The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series first aired in 1988 and has been an annual event ever since. In satiating the public’s fear and fascination with predatory fish, the series recently garnered the highest viewership in its 27-year history – which is no mean feat. But Shark Week has come under harsh criticism from scientists who claim the series is more about spectacle than science.
“As late as 1995 and 1996, [the series] was almost exclusively about conservation and exploration,” says Sean van Sommeran, founder of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz. “Now, it’s big game trophy fishing, extreme sports diving and science fiction monster sharks that sink ships in the night. The science highlighted is wildly speculative and harmful.”
One need look no further than a listing of the series’ installments to understand that Shark Week emphasizes fun over facts: Sharkageddon, Sharkpocalypse, Alien Sharks, Zombie Sharks, Great White Serial Killer, and the list goes on…
But Discovery’s Vice-President of development and production, Michael Sorensen, is the first to point out that Shark Week is about getting people to tune in. “The question we always ask ourselves,” he told USA Today, “is ‘How do we keep pushing the envelope a little bit?’”
The titles are intended to be tongue-in-cheek, he added. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously.”
But the scientific community takes the popular series very seriously, especially when it misleads the public.
Discover Magazine’s Christie Wilcox penned an open letter to Discovery Communications after watching its documentary, Megalodon: The Monster Shark That Lives. Her only problem, she writes, is that the entire ‘documentary’ wasn’t real:
“No whale with a giant bite taken out of it has ever washed up here in Hawaii. No fishing vessel went mysteriously missing off of South Africa in April. No one has ever found unfossilized Megalodon teeth… The evidence was faked, the stories fabricated, and the scientists portrayed on it were actors. The idea that Megalodon could still be roaming the ocean is a complete and total myth.”
For most of the program’s viewers, it was a very convincing myth. An online Discovery poll revealed that three-quarters of them believe Megalodon is still alive today.
But even worse than silly titles or cryptozoology is the harm Shark Week can do to actual sharks. Many of the shows involve throwing huge portions of meat into the waters to attract sharks, which, according to van Sommeran, conditions sharks to associate humans with food.
“One of the most basic tenets of wildlife care is ‘don’t feed the wildlife,’” he told NPR. “Of course this applies to large, potentially hazardous sharks, same as with other wild, potentially dangerous large predators.”
Hooking sharks and wrestling them to the deck for tagging, throwing hundreds of pounds of tuna in the water to see how much a Great White can eat, or letting sharks break their teeth on metal camera equipment injures the creatures needlessly, van Sommeran adds. And it does nothing to dispel sharks’ reputation as dangerous killing machines.
“Remember when #SharkWeek was about science and biology and learning?” tweeted actor Whil Wheaton.
The actor went into more detail about why Shark Week and its network has become such a disappointment on his personal blog:
“Discovery Channel inspired an entire generation to ‘explore your world,’ and it is trusted to be truthful. Discovery Channel says its mission is to satisfy curiosity and make a difference in people’s lives by providing the highest quality content, services and products that entertain, engage and enlighten. There is nothing high quality or enlightening about deliberately misleading your audience during what is historically an informative and awesome week of programming.”
Wheaton may have missed Michael Sorensen’s comments from earlier this month. The “core Discovery Channel” still has “great science, great natural history,” he explained, but Shark Week is meant to stand apart. “[I]f we ever stop innovating new ways to showcase sharks, then Shark Week isn’t as special as it is.”
Shark Week may have just innovated itself into science fiction.