One of my first encounters with the Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” was in the summer of 1990, watching a documentary featuring shark scholar John McCosker with a dead baby great white shark, pointing out its bits of anatomy and why they were important. The narrator’s description of the sharks miraculous blood-circulation system, allowing it to maintain a body temperature several degrees centigrade about the surrounding seawater, is as clear in my mind today as it was shortly after viewing it. Even when turning to the subject of shark attacks, the approach was minimalist, letting famous photograph Al Giddings recall an attack on his friend Leroy French among the Farallon Islands off California; it was a beautiful, fair documentary that was reflected more of the nature of the Great White than its more famous monstrous media persona. Other shows documented shark tracking techniques, their sensitivity to different kinds of light, and there was at least some inclusion of science into many of the programs I watched year after year.
Then, a few years ago, things started to change. There weren’t as many shows about the sharks themselves as melodramatic retelling of shark attacks, lots of fake blood, spliced stock footage, and terrible synthesizer music being more common than anything else. Conservation was almost never mentioned, the larger focus being on attacks (even if there were the obligatory mentions that attacks don’t happen all that often). Indeed, the Discovery Channel hit rock bottom with the schlock-fest “Anatomy of a Shark Bite,” a self-serving piece of junk that tried to sensationalize an attack of shark biologist Eric Ritter, the metallic reconstructions of shark jaws giving rise to terrible “documentaries” like “Hippo vs. Bull Shark.” Given the downturn of the programming, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that in 2000 I assisted the “Creative Works Team” to find information about sharks for the Discovery Channel, my keys hanging from a lanyard that I was given as a “thank you” for my work for the channel.
This year, the 20th Anniversary of Shark Week, things are worse than ever. While some decent older documentaries like “Jurassic Shark” are thrown in, the new programs are mostly more of the same blood-and-guts survivor stories, one of which is called “Top Five Eaten Alive.” The synopsis of the show is as follows;
Each year dozens of people are eaten alive by sharks. These are the world’s five most amazing survivor stories.
For a short time I worked on organizing and researching cases in the Global Shark Attack File, and I can tell you that dozens of people every year are not “eaten alive” by sharks. There are a number of attacks every year (so low as to be almost insignificant risk-wise), but there have been very few cases where victims have actually be consumed by sharks. Attacks by Great White sharks, for instance, are primarily of the “bite and spit” variety, sharks being unsure whether surfers or swimmings are seals, and so they take people into their mouths and then let them go almost immediately; if they really wanted to eat us, the inch-long serrated teeth would make short work of prey with a few side-to-side thrashings of the head. Again, some people have been eaten by sharks, but I am hard pressed to think of even one substantiated case where someone was swallowed hole or “eaten alive.” This kind of sensationalist B.S. certainly doesn’t belong on a channel claiming to be educational, but then again we know the Discovery Channel is no longer educational, and columnist David Hinckley has pointed out that it’s just another version of pushing the envelope in one area (disgusting and bloody content instead of sex, drugs, or profanity), only there may be more leeway since it’s perceived to have some educational value.
Despite it being well known that sharks are in serious trouble all over the globe, the Discovery Channel continues to ignore there is a problem (see the film Sharkwater if you have any doubts). Instead, they continue to revisit the 1916 shark attacks off of New Jersey (some years saying it was a Bull Shark, others that it was a Great White), “Black December” off South Africa, the USS Indianapolis tragedy, and other tried-and-true horror stories. While the Discovery Channel endorsed the well-made horror film Open Water a few years ago (featuring one absolutely awful documentary about a woman stranded at sea, her camera capturing “Death Tape footage” even though she survived the ordeal relatively unharmed), they seem to do absolutely nothing when it comes to conservation. It’s too late to change this years programming, but concerned shark fans (people who have looked forward to watching Shark Week every year since it’s inception) are starting to speak up about the irresponsible programming. Science should not be a ratings game, and there is no reason that the Discovery (and even National Geographic) Channel should continue to ignore the real horror story; what we’re doing to our oceans.
Update: In attempting to recall at least one case of someone being “eaten alive” I remembered two files from the mid-1800’s in South Carolina. A sailor was taking a swim off the side of his ship when a supposedly 25-foot long shark came along and, as the story goes, swallowed him. Another file from that same year tells of a man in a sailor’s uniform found in the stomach of a 25-foot long shark caught off South Carolina, and I have reason to believe that this is the same shark, sailor, and case. The date of the attack was listed as “circa 1840″ and the capture of the shark is listed as 1837, so although the capture would seem to precede the attack the actual date of attack is only rough at best. Unfortunately many of the original records were lost due to fire or other causes, and so we’ll probably never know for sure.