Once again, the “most wonderful time of year” is upon us. Shark Week. Our favorite toothy elasmobranchs are back prowling our TVs. But, as a shark enthusiast, I am not psyched for Shark Week, and I haven’t been for years because Shark Week sucks. Why? I’ll get to that.
From a young age, I’d dreamed of diving with sharks. I photographed this bull shark in Beqa Lagoon in Fiji.
Like many other Americans, I grew up watching Shark Week religiously. In the late 90s and early 2000s, I didn’t have cable, so I couldn’t watch the Discovery Channel at home. Unperturbed, I pestered my aunts and cousins to allow me to watch Shark Week at their houses and record all of the new episodes. For me, each documentary was a sermon: the marine biologists were preachers, and the cartilaginous marine predators were deities.
Yet, over time, as the Discovery Channel’s programming started venturing southward, Shark Week’s programming took a similar dive. Shark Week has increasingly taken a sensationalist slant, focusing on shark attacks and great whites, rather than educational content and the 439 other species of sharks.
This is the spotted wobbegong. Shark Week often glosses over weird sharks like these.
Just take a look at Shark Week’s programming throughout the years. Many of their shows have ridiculous titles worthy of a Buzzfeed article: Return of the Great White Serial Killer, Bride of Jaws, Monster Mako, Monster Hammerhead, Zombie Sharks, Alien Sharks: Close Encounters (to be fair, this one is about deep sea sharks, and it sounds pretty cool). While I am not anti-fun and think education can be fun, these titles don’t make the brain-melting content any more appealing to scientifically-minded folks.
Obligatory great white shark picture. I photographed this guy at the Neptune Islands in South Australia.
But the most infamous Shark Week suckiness of all occurred in 2013. That year, Shark Week kicked off with a documentary called Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which focused on a giant, prehistoric shark called Megalodon (“the big-tooth shark”). For 14 million years, the bus-sized Megalodon patrolled ancient seas, feeding on whales, dolphins, fish, and other marine life, and it was very much alive. So, if it was a real shark, what was the problem? The documentary was completely fake and claimed Megalodon was still alive, even though fossil evidence suggests Megalodons disappeared no later than 2.6 million years ago.
After that Shark Week, viewers were pretty pissed off, and the backlash from the scientific community was severe. Yet, despite the controversy, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives became Shark Week’s most popular episode, with 4.8 million viewers tuning in for its debut. Some viewers even believed that Megalodons are, indeed, still roaming the deep sea, and in 2014, Shark Week included a second fake Megalodon documentary called Megalodon: The New Evidence.
Needless to say, if Shark Week had much scientific credibility before, it lost whatever was left in those two years, and now, it has a rival. NatGeo WILD is now splashing into the cage to challenge Discovery’s 27 year lordship over sharks. NatGeo has dubbed their event SharkFest, and they have released this rather tongue-in-cheek ad:
Looking at SharkFest’s programming, SharkFest seems to be taking a more serious and educational slant, which I expect from National Geographic. However, with titles like Florida Frenzy, Gulf Coast Killers, Hawaiian Terror, California Killer, and Australia’s Deadliest Shark Attacks, I am not so sure education is a main priority. Now, don’t get me wrong: shark attack documentaries can be very interesting and educational, but if you focus solely on shark attacks and sensationalism, people will only associate sharks with danger and death.
A horn shark off San Diego, California. Does this guy look dangerous?
Will SharkFest become the new Shark Week? That remains to be seen. I don’t even have NatGeo WILD, so unfortunately, I can’t even watch it. Guess I’m stuck with Shark Week. Shucks. But, despite all my Shark Week hate, I cannot honestly call Shark Week an utter chumfest. Shark Week does still have a few diamonds among the bloody fish guts. Thanks to Shark Week and the Discovery Channel, we have this video: