Below are all of my Shark Week 2016 episode reviews from my Facebook page.
Here are my pre-Shark Week predictions and musings
Shark Week starts Sunday!
Back by popular demand, here are my tips for which #SharkWeek shows to watch and which to avoid.
(NOTE: Unlike in previous years, I have not seen any of these shows in advance, I’m basing everything off of information that’s publicly available in the official episode descriptions).
WATCH: Strong science, natural history, or conservation content
-Tiger Beach (Sunday 6/26 8 P.M.) This one is all about our lab’s Shark Research at University of Miami tiger shark research in the Bahamas! I’ve participated in this research (though I’m not in this special) and I can tell you that it’s visually stunning stuff, beautiful animals in an incredible setting.
-Return of Monster Mako (Sunday 6/26 9 P.M.). Monster Mako last year focused on researchers studying mako shark behavior in the Gulf of Mexico, and the sequel looks like more good stuff.
-Jaws of the Deep (Monday 6/27 9 P.M.) This is the latest in Shark Week specials featuring Dr. Greg Skomal and his high-tech studies of great white shark behavior. This one uses ROVs and underwater cameras to observe deep water behavior.
-Air Jaws: Night Stalker (Tuesday 6/28 10 P.M.) The latest in the always visually stunning “Air Jaws” series documents nocturnal hunting behavior in great white sharks. It features my adviser, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag.
-Sharks vs. Dolphins: Face Off (Wednesday 6/29 10 P.M.) This special is about how sharks and dolphins interact with one another. It focuses on the research of my committee member Dr. Mike Heithaus.
-Shark Bait (Friday 7/1 9 P.M.) This is another special featuring Dr. Greg Skomal’s great white research, this time with a focus on seal hunting off Cape Cod.
-Blue Serengeti (Friday 7/1 10 p.m.) This one focuses on Dr. Barbara Block’s high tech tracking and videography research off California.
-Isle of Jaws (Sunday 6/26 10 P.M.) Shallow Water Invasion (Monday, 6/27 8 P.M.), and The Killing Games (Sunday 7/3 9 P.M.) These looks to be the latest in a long series of “here’s an interesting question about great white shark behavior, let’s go SCUBA diving with great whites and film it and not really answer that question” specials. The description for Isle of Jaws notes that they’re looking into where great whites mate and where they have their young. I…do not expect this special to answer that question. Shallow Water Invasion and the Killing Games may show some previously unseen great white shark behavior.
-Sharks Among Us (Monday 6/27 10 P.M.) and Jungle Shark (Thursday 6/30 10 P.M.) If I had my druthers, I’d prefer that Shark Week not have specials about sharks hurting people at all, but I suppose specials focusing on research into shark bite risk reduction may be ok, depending on the relative focus. Sharks Among Us looks like it has an anti-culling message, and Jungle Shark promises some cool shots of American crocodiles in Costa Rica, so that could be good.
-Deadliest Shark (Wednesday 6/29 9 P.M.) While the title isn’t promising, this special focuses on marine biologists studying oceanic whitetip shark behavior. The quality of this special will depend on the relative focus on oceanic whitetip shark research vs. historical reenactments of why they’re considered so dangerous.
-Nuclear Sharks (Thursday 6/30 9 P.M.). This is about sharks that utilize the reefs around former nuclear test sites at Bikini atoll, and features a Cousteau grandchild. It also includes some research and conservation themes, particularly with respect to illegal fishing. This one is in the “iffy” category for me only because radiation is a tricky issue from a science communication standpoint and I’m just not sure if I trust Shark Week to discuss it in a non-fearmongering way yet. I’m happy to be wrong here. Of my “iffy” specials this one has the highest likelihood of actually being really good.
DO NOT WATCH/ OR WATCH AND LOUDLY CRITICIZE I GUESS/ I’M REALLY NOT SURE WHY THIS IS HERE WE WERE OTHERWISE DOING SO WELL THIS YEAR
Wrath of a Great White Serial Killer (Tuesday 6/28 9 P.M.) Here’s my review of the first Great White Serial Killer special, which aired in 2013. “‘Two attacks at the same beach. Two years apart. Has a shark turned into a serial killer?’ (Um, maybe there’s more than one animal involved?) An interviewee on the show — who is not a scientist — observes “this can’t be a coincidence” while the narrator notes “it isn’t a frivolous comparison to call a shark a serial killer.” I’d encourage the producers of this show to look up the definitions of coincidence and frivolous”.
(Also, last year, one of the producers of the 2nd “Great White Serial Killer” got into an argument with me and claimed that they never said it was only one shark killing multiple people, which would make sense if the series wasn’t called SERIAL KILLER. I’m not really sure why they made a 3rd one. I wish they wouldn’t.)
-Overall, Shark Week seems to be making a serious, concerted effort to improve the quality of their programming from a low in 2013 and 2014. If you criticized them then, it might be good to watch and praise the progress now.
– There are lots of specials focusing on great whites this year, and not as much species diversity as last year. I can haz moar “Alien Sharks” focusing on deep sea weird species? I can haz moar “Ninja Sharks” focusing on amazing abilities of species that don’t usually get screentime? We have makos and oceanic whitetips this year, I guess.
-There are 13 marine biologists named in the official episode descriptions, and 12 of them are men.
TIGER BEACH: This focused on my lab’s ongoing research project tracking large female tiger sharks in the Bahamas. It had a good focus on research, including some amazing ultrasound imagery showing pregnant sharks. Good facts, amazing shots of tiger sharks, lots of interviews with the researchers involved. There was a little narration that was needlessly dramatic but overall this was a solid science-based documentary! A – / A
RETURN of MONSTER MAKO: This one started with some super dramatic and fearmongering narration. It focuses on more effort to track and study mako feeding behavior, this time including nocturnal behavior. Really neat behavioral research and lots of awesome shots of makos hunting (including some night vision shots, including sharkcam shots of a shark hunting a pelagic crab). There was even a young-of-year mako sighting! I wish the narration focused on the long term research, not just one boat trip trying to observe one thing once (this is a recurring problem in Shark Week specials, but they actually did a pretty good job with it in Tiger Beach). A-
ISLE OF JAWS: As I predicted/feared, this was the latest in a long series of “here’s an interesting question about shark behavior, let’s go cage diving with sharks and not answer that question” shows. In this case, sharks apparently disappeared from one place, so they went cage diving with other sharks in another place? Also the latest in a long series of “we’re looking into where great white sharks mate,” but don’t actually address this at all. I remain deeply, deeply skeptical of the idea that certain types of music attract great white sharks. There was nothing really bad about this special (particularly not compared with past issues,) but nothing good either. Let’s go with a gentleman’s C.
Non white male scientists shown: 4
Species seen: 6 (tiger, lemon, blue, mako, smooth hammerhead, great white, “whaler”)
Megalodons mentioned: 0
SHALLOW WATER INVASION: This was another special that had lots of interesting science based content, but was somewhat ruined by really weird storytelling, narration, and editing. It opened by noting that sharks have been in deep water for “thousands of years,” but have only recently gone into shallow water. Um… no? Sharks aren’t going in to shallow water by beaches more frequently now, what’s new is that beachgoers all have cameras with them now (GoPros, smartphones, etc). At one point, an interviewed scientist said something correct about this and was then immediately contradicted by the narrator saying something wrong. I really liked the Bimini Biological Field Station – Sharklab use of a spotted eagle ray decoy to attract a hammerhead to feed, I liked seeing drone footage of sharks feeding in shallow water, and I was glad to see some BRUVs featured. They mentioned all the hammerheads that anglers catch from beaches in Florida, but without mentioning that this activity is often illegal and lethal. C+, but could have been an A with all of the same footage and better narration and editing.
JAWS OF THE DEEP: The latest in a series of specials with Dr. Greg Skomal studying great white sharks. This one used deep water autonomous camera rigs to film great white behavior at depth, leading to some amazing footage of a shark gliding to the depths. It also documented just how quickly a great white can ascend to the surface from the depths. A –
SHARKS AMONG US: This movie focused on efforts to reduce sharks biting people using new technology. I said in my Shark Week preview that whether this special was good or bad would depend on the relative balance between scaring viewers with news coverage of shark bites and research to reduce them… but I didn’t consider how much they would overhype the actual research to make it look scary. It showed some cool trials of a magnetic shark barrier,
but didn’t mention the biggest problem with using these rare earth magnets as large-scale shark repellents… they are very expensive and dissolve in seawater in a few days.(UPDATE: this is true of many rare Earth metal magnets, but I have been informed that the ones used in this show are both cheaper and longer-lasting than the ones I had previously learned about) There was a nice conservation message (magnets can keep sharks away from beaches without killing them). I liked how they invited victims of shark bites to watch the trials of research designed to prevent future shark bites. B –
Non white male scientists featured: 3 (One was in two specials and was not counted twice. One was an engineer/tech)
Species seen:5 great hammerhead, great white, blacktip, nurse, bull
Megalodons mentioned: 0
Random musing: 3 episodes in a row went to Guadalupe island to look for great white sharks. There are more than 500 species of sharks, you guys, and they live all over the world…
“WRATH OF A GREAT WHITE SERIAL KILLER (I wasn’t able to watch and tweet along live):
This is the third in a ridiculous series that promotes pseudoscience and fear, and it was the only show I was worried about this year. My fears were not unfounded. No, a few people being bitten by sharks along the same (long) stretch of beach does not mean that there’s just one shark that has developed a taste for human. There are actually lots of sharks in the ocean, and “rogue shark” theory hasn’t been taken seriously in decades. At one point, they went looking for a specific individual shark that bit someone 30 years ago…and they went looking thousands of miles away from where the bite occurred… at Guadelupe Island (the 4th show in a row to go there). They again tried to “prove a theory” of a non-scientist instead of asking a scientist, who would already know the answer, because people studied it a long time ago. They kept referencing sharks being “not where they’re supposed to be,” while also noting that people have known that sharks go there for decades. They also awkwardly edited in real research that is totally unrelated to the “plot” of this show.
Stop making this shit, Discovery. There are lots of actual real things you could talk about instead.
F, but only because F minus is reserved for fake megalodon style documentaries.
Shark species seen: 1, great white. Including the 4th show in a row to go to Guadalupe to look for great whites.
Non white male scientists featured: 0
Megalodons mentioned: 0, literally the only saving grace of this show.
AIR JAWS: NIGHT STALKER REVIEW (DVR-ED AND WATCHED LATER)
The latest in the always-good “air jaws” series focused on nocturnal behavior of great white sharks at Seal Island, and included my adviser Dr. Neil Hammerschlag. There were some incredible nighttime shots of the great white breaching behavior we’ve all come to know and love from the air jaws series, and we got introduced to a variety of research methodologies (including two not seen on other shark week specials this year). Lena Headey was narrating, and not only did she have a great voice for that, but the narration was interesting, informative, and non-sensationalized. A
Non white male scientists featured: 0
Shark species seen: 1, great white. (But great whites breaching at seal island are way more interesting than great whites just outside of a cage in Mexico)
Megalodons mentioned: 0
DEADLIEST SHARK: This one focused on Dr.s Domeier and Bruce studying oceanic whitetip sharks. This show attributed every death from shipwrecks to oceanic whitetips “picking off” survivors, rather than, like, exposure, or starvation or dehydration, or injuries from an exploding boat, so that wasn’t ideal. Trying to artificially recreate a shipwreck to see if oceanic whitetips would investigate was kind of interesting, if mythbusters-y. Narration overwhelmingly focused on sharks biting people rather than population declines (somewhat mentioned) or their fascinating adaptations to the open ocean. There was a mention of FADs as an open ocean conservation issue. This one had potential but every time they started talking about an interesting science issue or an important conservation issue, the narrator awkwardly transitioned into fearmongering. There was a lot of potential here, but I’m gonna have to go with a C+ , arguably a B- (though again I could make an A documentary with most of the same footage and different narration).
SHARKS VS. DOLPHINS: FACE OFF. This was an overview of shark-dolphin interactions, featuring lots of research and interesting natural behavior. I really liked the focus on dolphins being jerks to nurse sharks, showing the dark side of dolphins. I really really liked them showing a human rescuing a shark from a dolphin! There was some awesome footage of dolphin hunting, and some awesome footage of sharks! We got a pretty good introduction to a variety of field shark research methods, learned about sensory biology of mammals and sharks, and saw some awesome animals in a few beautiful locations. They compared hunting behaviors between sharks and dolphins, and showed awesome video of each. We even showed my hometown aquarium Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium in a sequence focusing on shark intelligence! MORE LIKE THIS, PLEASE! A/ A+
Shark species seen: 10: Oceanic whitetip, bonnethead,great white, bull, tiger, great hammerhead, nurse, mako, zebra, blacktip
Non white male shark scientists featured: 1 (but several women dolphin researchers)
Megalodons mentioned: 0
NUCLEAR SHARKS: This was an interesting premise- checking out how reef sharks re-colonized Bikini Atoll after nuclear testing. However, a central premise of the show was that these animals don’t move more than small distances, which we knew was wrong from past research. This show was well hosted by the Cousteaus, didn’t have any radiation fearmongering, and had some cool footage, and we actually got to see the results of satellite telemetry studies performed during the show. It even revealed some illegal fishing (tagged sharks were caught in a shark sanctuary), and had an IUU fishing message from John Kerry. B, but could have been an A with some better fact checking about reef shark migration.
JUNGLE SHARKS: This had awesome footage of bull sharks interacting with crocodiles in a river, but was weirdly narrated and edited. They claimed that it was a “rumor” that bull sharks live in rivers, when it’s really quite well known. I’m not really sure what the point of this show was, but I did love how they flipped the script on a shark week classic shot by using a shark decoy to attract a crocodile bite. They demonstrated that crocodile scent startles bull sharks, which isn’t particularly surprising but led to a dramatic shot. C
Non white male scientists featured: 0
Shark species seen: 3 Grey reef shark, whitetip reef shark, bull shark.
Megalodons mentioned: 0
SHARK BAIT This is the 2nd great white special focusing on Dr. Greg Skomal’s work, this time off Cape Cod. It focused on trying to determine why great whites are returning to Cape Cod (very similar in premise to the 2014 “Jaws Comes Home”. This show featured the same high-quality science content I’ve come to expect from shows focusing on Dr. Skomal, but the narration was atypically fearmongering for one of the shows he’s featured in. At one point, the narrator claimed that great white shark population recovery is “an alarming trend,” and at another, the narrator suggested that great whites swimming near the beach is new and scary as if “near the beach” is not “the ocean, where sharks live.” The narrator also claimed that closing beaches because sharks are nearby is “terrifying,” I’d instead call it “responsible preventative management.” They did a good job explaining why great whites can’t hunt seals the same way off Cape Cod the same way they can in South Africa: because the seals aren’t in deep water. I’ll never get tired of the shark-eye-view shark cam footage that’s been featured so heavily this year, I like the aerial footage of sharks hunting seals, and I also like the increased coverage of multi-sensor telemetry tags. B+
BLUE SERENGETI: Narrated by Sylvia Earle, this focused on Dr. Barbara Block’s work tagging Pacific mammals, tunas, and sharks. It featured lots of beautiful imagery of each of these species, and nice descriptions of the high-tech multi-sensor telemetry tags her team uses (including a history of telemetry tagging). It’s always funny to me to see “fake scary images of sharks is bad for shark conservation” mentioned on Shark Week, but they presented the idea well enough in the context of “Jaws”. They did a pretty good job showing how shark migration patterns overlap with areas of high fishing pressure, but I wish that these specials would mention that shark finning is not the only threat that sharks face. Also, please stop saying that sharks “have no protection at all” once they venture outside national waters, because it isn’t true. Overall, this show was totally science-focused and had no fearmongering at all, while featuring cool images. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that featured female scientist was in her show way less than the featured male scientists were in theirs…. A-
Non white male scientists featured: 3, including a rare special starring a woman in “Blue Serengeti” (there was a woman seal biologist on Shark Bait who wasn’t counted)
Shark species seen: 1, great white
Megalodons mentioned: 0
NIGHT 8/ FINAL REVIEW (night 7 was a clip show).
THE KILLING GAMES This special focused on shark hunting strategies. They showed some behaviors I’ve never seen before, including evidence of great whites hiding in a school of fish while hoping for a seal to swim by. However, they again claimed that sharks hunting in shallow water is a new behavior (it ain’t). Several times they conflated a behavior that was newly observed by scientists with a brand-new behavior that a shark hadn’t ever done before. They claimed that nurse sharks eat coral (they do not). They had some really cool footage of lemon and Caribbean reef sharks feeding in very shallow water, and an interesting claim that great whites come all the way out of the water (onto rocks) to grab seals. We could have combined the good parts from “Shallow Water Invasion” and the good parts from this show and made a pretty good documentary, but as is, this was plagued by weird editing and narration. C+/ B-
Non white male scientists featured: 1
Shark species seen: 4, great white, nurse, Caribbean reef, lemon
Megalodons mentioned: 0
-Overall, I felt that Shark Week has taken our concerns very seriously and is making a concerted and commendable effort to improve their programming. There was very little pseudoscience or fearmongering nonsense this year, and there were several truly excellent shows. I want to offer my genuine thanks to the folks at Discovery who are working hard to make things better. However, there are some things that still need your attention.
– Only one female scientist was listed by name in the official Shark Week promo materials, and she was featured in her show way, way less than the named male scientists were in theirs. I saw (and liked) some of the 2 minute online videos that Discovery made featuring the work of female scientists, but c’mon, we can do better than this. In 2014, a colleague noted that it was “sad that the Discovery channel would rather promote the existence of extinct megalodons than of real non-white male scientists.” We’ve greatly improved on half of this equation…
– While I’m glad to see many more scientists featured on Shark Week, and while I know that TV shows aren’t meant to be a science lecture, I worry about how science is portrayed in many of the episodes. You don’t need to show countless hours of scientists trying to get our R scripts to work while cursing at the computer screen, but instead of saying “this experiment proved X,” would it hurt to say that “this experiment provided strong evidence supporting X?” If your entire show is framed around the idea that a certain species of sharks doesn’t migrate a certain distance and it takes me 30 seconds to find several papers showing that they DO migrate that distance, there was a problem with scientific fact-checking in your show (or at least with how the show was framed; you could have just as easily said “this species is sometimes known to migrate distances like this, is that what happened here?”). Also, it wouldn’t be that hard to make a page on your site with links to actual research papers performed by scientists featured on Shark Week, and to briefly promote it during the shows (maybe with a pop-up text box).
-It’s fine to have shows hosted by non-scientists, but if the purpose of the show is to answer a basic question about shark behavior that scientists solved decades ago, don’t falsely claim that your non-scientist host was the one who came up with the solution, and certainly don’t base your show on science debunked decades ago (like “rogue shark” theory in the Great White Serial Killer series). If the answer to the questions your non-scientist hosts ask are always very obvious and very similar (three different times this year the question was “why do sharks go to these places,” three different times the answer was “because there’s food there”) consider framing the show around something other than that question. And I’ve just about had enough of shows framed around answering an interesting question about shark behavior where the second half of the show is “let’s go swim with those sharks using needlessly dangerous equipment and then never actually answer the question at all.”
– What happened to the awesome biodiversity we saw last year? I’d love to see more shows focusing on deep sea/ weird sharks like the “Alien Sharks” series. I’d love to see more shows focusing on poorly-studied species with amazing abilities like the “Ninja Sharks” show from 2015. At one point, we had 3 episodes in a row where people went cage diving with great whites at Guadalupe. At one point, we had two episodes in a row featuring Dr. Taylor Chapple attaching camera tags to great whites. Great whites are pretty cool, but there are more than 500 species out there.
Regarding the Tiger Beach program, the scene where the team was cleaning the acoustic receivers bothered me. The narration gave the distinct impression that the divers were terminating this activity because of threat from the sharks, as if they were being chased out of the water. Though not mentioned or shown, the presence of so many sharks appeared to be due to the presence of the usual bait crates, as evidenced by the cloud of yellowtails in the background, and the presence of other shark species that would only be so interested if offered food. I’ve been to Tiger Beach several times, and the presence of so many tiger sharks is usually cause for celebration. I thought the portrayal of the sharks as an imminent threat was disingenuous. And frankly was surprised that Jim A and the research team would sign off on such a portrayal.
I should add that the rest of the Tiger Beach program was excellent.