Rachel Pendergrass is a writer, performer and science communicator in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the assistant director of the Dragon Con Science Track, a program contributor for the Atlanta Science Festival, and producer/host of a monthly science variety show called Solve for X. When she’s not sciencing, you can find her performing as a storyteller, making nerdy sketch comedy videos with Dragon Con TV, enthusiastically ranting about sharks, or working on her sommelier skills by drinking fancy wine. Find her on Twitter at @sharkespearean.
Shark Week started on Sunday. This week long celebration of all things elasmobranch (Okay, let’s be honest, mostly Great White sharks and very little else) has inspired artists, comedy shows, and even possibly Super Bowl halftime shows!
Shark Week has also inspired more than a few musicians to show their love for fintastic festivities through song. Even Billy Idol got in on the Shark Week song action!
Here are the top 12 picks for your Shark Week playlist.
Jonathan Davis is a marine biologist, shark researcher, and Fish and Wildlife Tech for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department based out of Sabine Lake, Texas. He has researched elasmobranchs for over 10 years all around the world from New Zealand to Australia and along the U.S. coast from Massachusetts to Texas. Currently, he is continuing research as part of his PhD along the Texas coast focusing on bull shark ecology. In addition to research, Jonathan does outreach to inform the general public about sharks and inspire interest rather than fear to promote conservation rather than destruction.
This year marks the 27th Shark Week. For the past 27 years, Discovery Channel has had the unrivaled and incomparable attention of the world for one week in regards to all things ‘shark’. These 27 years have brought out the best in shark science in the beginning but have sadly declined by bringing out the worst in fear-mongering and sensationalist misinformation more recently. As a shark scientist who grew up watching Shark Week for the science the last several years have been disheartening to say the least. The science seemed to all but disappear and replaced by completely inaccurate information, scary attacks that never happened, and an epidemic of Megalodon sized proportions. Not to mention the fact that my lifelong dream of being on Shark Week was fulfilled only to have my research superimposed into a show about a ridiculous mythical shark #VoodooShark. In the midst of all these years of Shark Week, real shark science has been increasing and advancing. Sharks are an integral part of our ecosystems but many are endangered and in need of conservation. This is why shark scientists work in the background to learn as much as possible about these creatures that spark such awe and interest worldwide, not to feed fear-mongering and sensationalist desires of money hungry producers. With that being said, it would behoove all of us to utilize the unparalleled platform that is Shark Week to spread correct information and promote shark conservation.
I’ve been critical of factual inaccuracy and fearmongering on Shark Week documentaries for years. But how big of a problem is this, and how do we know? I asked some of the authors of three recent scientific studies* to summarize the evidence.
Many species of sharks are in desperate need of conservation. Twenty-four percent of all known species of sharks, skates and rays are considered Threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List. Using a variety of different methods, scientists have documented rapid and severe population declines in many species of sharks all over the world.
Conservation requires public support. In a participatory democracy, new policies and regulations require some public support to pass. It’s easy to get public support to conserve cute and cuddly animals, but ugly animals need protection too. So do animals that scare people, like sharks.
Dear Rich Ross, new President of the Discovery Channel,
I was excited to learn about your commitment to no longer show fake documentaries on the Discovery Channel. These shows have been incredibly damaging not only to Discovery’s goals of being the “number one non-fiction media company in the world” by”telling compelling and accurate stories,” but to public understanding of science and conservation. In recent years, the Discovery Channel has tried hard to actively muddle the fact that these documentaries were fake, including hiding vague disclaimers at the very end. I’ve spoken to hundreds of schoolchildren about sharks, and every time someone asks me about megalodon or mermaids. Viewers believed that they were real, and your channel actively bragged about the fact that people believed that they were real.
By claiming that megalodon isn’t extinct and mermaids are real but the government is covering this up, these shows resulted in scientists receiving threats and harassment, and resulted in important government agencies getting so many angry phone calls that they had to issue public statements. Producers for some of these shows intentionally lied to scientists to convince them to appear onscreen, intentionally lied to journalists about the facts behind them, and intentionally caused a real-life public panic. They actually showed a documentary about a legendary (read as “fake”) shark called Hitler. In short, I will be glad to see Shark Week and the Discovery Channel return to your roots of fact-based programming.
However, while “we won’t actively lie to viewers anymore” is an important step that I applaud, Shark Week and other Discovery Communications programs have many other problems that should be addressed. Shark Week 2014’s “Zombie Sharks” glorified wildlife harassment for no reason, as the entire stated goal of the show was for a non-scientist with a history of wildlife harassment to try to answer a question that scientists have known the answer to for decades. This problem is not limited to Zombie Sharks, but pervades Discovery Communications shows.
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?