Here’s my review of Shark Week Night 1!
1) Shark Trek! The latest in a series of good specials about Dr. Greg Skomal’s research on great white sharks in New England. Last year they upped the ante by adding an underwater robot that followed and filmed sharks, and I wasn’t sure how they could top that. This year, they added an adorable ten year old shark-o-phone named Sean, and brought Greg down to Florida. He also went diving with several other species of sharks, including my favorite, the sandbar shark! We also got to see Bulls, blacktips, a great hammerhead, and a tiger. A solid natural history and science documentary. A-
2) Island of the mega shark. This special was…not good. It chronicled the efforts of non-scientists doing what they referred to as scientific research. They claimed that no one had ever used a clear shark cage before, but it’s even been shown on past Shark Week specials. Also, this cage was apparently not safety tested before they put someone in it around great whites- he couldn’t close the door! They also had a silly floating shark-shaped ruler, which is not useful in measuring sharks unless they swim right next to it. They referred to a fat shark as “clearly pregnant,” when in reality this method is about as reliable for sharks as it is for humans. On the plus side? No wildlife harassment and no completely made up nonsense. D-
3) Monster Mako. This special focused on efforts by the Texas A&M Center for Sportfish Research to study the world’s fastest shark. Some needlessly dramatic narration, but the content was great! Lots of amazing footage of makos and of spinner sharks, including an amazing breach! I’d happily watch a version of this special for dozens of other shark species. Another solid natural history and research documentary! A-/B+ (some marks off for goofy narration).
Shark species seen so far: 8
Female scientists seen so far: 1
Megalodons seen so far: 0
Conclusion: So far? Shark Week 2015 is much better!
Here are my reviews of Shark Week 2015 Night 2!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….
1) Return of the Great White Serial Killer. This special was…not good. The premise was a surfer who claims to be an animal expert “investigating” whether all the shark bites at one particular beach where from the same shark. After a great deal of buildup showing that a new DNA test could prove whether or not it was all the same shark, they ended up not discussing the results of the test at all. Then they went to Mexico, because there are also sharks in Mexico, and assumed that the first big shark they saw was the same one that people had seen in California, because there’s only one great white shark in the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, if this show had been based on the premise that “there are cyclical patterns in shark bites at this one beach every 2 years, what’s causing them” and not “let’s identify the one shark that’s obviously responsible for all bites every two years, which we will call a serial killer,” it might have been ok. But it wasn’t. Also, lots of inflammatory language and questionable descriptions of shark behavior. Also they claimed that if only they could extract DNA from shark teeth, they could resolve this for sure, then claimed that they were the first ones to ever extract DNA from shark teeth (which is not true), and then never addressed the DNA again. F.
2) Alien Sharks: Close Encounters. The third in my favorite Shark Week series, this special focused on 3 different expeditions to find and study unusual, rarely seen deep sea sharks. It featured some amazing footage of so many species of sharks, chimeras and rays that I lost count at around 20, and showed more female scientists than the last two entire Shark Week’s combined (though they didn’t get speaking roles, they were grad students not PIs). Grad student Paul Clerkin is a star, made for talking about marine biology on camera. Alien Sharks is the best of Shark Week, focusing on science and natural history, amazing footage of amazing behaviors of amazing animals. More of this, please! A+
Shark species featured: I lost count at 20, almost all in AlienSharks (Return of the great white only had great whites)
Female scientists featured: 5 (all in Alien Sharks)
Megalodons seen: 0
Conclusion: Shark Week 2015 is still much better, but Return of the Great White Serial Killer was pretty bad.
Here are my reviews for Night 3 of Shark Week!
1) Bride of Jaws. This one was just sorta weird and pointless. The premise was “we heard on the news that people saw a big great white, so we’re going to go looking for that specific individual great white, along the way learning a little bit about great white behavior in the region.” Why do this? Why not focus on “there are lots of big great whites here, here’s their behavior in this region?” They didn’t find the specific individual shark they were looking for, but did find lots of others, and they way they set it up made this seem like a failure. They used a goofy harness to try and lower someone on top of a free-swimming great white to attach a camera which can record video for a few hours, which is a tool useful at answering many scientific questions but NOT useful at answering the question they were trying to answer (a few hours of video does not reveal month-scale migrations). This was another show hosted by a team of “experts” with questionable qualifications to speak about large-scale great white behavior and biology, and another show that could have had about 90% of its footage re-edited into a solid documentary. I honestly don’t know what to give this special, so let’s go with a gentleman’s C.
2) Tiburones: The Sharks of Cuba. This was FANTASTIC, one of the best specials of the week if not one of the best specials they’ve ever done. It focused on a joint U.S.-Cuban team of scientists studying, well, the sharks of Cuba. The reefs there were gorgeous, and the silky sharks and remoras were by far the biggest I’ve ever seen. It featured the first sharks ever satellite tagged in Cuba, as well as an amazing man who can safely restrain free-swimming sharks for research workups (VERY different from the wildlife harassment featured on last year’s Zombie Sharks). It also featured the second longfin mako shark ever satellite tagged, and a discussion of Cuban shark fisheries and conservation. They also talked a little about shark nurseries after they caught a Caribbean reef shark pup. There were also like two minutes of “Cuban fishermen caught one of the biggest great whites ever caught (which is actually true), so maybe there’s another giant great white here too,” which was totally unnecessary and even a little distracting from the excellent real science that was happening in the rest of the show. I give this one an enthusiastic A.
Also, I normally don’t comment on the nightly “Shark After Dark” talk shows, but this one was fantastic! They spent a solid half the show talking about real science and conservation issues (a little basic perhaps, but baby steps, and trying to reach a general audience). They showed an adorable video of kids saying what they love about sharks. A horror movie makeup expert correctly described how shark bites are almost always accidental. And host Eli Roth gave a shoutout to the “don’t use the phrase shark attacks, it’s inflammatory and inaccurate” campaign! Best Shark After Dark ever (the second best was the one where David Hasslehoff wrote and performed a song about Shark Week).
Shark species seen: great white, tiger, bull, great hammerhead, silky, Caribbean reef, longfin mako (7)
Female researchers seen: 0 (one of the non-scientist “experts” was female)
Megalodons seen: 0.
This night started off a little weird (not bad, just weird), but ended great.
Here are my reviews for Shark Week Night 4!
1) Super Predator! This special was… not good. It focused on “one man’s quest” to “solve a mystery” when there wasn’t a mystery because scientists already knew what happened. The dude thought that there was a big shark living thousands of feet deep, so he used a homemade submsersible to go down like 20 feet and investigate, because that makes sense. We came dangerously close to megalodon nonsense- they did explicitly say that megalodon is extinct, but they mentioned a previously-unknown 40 foot long great white subspecies. Ugh. It had some cool footage of orcas eating mola molas and sperm whales, but the way it was framed was “we tried to find this 40 foot long shark and all we found was orcas,” so it was presented as a failure. D minus.
2) Ninja Sharks. This was great! This show focused on adaptations of some sharks who rarely get screentime, including salmon sharks and threshers! Several different teams of researchers and legit experts were featured, and there were a lot of great videos and infographics explaining scientific concepts. The highlight for me was amazing footage of salmon sharks, and also amazing footage of threshers at a cleaning station. There is a lot of potential for sequels or similar series, and I can’t wait for them! A+
Shark species seen: I counted 9. Six on Ninja sharks, plus great whites, bronze whalers, blue sharks in Super Predator.
Female researchers seen: 1 in Ninja Sharks.
Megalodons: Closest we’ve come so far, but they did not explicitly say it. 0.25?
Shark Week Night 5 review:
Species seen: I lost track at 20, including several smaller sharks and several rays.
Female researchers seen: 2
Megalodons seen: 0
(As much as I loved Shark Planet and thank Shark Week for airing it, it’s important that we don’t hold other Shark Week specials to the impossibly high standard set by one of the greatest ocean documentaries ever made. No one says “all other movies suck and aren’t worth watching because they’re no Citizen Kane.”
We can and we should hold the Discovery Channel and Shark Week to high standards of programming. We can and we should enjoy Shark Planet immensely. But that one documentary took a giant team of people several years to make. We won’t see it’s like anytime soon.
Other Shark Week shows are still very good, and are a more easily reproducible model. I can see several more iterations of “Alien Sharks” (there’s lots more in the deep sea). I can see several more iterations of “Monster Mako” focusing on the study on one charismatic species. I can see follow-ups of “Tiburones: Sharks of Cuba” expanding on that study, or doing the same thing in other parts of the world that haven’t been extensively studied by shark biologists. I can see follow-ups of “Ninja Sharks” telling us more about threshers and makos and salmon sharks, or adding new species. But it is not reasonable to expect another Planet Shark anytime soon.)
Shark Week Night 6 review!
1) Sharks of the Shadowlands! This had a great title, an interesting premise, and some cool footage, but was hampered by sensationalized to the point of being silly narration. This focused on the efforts of a team of researchers (including a female marine biologist) to study sevengill sharks to minimize the risks to a team of divers working on removing invasive seaweed. Sevengills are awesome and I was glad to see them get screentime, but the narration kept suggesting that they were really dangerous when….meh not really. Several people on the twitterz were saying they never saw sevengills behave like this, and suggested that the camera crews intentionally riled them up, which would be less than ideal. Also some questionable telemetry tag deployment. I’ll give it a C+.
2) Shark Clans. I was super skeptical about this one, but it was the biggest surprise of the week! It focused on ecotour operator and wildlife advocate Rodney Fox and his team of researchers, and their efforts to prove that some great white sharks travel in social groupings they all “clans.” They had some pretty convincing data. They talked about the conservation benefits of ecotourism, and there were several moments where they clearly outlined a scientific question and correctly explained how certain research methods could answer them. It was entertaining science-driven programming! A.
Species seen: 2 (sevengill and great white)
Female researchers seen: 2 (one in each show!)
Megalodons mentioned: 0!
Final Shark Week review!
Shark Island. This special focused on Reuinion Island, which has experienced an unusual concentration of shark bites in recent years. I could do without these Shark Week over-dramatized violent bloody re-enactments of shark bites, but this one was less fear-mongering-y than most. It featured a team of researchers who were studying what was causing the bites and ways to stop them, which was good, although it didn’t really lead to any conclusions. They kept treating the obvious solution (don’t surf by the beach that has all the sharks) as if it was unacceptable, which was weird, because, yeah, the sharks aren’t biting you in your home or workplace. They addressed the idea of culls and why they’re a bad idea, perhaps too briefly. This show was fine, if unexciting. C
Species seen: Bull shark, tiger shark (2)
Female researchers seen: 0
Megalodons mentioned: 0
Other posts on Shark Week
1) They have made a public commitment to be more accurate and educational. Everything I have seen suggests that they are very serious about that commitment, and have made a genuine and significant effort to improve. Everything I have seen suggests that Shark Week 2015 will be much, much better. It won’t be perfect overnight, but it’s a big step in the right direction, and seems like it will be much, much better. This year’s specials have much more biodiversity, much more of a focus on science, and no more fake documentaries like “Megalodon.” I am cautiously optimistic.
I will continue to fact-check Shark Week, and will continue to criticize things that I find troublesome. But, we need to praise them where praise is due…and praise is due! Change happens when you provide constructive criticism *AND* provide encouragement for things done well. Let’s not slack on the second part of this, you guys.
I know that many of you no longer trust the Discovery channel, and I don’t blame you. They burned a lot of bridges. But I truly believe that they are improving and trying to make amends. I particularly encourage critics to watch Tiburones: The Sharks of Cuba, Alien Sharks 3, and Shark Planet.
Shark Week starts Sunday night, and I’ll be watching. I hope some of you will take this leap of faith with me, and that you’ll join me in being supportive of the positive changes they’ve made.
2) It has been suggested by several people that criticizing Shark Week’s inaccuracy made me “famous,” and therefore I must be upset that they’re making positive changes because I’ll personally get less publicity. Nonsense.
First of all, it’s not about me, it’s about using the largest temporary increase in public focus on any ocean science or conservation issue of the year to educate about a threatened and misunderstood group of animals.
Secondly, I would much rather say “here’s how you can learn more about that cool thing you just saw on Shark Week” than “that thing you just saw on Shark Week is wrong.” It’s more fun and more rewarding.
And finally, I think I speak for every critic of everything ever when I say that I’d rather have reduced media attention of my criticisms because the subject of my criticism made significant positive changes.
3) Shark Week 2015 just ended. There were some problems, and I have thoughts on how they should be addressed. But overall? This year was much, much better! Discovery listened to our concerns and made substantive, significant changes. There was more science and biodiversity this year, and less pseudoscience and fearmongering. A huge step in the right direction!
4) STATEMENT on Shark Week improved content and how it relates to ratings.
Journalists, feel free to quote this, or contact me at WhySharksMatter at gmail dot com.
I, who have been called “Shark Week’s biggest critic,” was very pleased with improvements this year. There was a much higher focus on science and biodiversity, and greatly reduced fearmongering and pseudoscience. Some of the shows from this year will inspire kids to become scientists or conservationists, and I won’t have to correct misconceptions caused by this year’s programming when I speak to schoolchildren over the coming months!
That said, Megalodon had the highest ratings ever for Shark Week, which means ratings this year are likely down. Rather than assuming that “science-friendly programming leads to reduced viewership,” I urge you to consider that much of the ratings reduction may be due to people who stopped watching after being disappointed with problematic shows on the last few years. I know many people who did exactly this. But if you keep making quality programming like this year, they WILL come back and ratings WILL improve.
Change takes time, but you’re moving in the right direction! I hope that Shark Week keeps up the good work and continues to improve over the next year. I remain happy to help.
5) Review of all 3 Shweekend specials:
These 3 extra shark week specials were all pretty solid. I don’t really know if this needed to be on a whole separate weekend weeks after the main shark week (there was waaaaaaay less social media engagement and I imagine fewer viewers) but whatever.
1) Myth Busters! The Myth Busters area always entertaining, and this special focusing on more myths from the film “Jaws” was no exception. One myth they addressed, that sharks are strongly repelled from the scent of dead sharks, is one I’m a little skeptical of the broad applicability of- I’ve seen mixed results of this, but the ones they showed in this special were the most dramatic I’ve ever seen. I wonder if the explosive rapid release of the scent played some role? Also, how would you store dead shark scent, and how would you know when it goes bad? Anyway, a good show overall, and I hope to see MythBusters in the Shark Week lineup in the future. B+
2) The legend of Dynamite! This special focused on an individual juvenile great white shark, and through him they told the story of how sharks diet and behavior changes as they grow. It also focused on many previously unseen members of the seal island ecosystem we’ve seen so often in other Shark Week specials, and explained how sharks interact with them. I particularly enjoyed the music in this special, which was fun and playful without any trace of fearmongering. It was a fresh take on an often-featured species, though had some weirdly anthropomorphic narration. B+
3) Air Jaws: Walking with Great Whites. Though in general I’d love to see fewer specials focusing just on great whites, Air Jaws is a Shark Week institution. This one featured a new kind of shark cage and Chris Fallows literally walking on the sea floor in it while great whites circles. Some amazing shots, and some interesting discussions of how natural history and behavior change between different populations of the same species. Also some cool shots of great whites breaching from a new angle, just below the surface. I am growing a little tired of the “the brand new equipment we never tested appropriately isn’t working appropriately in its field test” as a dramatic storytelling device, though. B+
Species seen: 8
Non-white-male humans seen: 0
Megalodons mentioned: 0.