News & Politics

The Reasons Why Scientists Get Angry at Shark Week

How fictional animals, obsession with shark sex, and Nazis get in the way of actual discovery.

Chompie, Shark Week's sometimes mascot, in 2010. Photograph by Flickr user Ryan Quick.

The 28th edition of Discovery’s Shark Week started Sunday night with three new documentaries about everyone’s favorite aquatic predators. Discovery, which launched Shark Week in 1988 as an earnest ratings grab and has since turned it into a wild, gory, and sometimes scientifically dubious extravaganza, has said it is trying to pull back on the silliness this year and return to honest, fact-based filmmaking.

But scientists, bothered by years of specials that portray shark bites as happening more frequently than they actually do or outright fictions like faux documentaries that purport to present “evidence” that long-extinct prehistoric species still roam the oceans, are watching this year’s Shark Week with extreme caution.

The first night of the current Shark Week brought three new hour-long documentaries: Shark Trek, charting shark sightings in the waters off Florida; Island of the Megashark, about filmmakers looking for very large great whites near an island off Mexico; and Monster Mako, following an effort by researchers from Texas A&M University to study the fastest species of shark.

David Shiffman, a shark researcher at the University of Miami and one of Shark Week’s most vocal critics, was mostly pleased. “So far? Shark Week 2015 is much better!” he writes on Facebook. But there are still many things Shiffman and other shark scientists are still waiting for Discovery to correct. Here are a few of the ways the network often gets it wrong:

Fish tales: NPR’s Morning Edition today interviewed multiple shark scientists who say they’ve been duped by Discovery’s production process. In particular was University of New Orleans graduate student Jonathan Davis, whose research was featured in a 2013 special titled Voodoo Shark. While the show presented Davis’s team catching, tagging, and releasing sharks, those segments were blended with a group of bayou fishermen searching for an extra-large bull shark prowling Lake Ponchartrain called the “Rookin.”

“That sounds like a ridiculous fisherman story,” Davis told NPR. But the finished product of Voodoo Shark was quite suggestive that Davis was out looking for the “Rookin.” Last year, Discovery aired Monster Hammerhead, which told the story of sightings of a 25-foot-long hammerhead shark in Tampa Bay that the locals have nicknamed “Old Hitler.” (Hammerheads sometimes, but rarely, grow to 20 feet long.) And last night’s Island of the Megashark recycled the old trope by scouring Guadalupe Island, about 150 miles west of Baja California, for “the largest great white ever filmed.” It ends with a sighting of a very bloated female, which the filmmakers assumed was “clearly pregnant.”

Pure fiction: The low point for Shark Week is considered to be 2013’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, a two-hour made-for-television-movie presented as a documentary about attacks by and sightings of Carcharocles megalodon, a Cenozoic-era ancestor of the great white that grew to 40 feet long (50 to 60 feet long in the movie). Aside from a very brief disclaimer, viewers were not informed that the megalodon has been extinct for nearly 2 million years. The academic backlash was fierce, but Megalodon was the highest-rated show in Shark Week’s history, giving Discovery executives the only excuse they needed to schedule a one-hour follow-up in 2014, Megalodon: The New Evidence, and a modern-day companion: Shark of Darkness: the Wrath of Submarine, about a supposed 35-foot-long great white stalking the coast of South Africa (great whites, at their largest, grow to 24 feet). The faux documentaries also inspired Shiffman’s most quoted piece of Shark Week criticism.

Shark-bite theater: Shark attacks have been a staple of Shark Week almost since its inception, but Discovery learned early on that blood is as good a ratings-booster as anything. Recent Shark Weeks have included titles like Killer Sharks, Great White Invasion, Sharkbite Summer, featuring shark-bite victims re-living their ordeals. “We were told if you’re not telling people the shark is evil, the shark wants to kill you, then it’s not going to be a good story,” former Discovery executive Brooke Runnette, who ran Shark Week from 2009 to 2012, says in the July issue of Washingtonian.

This year’s lineup includes a sequel to Great White Serial Killer, focusing on shark attacks near Surf Beach, California. Sharks, especially great whites, can be frightening, but even some of Shark Week’s most loyal filmmakers admit the creatures aren’t actively looking for human body parts to chomp off.

“I’ve never tried to soft-pedal that people should be aware that these animals can do a lot of damage,” says Jeff Kurr, who directed the Great White Serial Killer films. “But they have a tendency to avoid people because they’re actually pretty shy.”

The never-ending search for shark sex: The narrator on last night’s Island of the Megashark—another Kurr production—openly states that the “holy grail” of shark research is documented reproductive activity in great whites. Shark Week has long had the same goal: get footage of Jaws doing it. But this is unlikely to be achieved. Guadalupe Island is believed to be a more frequent breeding ground, but mating is believed to occur at lower, darker depths unreachable by humans.

“Scientists haven’t observed it,” says Greg Skomal, a Massachusetts-based marine biologist who has participated in multiple Shark Week films. “People who spend every day on the water haven’t observed it. So the likelihood of spending two, three weeks on the water filming to see certain behaviors whether it’s attacking and killing something or mating isn’t going to happen.”

What is known about shark sex is that it is a fairly rough act: male great-whites bite down on females to position themselves before inserting their sex organs, known as claspers, which is why adult female specimens are often much more scarred than their male counterparts.

Recycled tricks: This might be more infurating to filmmakers than scientists, but it’s worth mentioning. During Island of the Megashark, Kurr sends one of his assistants underwater in a plexiglass cage, giving the inhabitant unimpeded views of the surrounding sharks. It was billed as a brand-new device. Actually, the 2011 special Great White Invasion featured the “shark tube,” a clear plastic cylinder that afforded the cameraman an unobstructed look.

Discovery has invented and re-invented other filming techniques over the years. The 2010 show Into the Shark Bite prominently featured a GoPro camera strapped to an underwater buoy that was munched on by a tiger shark, giving viewers an inside look at the creature’s mouth.

The GoPro was neat, but for former shark-film producer John McKenney, who made several specials during Shark Week’s first decade, it felt like a ripoff of his 1993 show Sharks on the Brink of Extinction, which featured “gut-cam,” a small camera his crew poked down a shark’s gullet. “We were the first group to put a camera inside a shark’s stomach—a live shark,” says McKenney, who’s now a sheriff’s deputy in San Luis Obispo County, California. “Ten years later I’m watching Shark Week and I see some group doing the same thing. ‘This is the first time it’s ever been done.’ That’s not true!”

Nazis: The fruitless search for Florida’s “Old Hitler” isn’t the only time the Third Reich has popped up in Shark Week. Among Megalodon‘s many ludicrous pieces were supposed surveillance photos of World War II-era German submarines with a 60-foot long shark in tow. The Nazis, according to all respected historical accounts of the war, did not have a 60-foot prehistoric shark in their arsenal.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.