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Shark Week 2014: documentary reviews, tweets, and media coverage

Another Shark Week has come and gone, and despite being out of the country at the time, I’ve managed to keep up my record of never having missed a single Shark Week documentary. I gotta tell you, though, some of them are really hard to watch. While there there is undoubtedly some great educational programming focusing on science, natural history and conservation, the Discovery Channel is doubling down on the troubling recent trend of blatantly lying to viewers with fake documentaries that use actor playing scientists and CGI video. In a time when public misunderstanding and distrust of science and scientists is already high, the Discovery Channel has decided to actively perpetuate misunderstanding and distrust of science and scientists. I’ve included my reviews (which originally were posted on my Facebook page after each show) of each of the documentaries below, along with a link to the Storify of my twitter reactions and links to some of the media coverage.

Upwell held another successful Sharkinar, bringing together scientists, conservationists, communicators and educators to talk about how “Team Ocean” can best take advantage of the increased public interest in sharks during Shark Week. Indeed, many members of Team Ocean were able to use the temporary increase in public interest in sharks to get important messages out to the media, and I’ve linked to and summarized some of the best examples below, but imagine how much more effective we could be if we didn’t have to first debunk the lies aired on a supposedly educational non-fiction television channel?

Some of the biggest lies this year came from  “Shark of Darkness: The Wrath of Submarine”. In a guest post for Southern Fried Science, South African researcher Michelle Wcisel explained why this show was fake and yet exploited a real human tragedy. Shark Week producers created a variety of fake websites and fake social media accounts to make it seem like the events and characters portrayed in Shark of Darkness were real.  The South African National Sea Rescue Institute put out a statement saying that they were not consulted and did not give permission for their name, likeness and uniform to be portrayed in a fictional documentary.The Huffington Post said that practices like this on Shark Week are not only misguided, but dangerous.

Slate video pointed out that Shark Week was never really about sharks, and is bad for sharks. Investors Business Daily criticized Shark Week’s blatant lying to viewers. AES President Dr. Chris Lowe was interviewed about why Shark Week makes life difficult for shark biologists. Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs wrote an epic Facebook post about Discovery’s shady relationship with the truth. The St. Augustine Record interviewed several leading shark researchers for a great article about how scientists are upset by Discovery Channel’s lies and fearmongering. The Verge explained why many scientists and conservationists refuse to participate in Shark Week shows. The New York Post published an open letter to Shark Week criticizing their practices.  Salon called Shark Week a bottom feeder. Even Science covered this.

Of all the articles that used increased public interest in sharks to cover a real story, this one has my favorite title: “Shark Week is over, but sharks are still in the water.” You can’t argue with that logic. Shark Week also released some bonus footage of actor Paul Walker talking about how much he loves sharks shortly before he died; a must watch, but don’t do it right before you have to do anything that requires your complete focus. Paul Clerkin, featured in Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss, wrote about his deep sea shark research for the Save our Seas Foundation blog, and was covered in Entertainment Weekly. Paul’s adviser, Dr. Dave Ebert, was profiled on the California Academy of Science blog. The National Marine Fisheries Service put out a PSA about sharks and hosted a live twitter chat with shark researchers. The Gills Club introduced a series of female shark science heroes, Beneath the Waves Film Festival and Sharks4Kids also profiled a variety of shark researchers and hosted great other shark research and conservation content.

I wrote several articles about Shark Week this year. For io9, I told the important story of how Shark Week producers actively lie to scientists to get them to appear in these documentaries. For New Scientist, I pleaded with Shark Week to go back to facts and science. For Earth Touch, I explained how the nonsense in “Zombie Sharks” is not science but wildlife harassment. For Slate, I summarized the outcry in the science and science education community in response to Shark Week deciding to air ANOTHER megalodon documentary.  For the Daily Beast, I interviewed megalodon researchers to explain the biology of these amazing animals, including how we know they are extinct. For Scientific American, I compiled a list of some of the best shark scientists and conservation activists to follow on twitter. 

I was interviewed about Shark Week  or referenced in a variety of publications including Vox, Fusion, the Huffington Post’s list of “13 people who actually live Shark Week,” NPR’s “on the media,” the Wire, the International Digital Times, and more. A Natural Resources Defense Council interview I did last year finally made it online.  I was also profiled by my undergraduate alma mater Duke University’s magazine, my Masters alma mater the College of Charleston’s magazine, a Pacific Standard magazine piece by Tara Haelle, and a Tampa Bay Times article by Craig Pittman.

An Upwell analysis shows that the social media conversation surrounding Shark Week is way down from last year, and Christie Wilcox dug through the ratings numbers to find that they lost 9 million viewers.

Shark Week also received some more general criticism. In a guest post for Southern Fried Science, Vicky Vasquez asked why almost all of the scientists featured on Shark Week are white men when those are far from the demographics of the field as a whole. This same point was made in a tweet by Cheng Lee:

Cheng

I watched all the Shark Week 2014 specials in one weekend, and tweeted my thoughts and reactions. You can read the full Storify of my tweets here, and they were also hilariously summarized by Brad Plumer at Vox. The reviews are presented in decreasing order or horrible-ness.

Zombie Sharks – F-
It was horrible. They glamorize wildlife harassment and do it in the name of scientific inquiry when no scientist is featured on the show and every question they’re trying to answer was already answered 20+ years ago by actual experts. This was not research. This was an immature cowboy screwing with big wild animals because he thinks it’s fun. SPOILER: he doesn’t even succeed in the stupid goal of flipping over a free swimming great white shark. Half of this would have been illegal if it was done elsewhere in the world. Shame on Discovery. 

Shark of Darkness: The Wrath of Submarine- F –
This new fake documentary exploits a real tragedy.  It tells the story of a whale watching boat that ran aground on an island ten minutes from a major city and the passengers that for some reason chose to float in the water for 12 hours rather than sit on the island. Actors pretending to be scientists and witnesses tell the story of a 35 foot long “super shark” who is so smart that he doesn’t show up on SONAR- and hey wait a minute, the boat sank, where is the SONAR originating from? The puppy farted in my face during this show and it wasn’t the greatest offense to my senses happening at the time. Bonus for actively perpetuating mistrust of actual scientists and actual government agencies. Shame on you, Discovery Channel.

Megalodon: The New Evidence- F –
Horrible. Again they’re using actors pretending to be scientists, cgi video and photoshopped images. Again they’re actively encouraging viewers not to trust the government or other scientists, and I have to deal with that bullshit every day. “After all this evidence, how can anyone deny that Megalodon is still around,” they ask. Easy- THE EVIDENCE IS NOT REAL. A disclaimer saying “events and characters were dramatized” appears for literally less than a second at the end. Shame on the Discovery Channel.

SharkAGeddon- F
 This was described as the worst Shark Week special ever, and I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it was certainly awful. Pseudoscience, sensationalism, fearmongering, and lack of basic fact checking at it’s worst. No wonder Hawaii’s shark research community refused to participate.

Great White Matrix. F
Um…wow. They referred to sharks swimming in the ocean as an “invasion” 5 times in the first few minutes and it went downhill from there. This special featured a cameraman supposedly trying to answer a scientific question that scientists answered a long time ago about habitat usage of sharks as they age by filming sharks biting fish on a hook from a bunch of different angles. They also keep sitting in the water calmly removing SCUBA gear while talking about how they need to get out of the water immediately. Also features the phrase “flesh ripping frenzy”.

Lair of the Mega Shark. D-
They filmed lots of cool natural history/behavior footage, but instead of talking about that they talked about a legendary giant shark. Did you ever notice that in all these quests for a legendary giant shark shows, they don’t actually find the legendary giant shark? Because I’ve noticed. Bonus points for doing research on sharks that involves attaching tags and cameras without research permits.

Monster Hammerhead/Hitler Shark. D+
I must admit my grade of a D+ is higher than I was expecting to give a show called Hitler Shark. This special showed some actual interesting hammerhead research, but mislead people about what the researchers were actually studying. This was one of the examples in my article about shark week lying to scientists. Also, I don’t doubt that people see big sharks sometimes, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same individual shark from the 1940’s. I could use 90% of the same footage and make an actual good special about hammerhead biology behavior and research.

I escaped Jaws 2- D+
This is the latest in a long series of Shark Week specials about sharks biting people. I feel for the victims, but I wish shark week didn’t focus on this fearmongering. Many shark populations are in trouble and media coverage affects public willingness to conserve them. Also, these specials are super repetitive and boring. Shark bites are so rare that the same ones are often featured in multiple specials. This one included a shark swimming near a person with the narration “that could have ended badly,” and someone getting bitten after sticking their hand into a sharks mouth on purpose.

Air Jaws: Fins of Fury B-
The air jaws series is Shark Week’s signature natural history serial, and I was thrilled to get to actually visit seal island myself earlier this year. The storytelling was a little rough (they spent the whole episode looking for a shark they found 2 years ago for some reason, only to realize that had also seen it more recently several times) but I could watch great whites breaching in HD all day. 

Spawn of Jaws: The Birth- B+
This special focused on Dr. Domeier’s efforts to track a pregnant great white to determine where they pup. Good solid science documentary with lots of cool footage. Bonus for featuring species other than great whites. Weirdly sensationalist narration for a science documentary though (which Dr. Domeier has since told me he argued with them over).

Jaws Strikes Back A-
Good science documentary tracking Dr. Greg Skomal’s efforts to study subsurface hunting behavior in great whites. Clear story, some amazing shots, no sensationalism. 

Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss- A+
Paul Clerkin was an absolute star, explaining complex science clearly and enthusiastically. The show also featured Gregory Schofield Stone, David Ebert, Dean Grubbs, Johanna Imhoff, and Amanda Brown… more scientists than the rest of Shark Week combined. It also featured more species of sharks than the rest of Shark Week combined! Educational, entertaining and science focused, Alien Sharks represents the best of Shark Week, what it once was and what it can be again. MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE!

Let me know in the comments if I missed any important media coverage, or if you disagree with any of my reviews. Until next year, live every week like its Shark Week!