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Shark Week 2010: A big step in the right direction!

Disclaimer: Both the Southern Fried Scientist and I received a media care package from the Discovery Channel containing a t-shirt, an adopt-a-shark packet, and DVDs of two of the premieres. While I still have some criticisms, I wanted to start this review by saying that this year’s Shark Week was a lot better than any from the past few years. Before I review each premiere I need to acknowledge that I watched all of them at their later air times, not when they originally aired. The content of each premiere is the same, but I did not see the same commercials as everyone else, I never saw the Oceana PSA, I saw very few Craig Ferguson interludes, and I don’t know if there were any pop-up ads during the shows. This was an unavoidable inconvenience and hopefully doesn’t bias my review too much.

The results of the 2010 Shark Week Video challenge are too adorable to not include in my review, and I note that someone who found out about the challenge from Southern Fried Science was included!

Following last year’s model, here is a review of each premiere:

Ultimate Air Jaws

Ultimate Air Jaws is the latest in a series chronicling the breaching behavior of Great Whites in South Africa. This premiere had some amazing photography, and though it focused on one of the few species that eats humans, it had no fearmongering whatsoever. In fact, it mentions that white shark attacks are extremely rare and that white sharks are usually “nonaggressive and show little threat to humans”. Chris Fallows’ awe of the sharks is evident throughout, and he often screams things like “incredible”. While no scientist is interviewed in this premiere, there is a solid natural history background on great white feeding and mating behavior. Clearly a scientist was consulted, and the photographers and divers are lay experts in shark behavior and ecology.

Overall grade: B+

Into the Shark Bite

Into the Shark Bite chronicled photographer Andy Casagrande’s (of Great White Shark song fame)  quest to film the insides of sharks mouths using specially designed cameras. Though the premiere referred to this as a “feeding frenzy of science”, I’m a little skeptical about the value of this information beyond it’s “gee-whiz” factor.

There was a little bit of fearmongering in this, but it wasn’t overpowering. Quotes likes “they’re big, they’re hungry…and they are seriously scary”, “you can see why you don’t want to be on the wrong end of those teeth”, and “what you can’t see can bite” are certainly not as bad as some of the quotes from last year’s premieres.

Into the Shark Bite also had some scientific mistakes  (though a scientist was interviewed at one point). When referencing “5 of the deadliest shark species in South Africa”, a ragged-tooth (also known as a sand tiger or grey nurse) was mentioned. These sharks are incredibly slow-moving and docile and are only known to attack humans in self-defense. I’ll give you top 100 deadliest sharks, but top 5? At one point, the narrator referenced a “pack” of blacktips. I wasn’t aware that sharks traveled in packs. Finally, while this isn’t a scientific mistake, trying to attach a camera to a shark by swimming next to it is arguably the dumbest things I’ve seen a person do.

This premiere had some cool photography and was ostensibly about science, but it could have been a lot better. Overall grade: C+

Shark Attack Survival Guide

Shark Attack Survival Guide was definitely the worst of the bunch. It focused on a Chris Meloni lookalike who tries to recreate dangerous situations to show people how to get out of them. It was about as ridiculous as it sounds from the previous sentence.In one sequence, he blows up a boat to show what to do if your boat explodes and you are flung into the water with sharks that were previously attracted to your boat by absurd quantities of chum. That happens to me all the time, and I’m glad that I know what to do now. Seriously, though, proper boat maintenance will greatly reduce the chances of your boat exploding.

In another sequence that bordered on animal abuse, bizarro-Meloni tricked a reef shark into swimming into a shark cage with him and closed the door so he could show what to do if this ever happens to you. Remember when I said that trying to attach a camera to a free-swimming shark was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen? I take it back. Seriously, watch this:

Another of this premiere’s many gems included whacking the surface of the water with a paddle and crinkling a water bottle underwater to “simulate the sounds of a ship explosion”. I’m pretty sure that sharks can detect volume as well as pitch…

The show almost took a positive turn when bizarro-Meloni said that “out of hundreds of species of sharks, only 20 have been documented attacking humans”… but a few words later he said that people should “consider any shark over a meter long to be potentially dangerous”. In another scene, he dragged a hooked shark into shallow water and then claimed that we should be careful because sharks sometimes come into shallow water. My mom said that the whole show reminded her of a combination of Jackass and the South Park parody of Steve Irwin (a la “I’m going to poke this crocodile and see how pissed off it gets”).

Overall grade: F

Day of the Shark 3

Day of the Shark 3 was the latest in a series focusing on attack re-enactments and interviews with recent shark attack victims.  Though it featured an overly dramatic logo that included blood in the ocean as a fin swam by and was entirely about sharks biting people, it wasn’t that bad. One of the victims later went on to do a shark dive to get over his fear. Another said “I look on the shark as my friend, not my enemy. He didn’t know I was a person, he thought I was a fish to eat”. Another would “love to learn more about sharks and what they do in the ocean… you can’t blame the shark, you were in his territory”.

There were some issues with scientific inaccuracy. The biggest dealt with the notion of a shark coming back for a second bite after it let go the first time. This almost never happens, which WAS STATED IN THE DOCUMENTARY  by National Aquarium shark expert Andy Dehart, but they still mentioned it several times. Most shark bites are “hit and run”, which means that once the shark realizes that we aren’t food, they leave us alone and don’t come back. Another time, Andy Dehart said that “bumping” is a shark saying “get out of my territory”, which is just not correct (shark’s taste buds are on their snouts, bumping is tasting). The narrator referenced bull sharks as the most common shark species in the Gulf of Mexico, which is just preposterous. The show also referenced the lateral line system as being “like a sixth sense”. It’s not like a sixth sense, it is exactly a sixth sense.

However, this premiere had a lot of conservation focus. It mentions how sharks have few young and grow slowly, and it mentions how the Gulf oil spill negatively impacts shark pupping grounds.

Overall grade: C+/B-

Shark Bite Beach

Shark bite beach covers a 2008 string of fatal attacks along the Pacific coast of the United States and Mexico. It focuses on interviews with the victims, but also includes community responses. Strangely, it also had some of the best conservation message of any Shark Week premiere I’ve seen- from the opening sequence where the narrator says “this time, the ultimate victims may be the sharks themselves” to a rare interview with a shark conservation NGO representative.

Throughout this premiere, they acknowledge that shark attacks are extremely rare. They criticize local media for “spreading a full scale shark scare”. They strongly condemn a “shark slaughter” by Mexican fishermen in response to an attack. They point out the ecological importance of sharks as apex predators in great detail.

The victims display an attitude towards the sharks that is similar to those presented in “Day of the Shark 3″. One now makes an annual trip to the Bahamas to swim with sharks. One doesn’t “fault the shark, we stepped into their environment, we accept that responsibility. One has “nothing against the shark, they were here long before we were”

There were some issues with scientific inaccuracy, though shark attack guru Dr. George Burgess was interviewed. Again we see this incorrect meme of people believing that the shark will come around for a second bite. The narrator refers to “100 million years of evolution”. Despite this, Shark Bite Beach was the best shark attack special I’ve seen. If we’re going to continue running these (and I’d be thrilled if we did not), this is a good model to use.

Overall grade: B-

Shark Bites: Adventures in Shark Week

Shark Bites was absolutely wonderful. If you haven’t seen it, it is available online (at least at the time of this posting). Watch it. It focuses on comedian Craig Ferguson overcoming his fear of sharks by learning about them and eventually swimming with them. His narration and inner monologue are hysterical. He mocks a honeymooning couple by claiming that what he is about to do is the real adventure. He refers to Survivorman Les Shroud as an “adorable crazy idiot”. He compared a fossilized shark tooth to Larry King by pointing out that both are still sharp after two million years.

As the moment where Craig was to feed a shark approached, the humor got even better. He said “we’re getting ready to feed large wild predators. I know that seems stupid, but that’s only because it is.” He attempts to appear “less snacky”, and points out that “sharks are large meat eating predators and I’m large meat”. He fears an amputating bite and tells us that “I like my legs. Both of them. I’m a dancer”.

After interacting with the sharks, his attitude completely changed. Happy island music (not scary over-dramatic music) was playing as the screen showed his first encounter, as he “began to see sharks for what they really are”.  He said “they’re so beautiful, they’re fantastic…they’re like big dogs…they’re just not mean”. He also had an awakening- Craig “used to think that Oprah was the most powerful being on the planet”.

The show had a conservation message in the form of shark dive company Stuart Cove’s. The dive operators mention that sharks are in decline, and how they use their company to teach people about the importance of sharks and how they can help . It also featured a scientist- my friend Dr. Dean Grubbs (the FSU scientist who originally taught me about the dolphin-safe tuna issue).

I cannot praise Discovery and Craig Ferguson enough for “Shark Bites”. Overall grade: A+ (the first A+ I’ve given a Shark Week premiere).

Last year, I listed ten ways for Discovery to make Shark Week better. Let’s review them and see what changes were made:

1) Include conservation pop-ups during the shows. Again, I didn’t watch the shows at their original airtime so I don’t know if these were included. Can someone please let me know?  Cannot grade at present.

2) Change the promos. Discovery did a great job with their new ads and promos! Please stick to the 2010 model! A+

This magazine ad gets the message across without fearmongering, and is actually pretty funny

Here is the 2010 Shark Week promo:

For comparison, here is a 2009 promo:

3) Improve the website: Eh… I suppose it’s a little better. One of the menus from the Shark Week home page is “Conservation”, which is good, but I have no screenshots of last year’s website so I can’t do a critical evaluation. I’m working from memory and I seem to recall that it was harder to find conservation information on the website last year than it is this year. No grade, not enough information.

4) Require that a scientist be interviewed. Every special this year except “Ultimate Air Jaws” featured a shark scientist! The one in “Shark Attack Survival Guide had a minimal role, but others were much more prominently featured. B-

5) Don’t openly mock science and conservation. No shows mocked science or conservation, and some actively promoted it! A

6) Require a pro-conservation close. This did not happen, though more conservation facts were included in the shows themselves than during last year. D

7) Get a better PSA. I did not see the PSA and I can’t find it on YouTube. Can anyone point me in the right direction please? Cannot grade at present

8 )  Include at least one solidly pro-conservation documentary. There was nothing that really focused on conservation, but Craig Ferguson’s “Shark Bites” focused on a person learning that sharks aren’t dangerous and it mentioned that they are important and in trouble. B-

9) Ditch the “Jaws and Claws” style attack specials. Fewer specials were entirely about shark attacks! Last year, four focused entirely or mostly on shark attacks (Blood in the Water, Day of the Shark 2, Sharkbite Summer, and Deadly Waters) This year, only three were about shark attacks (Day of the Shark 3, Sharkbite Beach, and Shark Attack Survival Guide. Though there were fewer of these and 2 of them were better than last year’s, they still are around (and probably will be for a long time). D- (Hey, fewer and less troublesome is a step in the right direction)

10) Don’t say anything scientifically ridiculous.I did acknowledge last year that this one would be difficult… D

We’ve got a long way to go before the conservation community is satisfied with Shark Week, but 2010 was undeniably a big step in the right direction. Until next August, be sure to live every week like it’s Shark Week!

~WhySharksMatter