the scientific value. Why do they need to confirm this other than to mess with a white shark for the sake of messing with a white shark?”
All Shark Experts Are Guys Named Mike
Lastly, Shiffman & Co took exception with the lack of diversity amongst researchers featured in the programs. I can already feel the comments section ballooning into a gas giant below me. But whatever your opinions on representation in media, and whatever stance you may have adopted from a 5-foot-7 contrarian child on YouTube, the overwhelmingly white male corps of talking heads is not representative of the community they’re (poorly) representing.
See, the field of shark research in the U.S. is, in fact, NOT a male-dominated field. More than half of the scientists are women. As Shiffman piercingly points out, not only are there more white males featured in the program, there were specifically more white dudes named Mike than there were women, period, across 32 years. They also showed little to no interest in talking to scientists from any of the locations they actually visited, who, you know, have likely spent a large portion of their life studying the specific shark being filming.
Instead of a realistic, global study on shark life, we pretty much ended up with a gallery of experts that looks like a fraternity spring break trip.