Look, we get it. Sharks are pretty effing cool; the Discovery Channel has been reminding us every year since 1988, just in case we ever forgot. Shark Week has achieved cultural holiness and has led to a public mania about the deep's fearsome predators. Sharks have so permeated our collective consciousness that it seems everybody wants to be a shark. Plus, if we said we never thought about what it would be like if Rob Lowe actually rode sharks, we would be lying. But if you turn on Shark Week this summer, be careful. There's a lot of pseudoscience and straight-up nonsense floating around in the airwaves.
Keep an eye out for programs like "Shark of Darkness," or more specifically, keep an eye out for their disclaimers. "Shark of Darkness" opens with this disclaimer about the 35-foot shark known as "Submarine:"
Its existence is highly controversial.
Events have been dramatized, but many believe Submarine exists to this day.
Except here's the problem: it's not highly controversial, Submarine just doesn't exist. As zoologist Michelle Wcisel points out, Submarine is a fabrication from the 1970s created to mess with newspaper readers, and now it has become a device to fool 3.8 million television viewers.
So is Discovery making things up about any other sharks? The answer is an unfortunate and resounding yes. Last year, Discovery aired "Megalodon: The Monster That Lives," which investigated the possibility of the prehistoric 60-foot predator patrolling the oceans today, except that the megalodon has been extinct for millions of years with no evidence to the contrary.
Discovery spokesman Michael Sorenson responded to criticism of "Megalodon" last year in a statement to Fox News. “It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, can Megalodon exist today?" he said. "It’s Ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?”
He's right, in a way. It's complete fantasy. But that didn't stop Discovery from not only rebroadcasting the original "documentary," but going further. If you're looking for more "facts" from "researchers," you can watch "Megalodon: The New Evidence" on Friday night.
Entertainment is entertainment though, right? And as long as Shark Week contributes to a dialogue about how sharks are perceived and protected, Discovery's programming is for a greater good.
But that isn't the case. "Shark of Darkness," the megalodon "documentaries" and articles about where you're most likely to be attacked by a shark all contribute to further misunderstanding of sharks.
Not only this, but people are apparently so fascinated by sharks that they want to eat them. NPR reports that Shark Week's wide viewership has led to a "feeding frenzy," as the vulnerable shortfin mako sharks are finding their way onto plates across the country.
Now conservation programming may not be as sexy as "Sharkageddon," but it's important not to lose sight of the issue. Shark Week has the power to bring the plight of sharks -- not just their power -- to the public's attention.
Until then, don't forget that as terrified of sharks as we are, they face far more danger from us. Check out the infographic below and read more about the toll shark fishing is taking on the world's shark population.
[Infographic via Joe Chernov and Robin Richards]
Check out these sites for more information about how you can help stop shark finning:
- Shark Conservation Society
- Stop Shark Finning
- Humane Society International
- Pew Environment