Warming weather means only one thing: summer is coming! And with summer comes Shark Week, television’s longest running event featured on the Discovery Channel. With Shark Week regulars like Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, Dr. Dean Grubbs, Dr. Tristan Gutteridge, and Chris Fallows paired with the cinematography genius of Andy Casagrande and Joe Romeiro, Shark Week has been anything but boring. But, the event has come under heavy fire for its false documentaries (called mock-u-mentaries by some) claiming that long-ago extinct sharks (ahem, Megalodon: The Monster Shark) are still lurking. If you were an avid viewer, you saw the decline of shark science and the increase of “shark attack” recount stories being replayed incessantly, demonizing these animals as dangerous man-eaters. Many stopped watching Shark Week altogether because of this, instead turning the channel to National Geographic’s “Shark Fest.” I won’t lie to you when I said I wished our television had the NatGeo channel, and often turned off Shark Week in frustration.
But my ears perked up when I heard that the Discovery Channel was getting a new president. In 2015, Discovery got Rich Ross, a man who promised to lead the network away from mock-u-mentaries and sensationalism and back to educated entertainment. "We're focusing hard on the scientists […] and the research that a lot of the science community is engaging in with shark behavior." said Howard Swartz, Discovery's VP of documentaries and specials. I was overall very skeptical… but a teeny part of me was hopeful.
We saw the beginning of this shift from #fakenews to the real good stuff in 2016, where programs took us for one heck of a ride (is it okay I’m still freaking out over that shark sonogram?). And while there are still some things Discovery should change, it’s a step in the direction. As always, I’ll be catching Shark Week this summer, and this is what I hope to see more (and less of) this year:
More science. If Discovery really wants to air stuff about Megalodon, there is plenty of interesting stuff to talk about that doesn’t need to involve panicking people about whether a 60-ft. shark is lurking in the deep, wanting to chomp them in half. Just… no. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that science is cool just as it is! Shark Week has been doing well in showing off different science technology devices used in researching sharks and their relatives, but I’d love to see some episodes on something other than just tags. Not all shark scientists study shark migratory patterns. I hope that Shark Week expands its science technology repertoire and explores BRUVs, drones, eDNA, etc. The sharks and lasers can come back, too.
More diversity. If you noticed the “Shark Week regulars” from above, they all have one striking thing in common… they’re men. And while they all do amazing science (and are all idols to me) and we shouldn’t take away from that, it would be really nice to see the work the women in the shark world are carrying out. My hope is that Shark Week moves towards equal representation of men and women in their upcoming shows. Visibility matters because it helps achieve equality. Showcase Dr. Alison Kock and Meaghen McCord in South Africa; talk about the research Dr. Michele Heupel and Dr. Jodie Rummer do in Australia; shed a spotlight on those doing research in areas like Central America or Asia. I’m very excited to see scientist Victoria Vasquez for this year’s “Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins.”
A recent European study by Microsoft found most girls became interested in STEM at around the age of 11, but their interest began to wane at 15 because they can’t see themselves in the role models presented in science. When one says, “scientist” people often think of a white male in a lab coat. Shark Week has a unique and large platform that can help champion the women in the marine field.
And while we’re talking about having more diversity in scientists shown, how about having a few new stars to Shark Week? I will never tire of great whites, hammerheads, tigers, or bulls… but there are over 500 species to choose from. Not to mention the relatives of sharks (skates, rays, and chimaeras) are interesting as well and should have at least some recognition. Dr. Andrea Marshall does incredible work with manta rays… why haven’t viewers been exposed to her? Or Shark Week can talk about Lindsay Marshall’s journey in capturing all rays of the world through her art. I am happy to see that there will be a special on sawfish!
More correct terminology. In 2013 Robert Hueter of Mote Marine Laboratory (Sarasota, Florida USA) and Christopher Neff (AU) published “Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”: a proposal for reclassifying human–shark interactions” with guidelines for how to categorize human-shark interactions. They argued for “the adoption of a more prescriptive code of reporting by scientists, the media, and policy makers will serve the public interest by clarifying the true risk posed by sharks and informing better policy making.” In an effort to better understand these interactions and encounters, Hueter and Neff encouraged people to use the following categories: “shark sighting,” “shark encounter,” “shark bite,” and “fatal shark bite.” Simple enough, and takes away negative connotations associated with the word “attack.”
While it will take generations for people to use these phrases in regards to sharks (I created an easy-to-remember guide here), Shark Week can lead the way by explaining this research and using the new terminology in their programming. This doesn’t meant censor those who do use “shark attack,” but explain why it’s better to use “[insert encounter phrase here]” instead. The Shakopedia currently has articles titled, “10 Important Shark Attack Survival tips,” “5 Ways to Avoid a Shark Attack,” and “2015 saw a record number of shark attacks.” If Shark Week wants to paint sharks in a different light, this is one way to do it.
Less fear mongering. As seen above, for a week that wants to celebrate sharks, it sure does portray them as monstrous man-eaters. I think I’ve seen the same shark bite special for the past 10 years be on during the day or late at night and it always makes me angry that they seem to have nothing else to show. This isn’t to say that we should not show shark-bite survivors on Shark Week – in fact, some of the loudest advocates for sharks are those who survive a shark bite! Instead, maybe we should do shows on how to better minimize your risk for a shark bite (e.g. don’t wear shiny jewelry, don’t swim where people are chumming, etc.) and what to do if ever bitten. We should check on the survivors and see how their relationship with the ocean and sharks has changed. Specials about how small the risk of being bitten by a shark is are enlightening—and it’s a bit amusing to see that coconuts and cows cause more deaths per year than sharks. So please, Shark Week, still show shark bite survivors on the show (they are an important part of the story) but do it in a way that informs instead of scares.
Less mock-u-mentaries. I’m not going to spend too much time on this point because it’s self-explanatory. If I had a dollar for every time I was asked whether Megalodon was alive, I would be pretty well off. The Discovery Channel, once hailed for its scientific accuracy, has lost a lot of credibility the past few years due to their mock-u-mentaries that seemed to care more about ratings than actual education. I’m not saying Shark Week has to scrub shows like “Megalodon: The Monster Shark,” but many felt deceived by the lack of explanation that the show was NOT real and that the “marine biologists” were actors. Sharks are fascinating enough without having to add this…dare I say it… #fakenews. Science is cool, Discovery!
Whether you like or dislike Shark Week’s content, voice your opinion. It seems that it doesn’t fall on deaf ears. Swartz says, "When [viewers] found out [Megalodon: The Monster Shark] wasn't true, the backlash against the channel was fierce." I usually tag Shark Week’s twitter handle (@SharkWeek) in my tweets that rate shows, ending with, “More of this!” or “Less of this!” Simple, but an effective way to make sure that science takes the spotlight once again.
P.S. This new content will help fill in those late night/early morning slots that are currently being held by the same recounted human-shark interaction shows that have been airing since the mid 2000’s. Just a thought, Shark Week.