Avast, landlubbers! Cap’n Klute here (again, not a real Cap’n – Ed.) This year has been an especially sharky year for me, traveling to the Fiji islands, Las Vegas, and Florida’s Gold Coast, where I dove with elasmobranchs of all kinds, from wild bull sharks to friendly zebra sharks to lowly stingrays. I’ve had the pleasure of touring Arizona and Florida, where I’ve been teaching people about the importance sharks and shark conservation, and it’s all been leading up to this: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (unless you’re a seal, seal lion, or other pinniped).
Let’s once again take to the digital seas and sit under the watchful eye of Grandma Shark Week! I’ll be reviewing every episode, both on its entertainment value, and if it does sharks justice and doesn’t descend into just sensationalist junk. Discovery, ever since the Shark Week controversies of the past (involving C. megalodon and “Submarine”, a legendary shark from South Africa), has been attempting to move away from salacious shark tales to more hard science, so let’s see how they did on their first night. I’m excited! So let’s go for a deeper dive! We start with… wait, really? You’re serious? They’re starting off with this?
GREAT WHITE SERIAL KILLER LIVES (Grade: D)
Ugh. Way to set the bar really low, Discovery Communications. I was pretty merciless to last year’s outing, Wrath of the Great White Serial Killer, and I am no less forgiving this year. I actually gave this an F last night, but my friend, fellow shark diver, and actual shark scientist Apryl DeLancey of El Porto Shark called me out, especially since I gave Phelps vs Shark a much better snap grade. She mentioned the work of Ralph Collier of the Global Shark Attack File, who is featured prominently in this episode, and she’s absolutely right. Collier’s work is groundbreaking and necessary, which is why this show is so infuriating.
Ok, here’s the premise. Brandon McMillan, who in previous years has ignored things like “DNA” and “geographic distribution” is trying to prove his theory that a single shark has responsible for killing two surfers and injuring others off of Surf Beach in Northern California. As with last year, there’s a kernel of a good show here. Do the attacks coincide with a migratory pattern of great whites (assuming great whites are migratory, and most shark scientists believe they are)? And if so, why the concentration of incidents at Surf Beach?
The show actually provides a possible answer for this! Michael Domeier of Marine CSI, who doesn’t believe in the single shark theory, and does actual field research (which, hey, crazy right?), which comes up with a more plausible theory. That’s about as much closure as you’re going to get on this show though.
Discovery knows better. And as pointed out by David Shiffman on Twitter, when your own social media team cuts you off at the knees DURING THE SHOW, you may have a problem.
TFW your show's social media team undercuts the entire premise of your show… https://t.co/tfCb5K3bmo
— Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) July 23, 2017
I know of at least one scientist who has done a lot of work at Isla Guadalupe and has turned down an appearance on this show because it keeps up the myth of the maneater, which the rest of the shows have done some good work to dispel. This doesn’t diminish the work Collier or Domeier have done, but if they keep allowing the editing bay to turn sharks into sensationalist twaddle, we’re taking two steps forward and one step back. I changed my grade from an F to a D because we do get a discovery at the end, but let’s hope that this is the last time we have to deal with this. The “Lives” part of the show’s title makes me believe we haven’t seen the end of it though.
PHELPS VS SHARK (Grade: B+)
OK, this was the other reason Apryl called me out, that I gave this trainwreck such a high score. Let’s be clear: Shark Week is infotainment. These are not Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. These programs exist to educate, but also entertain, and to make Discovery Channel big fat stacks of cash through targeted ad dollars. It’s the economics of TV.
But ultimately, the people involved in these endeavors do want to educate, which is why I didn’t hate this. Yes, the premise is silly. Can an Olympian athlete keep up the pace with various species of sharks? Well, you need to define your terms and then determine how exactly you would measure this. Scientists with their charts and instruments can tell you how fast YOU swim, and how fast SHARKS swim, but can you do a directly side by side comparison? The short answer is: No.
Look if you turned into this show expecting Michael Phelps to be swimming next to some sort of captive or cajoled great white, you are probably going to be disappointed (and going by the media reactions today, a lot of you WERE), but if you were going into this entertained by the mere notion of what might go down, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. You learn about various species of sharks, their speeds, their interactions with the marine world. You’ll see scientists doing cool (and what looks like fun) stuff. If Michael Phelps is your thing, you’ll learn about him and his process of becoming an Olympian athlete and (POT JOKE DELETED – ed.). As a SCUBA diver, that Michael Phelps swam 100 meters in 56 degree water in a 1mm wetsuit, I have to give that some major props.
It’s goofy fun that gives you a little education and respect for both man and beast.
SHARK-CROC SHOWDOWN (Grade: B)
Honestly, I wanted to give this one a better grade, and it’s not a bad show by any stretch of the imagination. It’s informative, there’s some great footage of sharks interacting with crocodiles, and one of the main stars of the show is Paul de Gelder, a great engaging presence on these shows, but much of the ground here was covered in last year’s special, Jungle Sharks. If you liked that, you’ll love this. If you were expecting something like this:
This show does not deliver that. Science is a process, and when you’re trying to get animal interaction footage, but one of your subjects spends most of its’ life soaking up the sun, you’re chance of getting croc vs. shark combat is going to be low.
But it’s still very interesting to see the sharks and crocodiles in the same biosphere, and personally, it was fun watching sharks I had the pleasure of diving with in Fiji on the screen. Also, it features the first non-male scientist of the week, and we’ll see if year week delivers more on screen time for women scientists than the last Sharknado did (seriously, Sharknado 4 had a ton of women and POC in STEM roles than last year’s Shark Week).
GREAT HAMMERHEAD INVASION (Grade: A)
Dumb title aside (sharks cannot invade the habitat they live in), this was absolutely great. It’s a shame they put it on at the end of the night when so many kids had probably gone to sleep (hopefully they’ll watch it today on DVR). It starts with an interesting question, comes up with some theoretical possibilities, gives you exciting footage of some of the most interesting sharks in the sea from both the water and the air, uses new technology, and comes up with an honest-to-God breakthrough.
I can’t sing the praises of this one enough. The work being done by the Bimini Shark Lab here in this episode has real potential to make a difference in both the United States and the Bahamas in the way hammerhead sharks are managed, and again, we see that marine science isn’t just a field for men. One of the real breakthroughs in this show is a piece of tech developed by a radiologist that made this discovery possible.
This is one that’s for the whole family, and the whole family can learn from it. If you’re interested in sharks, you could even participate in shark research at Bimini yourself!
So that’s night 1 of Shark Week 2017!
Do you think Discovery should have forced Michael Phelps into the water with a great white serial killer at spearpoint? Who’d win in a battle between Aquaman and Sandman? Let me know what you think!