Shark Week 2019 reviews and thoughts

I wasn’t able to watch live this year, but I DVR-ed all 18 specials and watched them eventually! Here are my reviews, ratings, and thoughts. I did not watch the feature-length movie, which they claim is the first fictional entertainment content they’ve ever produced… causing me to stare in megalodon. Overall, this was not a strong year for science, facts, or diversity (of either sharks or shark researchers).

As a reminder, I grade on the following aspects of a show: is there actual science or natural history educational content / is there made up nonsense, are actual credentialed experts with relevant expertise featured or are they self-proclaimed “shark experts” who say wrong nonsense all the time, what species are featured (with bonus points for species we rarely or never see), and do they feature diverse experts or just the same white men (reminder: my field is more than 50% women)? It’s not a perfect rubric, but it’s better than this actual system for ranking shark news introduced this year in “sharks gone wild 2:”

Rankings appear in no particular order, if you care about the order the shows actually aired in please see this Discovery press release.

Shark Wrecked: Crash Landing

This is the latest in a series of survival experts putting themselves in ridiculous situations you will never ever face, because reasons. These are dangerous situations that involve sharks, but in which sharks are not the only or primary threat. Various past iterations of these shows have a long history on shark Week.

In this show, our survival experts plan on spending days at a time in the water with no food or water, in an area where there are sharks. In the opening narration, they mention that the location (Palau) is a Shark Sanctuary, but don’t explain at all what that is, another wasted opportunity to put actual education in these shows. The show also had some inexplicable nonsense narration, saying “electro sensors in the shark’s nose zero in on movement.”

After 15 minutes of air time, the survivalists are given a life raft, which later breaks. They get dehydrated and seasick and essentially none of the danger here has anything to do with sharks. I hate these shows, they’re just unpleasant to watch, it’s people torturing themselves for no reason. Also, they claimed that the only humans to experience the risk of sharks in these waters are WWII fighter pilots who crashed, but, like, humans live on those islands.

The two hosts are white males, but they actually have relevant skillsets (in the survival world), and they do have a scientific expert on hand (Dr. Greg Skomal). The show features silky sharks, rarely seen on Shark Week.

Reminder that doing something intentionally unsafe and totally unnecessary is not inherently “brave.”

Rating: D

Shark Week Immersion

This is apparently a special Shark Week edition of an existing show called “immersion” which I had never heard of, but it’s an online mythbusters type show. The hosts are bro-tastic white guys, but they were at least on the charming and entertaining side of that spectrum.

The premise of the show was that two of the show’s staff had to compete in increasingly ridiculous, vaguely shark themed challenges (riding a bull shark bucking bronco, attempting to outswim a shark-shaped speedboat), and the loser had to swim with sharks. The loser, not the winner. Eventually, the winner chose to also get in, where they were escorted by shark researcher and frequent Shark Week star Luke Tipple.

I called this show “pointless but mildly amusing,” placing it solidly in the top 1/3 of Shark Week 2019. Gotta ding them half a letter grade for exposing me to this random commercial break segue, though.

Rating: C

I was prey

Stories of sharks biting people have a long history on Shark Week, even though actual shark bites are so rare that the same stories are told in multiple iterations of these shows. Several descriptions of shark behavior reprorted in past versions of these shows is impossible nonsense (which does not mean that these stories of humans getting injured aren’t tragic, any human death or injury is a tragedy).

In general, I don’t really give advice on how to avoid sharks biting you, because these incidents are so rare that you really don’t need to worry about them. However, it’s worth noting that almost everyone featured in one of these shows ignores the most common advice (stay close to shore during the day around lots of other people). One of the two victims in this show was spearfishing and carrying around a string of bleeding fish, saw a tiger shark behaving aggressively, and chose to remain in the water, which is…not what I would advise you do if you are ever in that situation. Almost all of these stories boil down to “I went in the ocean, a shark bit me, and it let me go because it realized I’m not prey,” which I’m sure is traumatizing for the victims, but doesn’t make for riveting television.

This is one of the least fearmongering, inflammatory shows in this genre I can recall, but I still wouldn’t be sad if Shark Week never made another one. It’s pretty amazing that most of the victims say at the end “I don’t blame the shark, I was in the ocean” and most of them go back out surfing or spearfishing or whatever.

Rating: C-

Sharks Gone Wild 2

This show, the source of the “shark-o-meter” shared above, is a clip show in which everything shark-y in the news since the last Shark Week is discussed by an incredibly annoying narrator (I thought he sounded like an old guy trying to fit in at a stereotypical fraternity party). I usually don’t watch clip shows but wanted to see how they discussed 2019’s viral great white shark wildlife harassment incident in Hawaii.

“Top shark stories of the year” include, apparently, a very small nurse shark biting a person on the hand while she was feeding it, which required a few stitches. Incredibly, she survived. Other “top shark stories” included people seeing a shark while shark diving (if there was more to it than that, I missed it), and lots of videos of sharks eating their normal prey not bothering anyone.

This show included an interview with a “shark conservationist” who I had never heard of who apparently did not know the difference between IUCN Red List “Endangered” and US Endangered Species Act “Endangered,” which is a thing you should know if you are actually a professional working in this space and are presenting yourself as such in a major media interview.

The show included a rundown of the “top shark science of the year,” which are stories apparently chosen at random. They did mention (briefly, with no educational context) land-based shark fishing in Florida. It ended with a tribute to Doc Gruber, a frequent shark week guest. And they didn’t actually glorify wildlife harassment, which was a nice surprise.

As I said at the time I watched it, it wasn’t horrible, but it was very annoying and it didn’t really need to be made. And since the entire show was skype interviews and viral internet clips, I can’t imagine it cost them very much to make.

Rating: C-

Isle of Jaws: Blood Brothers

This show is about two great white sharks who are supposedly brothers, though no evidence of any kind is ever presented to support that claim. At one point, our non-expert with a history of saying wrong things host says “these two sharks, I swear to god, they have to be brothers. They swim the same, they’re roughly the same size.” Later he says “These are definitely brothers, it makes sense to me that sharks would have siblings.” (At the end they allude to someone else maybe doing a genetic test on these sharks, but never mention if that actually happened or what the result was). Their entire test to see if these sharks were brothers was to see if they can ever once at any point in time be filmed swimming together, and they were, which is, like, not at all shocking, sharks swim together all the time. To be clear, if they actually discovered cooperative hunting in siblings, which they unequivocally did not, that would not be a major discovery, it would be a “huh, neat I guess” discovery.

The show opens with narration indicating that this is not going to be particularly educational: “Shark behavior at this mysterious island is making us rethink everything we know about great whites; it’s a bad time for seals but a great time for mysteries.”

This show spent maybe 1/4 of its run time recapping what happened on the previous “Isle of Jaws” show, which is annoying and unnecessary, especially since nothing much happened.

There are hundreds of species of sharks and tons of actual qualified experts including many from historically underepresented backgrounds, but Shark Week keeps greenlighting shows hosted by the same non-expert white guys who say wrong things. Stop doing that. Also, sharks don’t have gender, humans have gender, which is something that an actual qualified host would know.

Rating: F (I reserve F minus ratings for totally fake shows like megalodon, but this one came close).

Return to Shark Island

This is the latest in a series about sharks biting surfers at Reunion Island. There is an unusual spike in shark-related deaths there, though ten deaths in 8 years is still a relatively low risk of death or injury. Also, 100% of these injuries and deaths were surfers, which, not to sound callous or blame the victims here, is a recreational activity that is optional, not something related to actual livelihood, and just not doing that is a pretty effective way to stay safe at Reunion.

This show focuses on the efforts of Dr. Craig O’Connell, who studies shark repellent barriers. Also, they featured some local credentialed experts, which is surprisingly rare on Shark Week. Dr. Jeremy Kiszka was also interviewed.

This show used BRUVs (baited underwater video systems), so not just telemetry tagging for once, and also using drones to spot sharks. They also mention using SONAR to detect sharks, which I have never heard of before.

It was fine (a mildly interesting question with appropriate experts) until they claimed that A) bull sharks are new arrivals to Reunion island (they are not) and B) “Reunion island bull sharks may evolve into mega bull sharks” (really, they said this, look at the graphic).

3/4 of the way through the show, they finally mention why bull sharks are changing their behavior: an irrigation project changed water flow patterns resulting in more freshwater runoff near the surfing beach where all the bites are happening. (This doesn’t totally make sense to me, bull sharks can enter freshwater but they are also found in salt water all the time).

This show ended with Craig setting up an experiment to test a new way to keep sharks away from the beach, but then just ended! Maybe don’t put the show out until you actually have the results?

Rating: C+/B-

The Legend of Deep Blue

This show is all about “Deep Blue,” supposedly the largest great white shark alive today. I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t care. I despise these shows that are about finding one specific individual shark, because they literally never find it, making the shows not only pointless but also boring. (It helps the “legend” of these sharks that any large shark sighting anywhere is claimed to be that specific individual shark).

This show featured one white male scientist I had never heard of who doesn’t have a professional website and has never published anything, as well as John McCosker and Ralph Collier. It focused exclusively on great whites. It had a typical throwaway lost opportunity for conservation education, saying “great whites need to be protected” with no further information.

It is semi-remarkable how many Shark Week shows start with a particular premise or question, but end with “lets go cage diving in Mexico and never address that question again.” In this case, someone thought they saw Deep Blue in Mexico a few months ago, so they went there to look and shockingly did not find Deep Blue after diving once. Eventually, they claim that someone else found the shark thousands of miles away and they called that a victory...but it turns out their evidence was recycled footage from thousands of miles away and years ago.

Rating: D-

The Sharks of Headstone Hell

This show is about tiger sharks, described in the opening narration as “nature’s deadly prison guards” who have “developed a taste for fresh meat.” Turns out they are referring to beef, because cattle ranchers on this island dump whole dead cows into the ocean, resulting in some pretty gnarly scenes. However, they claim that if farmers now stop dumping cows in the ocean, the sharks will start eating people, because reasons.

The research focused on tagging, but they claimed that it was necessary to get in the water with sharks feeding on cows in order to tag them, which is not true and also not particularly safe. Some nonsense about how critical it was for science to find males after seeing mostly females feeding on the cows.

It was an interesting ecological quesetion presented unevenly (with some AWESOME footage) and weirdly. One of many Shark Week shows that could have actually been really well done with some minor changes to editing and narration.

Rating: B-

Great white kill zone: Guadalupe

While this show focused on great white sharks in Mexico, it focused on an interesting research project that included Melissa Marquez and Yannis Papastamatiou (Sarah Luongo had a brief cameo too, though was apparently on the expedition the whole time, making this the only special in 2019 to feature two women scientists). They use some of Yannis’s really cool high tech telemetry tags as well as a ROV to understand great white feeding behavior in Mexico, where great whites don’t do the polar breach famous in South Africa.

They put a camera on a great white and then narrated it’s interesting behavior, a tried and true format for Shark Week that I actually like. It included some amazing footage of hunting seals. This show also did something that Shark Week shows almost never do- going back to the lab after the expedition to analyze results and talk about them.

Definitely my favorite show about great whites in Mexico, though I am tired of shows about great whites in Mexico.

Rating: B+

Ghost Diver

This show is about an illusionist trying to make himself invisible to sharks, a task which requires learning about sensory abilities. The opening line was “You can’t outswim it, you can’t overpower it, you have to outsmart it, one man must find a way to become invisible.” They overhype the importance of this “experiment,” saying that great whites, which are one of the most studied sharks in the world, are hardly studied at all because we can’t get in the water with them and appear invisible. Uh…

The show did have a pretty in-depth discussion of shark sensory abilities, as well as chromatophores and countershading, but early drafts of the magic invisible suit looked very dumb and required tons of trailing wires.

Eventually, the dude was able to swim with sharks without them reacting to him for about twelve and a half seconds…right next to a cameraman, who was not wearing a magic invisible suit and was also not bothered by the shark.

Rating: C-

Extinct or alive: the lost shark

This is apparently a special Shark Week edition of a show called “extinct or alive” where a dude looks for supposedly extinct species. This one is about the Critically Endangered, very rarely seen pondicherry shark. The opening narration wrongly claims that it is believed to be extinct and no one but this TV show host has ever looked for it, which is laughably false. They also claim that no one was studying fish in the Indo-Pacific before this host, which is head-banging-on-wall false.

Also worth pointing out that the pondicherry shark looks a lot like other shark species, and the TV host’s total lack of credentials in ichthyology make any identification he makes suspect from the start. This concern was not assuaged when five minutes into the show he went diving and saw a shark tooth on the bottom and said “there are so many sharks here that they even shed their teeth here,” which is…what?

Other than the pondicherry shark, which they arguably didn’t really find, the show also showed threshers briefly, and had a scene with silvertip sharks in which they said several wrong, easily fact checkable things about.

It included a very poorly done fish market survey, an important research method that they did very wrongly. They see what they think is a pondicherry shark and take photos and samples. They keep looking, and then at the end note that this shark from five scenes ago was indeed a pondicherry shark, which they claim should put the shark on the Critically Endangered species list, which, to be clear, it was already. I also don’t believe them that they actually found a pondicherry shark, an off-screen DNA test whose results are commented on but not shown isn’t enough when this person has not made me trust his expertise.

Also weird that the show opened with a warning that it would show “images of deceased sharks“… deceased is not a word typically used on animals.

A really interesting idea totally ruined by having unqualified clowns in charge.

Rating: D-

Laws of Jaws: Dangerous Waters

The latest in a series where clueless, unqualified hosts perform “experiments” to test shark behavior that scientists have known about for decades. They basically piss off sharks in a bunch of different ways and record which tactic results in the most pissed off sharks- something that no actual scientist could ever get research ethics approval for. They also claim that their “new discoveries” can help save lives, and even issue some formal-style PSAs based on their N=1 results that confirm what actual experts have known for decades. Probably my angriest scene by scene review.

Rating: F (at least extinct or alive wasn’t actively unsafe or wildlife harassment)

Air Jaws Strikes Back

The latest in Shark Week’s longest-running series that introduced the world to the breaching sharks of South Africa, these shows usually show some great natural history stuff and occassionally some really cool science. My Ph.D. advisor Dr. Neil Hammerschlag is a regular guest, and was on this one too. Dr. Allison Towner, a South African great white shark scientist, was featured in this show too- a local expert who is also extremely qualified.

This show focused on studying great white shark hunting in shallow water, which led to some incredible shots of this kind of rarely-seen behvior taken from a drone. Also amazing shots of a group of seals “mobbing” a shark and scaring it away. I wish these shows would stop wrongly claiming that shark research requires going into the water with sharks, because most of it doesn’t.

Rating: A-

Sharks of the Badlands

This one is about great white sharks (yawn) in New Zealand, and is hosted by the usual suspects of non-expert white males who regularly say wrong things. Some actual scientists are included briefly, one is included throughout. Also, apparently studying great whites in New Zealand will help keep swimmers in Cape Cod safe, which is stated with so much confidence that it must be true.

Also included some harmful nonsense about great white shark populations “exploding,” when in reality they’re starting to recover (which is good, a conservation success story) but still have much lower than normal populations.

I wish these shows would ever mention scientific research tools beyond telemetry tags. They also (wrongly) claim that a real-time detection system that alerts people about tagged sharks in the area that they’re considering creating in New Zealand is the world’s first, this is an old idea. And when it didn’t work the first time they tried it, they claim it’s not workable, which is actively harmful to public beach safety policy. (They also go looking for telemetry tagged sharks by randomly jumping in the water and looking around).

Rating: D-

Shark Trip: Eat Prey Chum

Shark Week usually includes some “celebrity swimming with sharks for the first time” shows, and this is one of those. 5 celebrities, in fact. All male, on what is described a “the ultimate guy-cation.” It was very grating as a bro-fest and I like some of those celebrities sometimes.

The purpose of the show was to tag one specific individual shark, which was supposedly critical to science. Sigh. It was very difficult to tell what was meant as “funny celebrities joking around” and what was wrong information presented carelessly. This show was also, for some reason, two hours long.

It included scientists Austin Gallagher (my former Ph.D. labmate), Tristan Guttridge, and Sarah Luongo. Part of it took place at Atlantis, where I proposed to Stacey, and it was neat to see that.

It ended with 20 seconds of vague calls for shark conservation with no details at all.

Rating: C-

Monster Mako: Perfect Predator

The latest in a series about makos, a species of increasing conservation concern that usually highlights some solid science, this show suffered from too much looking for a specific individual mako shark and too much reviewing of what hapened on previous “monster mako” shows. It also didn’t include scientists, unlike past shows. It included a fishermen who claims to be a professional shark tagger, which, to be clear, is not a thing.

They mentioned that makos are endangered now, but wrongly claimed it was due to climate change and overfishing of shark prey. Come on.

Wasted potential.

Rating: C-

Expedition unknown: Megalodon

I get nervous when Shark Week starts talking about megalodon, but this one noted from the beginning that they are extinct and focused on why. There are several women, including one woman of color, who study why megalodon went extinct, they were not featured in this show.

They sought to disprove several theories (including some I’ve literally never heard before) of why megalodon went extinct by unsafely swimming with still-alive species of sharks. Had serious potential that was, again, wasted.

Rating: D

See y’all next year, same shark time, same shark channel!