The truth about Shark Week: Scientists separate fact from fiction

The truth about Shark Week: Scientists separate fact from fiction
24 Jul

Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual bonanza of shark documentaries, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this week. It’s the longest-running series on cable, and that longevity has given it a prime role in pop culture and public understanding of shark science. But its legacy is a mixed bag.

As a shark conservation biologist, I both love and hate Shark Week, but I watch every year. Other experts share my ambivalence. Here’s what some have to say about the series’ good, bad and sometimes ugly influence.

Shark Week elevates science and has inspired the next generation of marine biologists

Science is often at the forefront of Shark Week shows, though it’s regularly blended with celebrity cameos. Last year’s much-hyped race between Olympian Michael Phelps and a shark — which included lots of science about shark swimming behavior — is a great example. “It’s science first but mixed with entertainment to keep the audience engaged,” said Scott Lewers, Discovery’s executive vice president of digital media.

By giving a major platform to current researchers, Shark Week has inspired new ones. Kat Mowle, who grew up far from the ocean in the mountains of Colorado, recalls first watching when she was 8.

Some experts say that, despite the series’ occasional alarmist and pseudoscientific nonsense, there’s value in watching. “My tip for everyone out there is to support your favorite shows so we can see more of them,” said Vicky Vásquez, a graduate student at the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing who’s also on Shark Week this year.

Which to watch? My picks include “Shark Tank vs. Shark Week,” in which the sharks from the hit show “Shark Tank” swim with real sharks and hear pitches about conservation charities. “Tiger Shark Invasion,” about novel behavior in tiger sharks in the Galapagos Islands, and “SharkCam Stakeout,” which uses high-tech cameras to study sharks in the Bahamas, also sound promising. “Guy Fieri’s Feeding Frenzy,” on shark eating behavior and Bahamian cuisine, looks worth the time.

But I’d skip “Shark vs. Bear,” survivalist Bear Grylls’s tips on withstanding those uncommon bites. And although it might be hard to resist the pairing of nude humans and marine predators, I’d stay away from “Naked and Afraid of Sharks.” Sharks everywhere will thank you.

Shiffman is a Liber Ero postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University, where he studies shark conservation and management.

This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.



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