The 30th anniversary of Shark Week was the biggest ever, with 22 episodes. It was, as usual, a bit of a mixed bag, though nothing was anywhere near as bad as the bad old days of Megalodon, and there was some pretty good stuff. As has become tradition here at Southern Fried Science, here are some overall thoughts on this year’s Shark Week, as well as reviews for each episode (not counting the clip shows, which I didn’t watch- even I have limits).
- I heard more references to shark conservation this year, though almost exclusively offhand references to how the Bahamas is a Shark Sanctuary (there was one mention of shark fin trade bans in the Shark Tank show).
- There were more women scientists and non-white scientists than I can remember, but still some major issues with diversity of scientists. (The white male scientists were still treated differently, including being given their full titles, and in one case a white male with a Masters was called Dr. while a woman with a Ph.D. was not called Dr.).
- 22 shows is too many shows. I may be the only one in the world who actually tried to watch them all and I had to skip the clip shows because even I have limits.
Rather than organizing episode reviews in chronological order or air date, this year I’m going to organize them by theme.
Episode reviews: “Celebrity meets shark” shows
Overall thoughts: While Shark Week has always included shows about celebrities meeting sharks and they’re occasionally quite entertaining, this model was perhaps a smidge overdone this year with five shows. I’m not convinced that this model of show (showing someone who is afraid of sharks learning about sharks and no longer fearing sharks) is as great for shark conservation as the Shark Week marketing team claims, but it’s not awful. However, if the entire draw of the show is the celebrity, those shows are pretty boring for people unfamiliar with that celebrity.
Shaq does Shark Week. This one focused on Shaq, with the help of comedian Rob Riggle, overcoming his fears and swimming with sharks. They made a giant shark cage for Shaq, but they made it in such a way that a shark was able to get all the way inside it. Like, it didn’t get it’s head stuck in there, it got all the way in and was freely swimming around inside the cage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. The highlight of the show was Shaq, who is an absolutely enormous person, trying to maneuver inside a liveaboard dive vessel including the bathroom and cabin, which was comedy gold. This show was light and fun and funny, but didn’t have much in the way of actual content. C.
Ronda Rousey uncaged. This one focused on professional fighter Ronda Rousey overcoming her fears and swimming with sharks, which included some shark species that don’t get enough screen time like whitetip reef sharks and makos. It’s also the only “celebrity who doesn’t know how to SCUBA dive goes SCUBA diving with sharks” show I can recall that included footage of said celebrity getting brief crash-course in SCUBA diving. While I know that Rousey is a fighter, too much of the narration and dialogue was phrased in terms of a fight, battle, or struggle. Like, you’re going swimming with a fish, Ronda. On the plus side, it included a solid pun… “get ready to meet your mako.” (Like “meet your maker?” Get it?). C+, would have been B- without all the goofy battle dialogue.
Guy Fieri’s feeding frenzy. I love Guy Fieri. Really, I do. I can’t think of any celebrity who so visibly and infectious enjoys their job. And this show focused on what sharks eat, which makes sense for a celebrity chef to be hosting a show about. It also included Guy learning about Bahamian cuisine from local chefs. It could have included a little more science and education content, and focused a little too much on a sounds-scary-out-of-context SCUBA incident, but solid overall. B-
Monster Tag. This show featured independent plotlines of several different athletes joining several different research teams to tag sharks.It was fine if unexciting, but I wish the Shark Week producers would realize that telemetry tagging is not the only scientific method used on sharks. B.
Shark Tank Meets Shark Week. How has no one thought of this crossover before? In this show, the Shark Tank sharks each got paired with a different shark research or conservation organization, and pitched the merits of that organization to one another to see who would get a donation. It was the most conservation-focused show I can ever remember on Shark Week, and was easily my favorite of the year. My parents loved it too. My only concern is that one of the four conservation organizations that got featured, Shark Allies, is…not one that I’d recommend, and their spokesperson said some wrong things about shark conservation in the United States that I’ve since seen repeated on social media. Shark Week has a history of promoting dubious conservation non-profits and this is far from the worst they’ve promoted. A, would have been A+ without wrong information from Shark Allies.
Episode reviews: Science and Natural History shows
Overall thoughts: I’m ready to learn about species other than great white sharks, and to use research methods that aren’t telemetry tags, but overall this was a pretty solid set of science and natural history shows.
SharkCam stakeout: The latest in the series of shows using an autonomous underwater robot to follow sharks and observe their behavior, this time featuring Greg Skomal working with NOT great whites! In this case, the robot followed around a bull shark for hours while scientific experts narrated the shark’s behavior and what it encountered. It was really well done science, natural history, and storytelling. I could see lots and lots of future similar shows with different species in different environments. A.
Great White Babies: This show focused on great white sharks in Guadeloupe (yawn) but focused on a method I can’t recall seeing on Shark Week before (population genetics, yay!). They actually found lots of great white shark babies pretty early in the show, which was good, as I was worried that they’d spend the whole show looking for them and not find them as is often the case on these shows. They actually found (and described with appropriate context) some interesting results about great white reproductive biology in this region, too.I wish the narrator wouldn’t have repeatedly addressed the male scientist with a Ph.D. as “Dr. Hoyos” and the woman scientist with a Ph.D. as “genetics expert Toby Daly-Engel,” though. A-.
Air Jaws: the Hunted. While I’d be happy to see more #DiverseSharks and fewer great whites on Shark Week, I love the Air Jaws shows, which are a longstanding part of Shark Week. This show focused on how orcas are hunting great whites in South Africa, which has resulted in the “Air Jaws” sharks leaving their longstanding feeding and aggregation area. This is a real thing that’s happening and it is really a problem. The show included some AMAZING footage of orcas hunting sharks, including a sevengill shark literally jumping onto land to it’s death to avoid orcas. A.
Spawn of Jaws. This one had one of the strangest concepts I can recall for a Shark Week science show. Scientists were studying great white babies off New York (cool!) to attempt to determine if they are related to the specific individual great white that inspired Jaws (Huh?). Since we don’t have any samples from that shark(s), it’s pretty much impossible to test that question. I’m not sure why Shark Week producers use weird narration and framing to set their stars up for failure. You’re studying a great white nursery area next to one of the most populous cities on Earth, which is awesome! Focus on what you’re actually doing, not a goofy tenuous connection to a myth.Also, some narration implied that successful conservation efforts tht have resulted in great white shark recovery are bad because now there are more sharks, which is, like, the goal. D+, though with 95% of the same footage and different framing/narration it could have been at least a B+.
Tiger Shark Invasion: This show focused on tiger sharks in the Galapagos. While they’ve always been there, more and more have been showing up in recent years causing potentially huge ecological effects, and we don’t really know why. This show included lots of shark biodiversity (including hammerheads, silky sharks, and whale sharks), and some absolutely stunning shots of Galapagos marine life. It also included a sea turtle decoy, an interesting twist on the oft-used seal decoy for great whites in South Africa. Finally, it included a component that I wish more Shark Week science shows used- actually describing some of the results from the research performed in the show, which means waiting months after most of the show was filmed and then following up with the scientists later. B+
Cuba’s Secret Shark Lair. This show focused on two independent teams of researchers. The 2015 Cuba show was pretty good, and I was a little confused about why they never referred to that show even though they were doing some similar work, but much of this show was also pretty good if narratively disjointed. This was the show where Melissa Marquez got bitten by a crocodile, which was handled much more sensitively than I expected from Shark Week producers. I was a little confused about what exactly the scientists in this show were supposedly looking for other than “sharks”, though there was another mention of a big great white that someone saw there decades ago. I wish that Shark Week would stop framing shows around looking for a Specific Individual Shark that they never ever find, because that’s absolutely not what the scientists are doing. B.
Megalodon: Fact vs. fiction. Or, as I prefer to call it, ““Megalodon is super extinct and sorry we lied about it, but we’re going to have real experts talk about whether the behaviors ascribed to it in our fake documentary are really true or not.” This show opened by dunking pretty hard on the past Shark Week show, but was actually pretty solid for the most part. I wish that people who screw up and caused harm would stop saying “I screwed up and caused harm, but actually that was good because it became a learning experience for others, though.” This show confirmed once and for all that the past Megalodon Shark Week shows were fake, and that Colin Drake is not a real scientist but a fictional character played by an actor. Actual scientific experts Dr.s Lisa Whitenack and Dana Ehret got some great science content in there. The narrator was trying to be funny a little too hard, and his voice sounded like he had a very punchable face. B+, honestly a much higher grade than I expected to give here.
Episode reviews: uh… let’s be generous here and call this category of shows “other.”
Bear vs. Shark This was about Bear Grylls, not, like, an actual bear. He was providing survival advice for what to do if you find yourself in a situation that’s essentially statistically impossible to find yourself in. Pretty sure we’ve seen this same show four or five times in the past. Some fearmongering nonsense, not a ton of other content, though in a bit of narrative whiplash Bear did help the Bimini team tag a shark (for some reason he jumped in the water before the shark was secured, which is a no-no). C-.
Laws of Jaws: The narration for this show started with “shark attacks are increasing and no one knows why,” which is just not factually accurate. To learn why, rather than talking with actual experts who study this stuff, the show featured a bunch of macho cowboy idiot SCUBA divers intentionally trying to recreate recent shark bite incidents. Much of what they were doing was clear wildlife harassment, including poking large tiger sharks that were peacefully swimming by them. I also strongly suspect that they were baiting bull sharks to get them to approach a surf board, which, if it happened in Florida waters as the show claimed, is illegal. This is needlessly dangerous and trying to answer questions that have already been answered. It’s not science, it’s not educational, it’s not brave. F, pseudoscientific fearmongering nonsense, the worst of Shark Week.
SharkWrecked. This show focused on what happens when you’re stranded at sea for days. It opened with people intentionally blowing up their boat and jumping in the water, while another boat that included some scientists monitored the sharks that came up to them. By the end, we had seen basically the same scene 5 times (some sharks started acting super aggressive and the people got in a safety cage), which honestly got a little boring. They have successfully convinced me that if your boat explodes in the middle of the ocean and help is days away, you’re in trouble, which is something that I’m not sure I needed to be convinced of. I will give them credit for more nuanced and less fearmonger-y narration than I assumed it would have, as well as some pretty sweet shots of oceanic whitetip sharks. C-, higher than I expected, but I’m still not sure why this show needed to be made.
Naked and Afraid…of sharks. This was a special episode of an existing show, which is basically Survivor except all the people are naked. They had to survive on an island that had sharks in the water, which, like, seems not that hard, all you have to do is not go in the water? They had to go into the water to get fish to eat, though, and though they could not wear pants, they got masks, fins, and snorkels. I’m really not sure how you win this show, and I’m not sure if I want to know. Sharks played a pretty minor role in this TWO HOUR special, which, as my wife Stacey said, “that is too many hours of naked people with sharks.” I honestly don’t know how to grade this because I’m honestly not sure what the hell I watched, but it wasn’t good.
Great White Abyss and Return of the Mega Shark: I didn’t watch these because I’ve already seen the exact same thing (SCUBA diver who claims to be a shark expert asks a shark question that has already been answered decades ago by scientists, and goes cage diving with great white sharks while never answering that original question) eleventy billion times. Also, I’m not sure why Shark Week started using the phrase “mega shark” a few years ago as if it is a technical term, but it is not.
Noteworthy media coverage:
- Scientists want a fin-ale to Shark Week shows that hurt sharks. CBC radio’s Quirks and Quarks.
- What shark experts really think about Shark Week. A roundtable discussion in Outside magazine.
- SFU research fellow attacks ‘Shark Week’ for lack of conservation message. Profile of me in the Vancouver Sun.
- Shark scientists explain what’s right and what’s wrong with Shark Week. Article I wrote for the Washington Post.
- A moment of my Twitter takeover of the Duke Alumni twitter account.
- Interview with How it Works magazine.
- A fake Shark Week documentary about megalodons caused controversy. Why is Discovery bringing it up again? Washington Post article.
- Marine Biologist Melissa Cristina Márquez Was Bitten and Dragged by a Crocodile…and Lived to Tell Her Story.
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