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Reality Bites: "Shark Week"

How the toothy have fallen.
How the toothy have fallen.

I learned two things from the 2013 installment of "Shark Week," the Discovery Channel's annual tribute to nature's lagrest predators and the people/marine fauna that are eaten by them:

1) Nat Geo WILD holds its own version called "SharkFest," which is simultaneously cute and pathetic. 2) While we weren't paying attention, the Discovery Channel somehow turned into SyFy.

"Shark Week" was never hard science, but early on there was at least *some* emphasis on outdated concepts like "research" and "plausibility." This is America, however, and sober analysis of migratory patterns and conservation efforts have given way to dramatic shark attack reenactments (complete with frothing underwater shots and plenty of red food coloring) and the 78th incarnation of "Air Jaws." Admittedly, the first few times you see a great white shoot out of the water it's pretty freaking cool. Now it's like watching LeBron dunk; still technically impressive, but you've seen it before.

I put more effort than usual into this week's Reality Bites, both because I've been a fan of Shark Week for many years, and because of my own youthful obsession with sharks and shark attacks (I wish I could find some pics from those magazines describing the thousands of fatal attacks that apparently took place in the '70s). Early on, I thought the Discovery Channel did a nice job balancing sensationalism with science, reminding us human beings are a much greater menace to sharks than vice-versa, while also providing slow motion footage of seals being devoured. Everyone was happy. Now, nobody really is. For several reasons.

One of the first shows I checked out this time around was The Return of Jaws, about a resurgence in the great white population off the coast of Cape Cod (Jaws was set/filmed on Long Island, NY, but never mind that). We start with the somber intonations of Mike Rowe informing us great white attacks are on the rise, even when they're really not (though I suppose you could call the one Massachusetts attack in 2012 a statistically significant increase over the zero that occurred in the previous 76 years).

At least Return of Jaws featured something approaching science, with the introduction of the Shark Cam, a robotic minisub that trails a tagged great white. Unfortunately, the primary takeaway is how close a 16-foot great white gets to the beach when it's hunting, to the consternation of those observing. Because everyone knows most sharks stay *miles* away from populated beaches. Meanwhile marine biologist Greg Skomal is desperate for footage of "predatory behavior." In Shark Week parlance, live footage of a great white attacking is the equivalent of porn's "pop shot." And with the tourists in Chatham, Massachusetts showing a strange affinity for swimming in the presence of gray seals, it's a toss-up what species of victim we'll see.

Blimp has The Fear.
Blimp has The Fear.

Well none, as it turns out (not counting the news footage of the one guy who got bit). Still, the video footage is pretty cool, and a welcome break from most of the annoying bullshit Discovery has on display (more on that later). I also like how placing both great whites and gray seals on the protected species list has resulted in rebounding numbers. Not because of the positive ramifications for the oceanic ecosystem, but for juicy seal chomping footage.

Next up was Voodoo Sharks, which was almost as stupid as it sounds. The show followed a couple groups of shark hunters/researchers searching for either a) evidence of the presence of something called the "Rookin," a legendary, allegedly 100-year old shark that's haunted the Mississippi delta for decades, or b) down Lake Pontchartrain way, a group of researchers are trying to determine whether bull sharks - which have the ability to swim from salt to fresh water - are residing in the lake year-round.

The segment with the guys searching for the "Rookin" might as well be called "Honey Boo Goes to Sea." Discovery apparently figured trotting these barely literate yahoos out was a keen way of capitalizing on America's recent infatuation with colorful Louisiana idiots. They promise to "shed some light on what's terrorizing these waters." I'd say "Blimp with his shirt off" is a pretty good guess. The Lake Pontchartrain team discovering sharks wasn't as shocking as it might have been. I mean, does anybody swim in that thing?

Of course, the main offender this time around - the program that caused the most consternation and outrage among Shark Week aficionados - was Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, Discovery's opening night exercise in barely concealed bullshit.

 

Totally feasible.
Totally feasible.

Going in, I assumed the show would be a documentary about the giant prehistoric shark, perhaps featuring new discoveries (see what I did there?) in the fossil record and the requisite animated sequences showing, I don't know, Megalodon eating a humpback whale (Megalodon vs. T. rex has already been done). Perfectly serviceable, especially considering our abiding American love of Big Things. What we got instead was a hilariously idiotic, half-assed attempt to sell the idea that the toothy behemoth is STILL ALIVE.

Worse, some people took it seriously. I'm not calling anyone out, and most if not all of the folks I noticed buying it eventually realized the entire thing was bullshit, but a fairly simple Google search at the outset could have revealed no boat was eaten off the coast of South Africa earlier this year, for example. Also: the "chum gun." Still, it isn't like we don't already believe stupid shit. I can't even work up that much outrage at Discovery Channel for this (certainly it's not that great a leap from Supervolcano to this?). If we're being honest, I found the promos for the ridiculous Amish Mafia ("Raising barns ... and HELL," or something) and the unending Miller 64 commercials much more obnoxious.

All this "Shark Week" has taught us is: science is boring. Specifically, science that runs counter to our basest fears and/or visceral entertainment desires. Of course you're more likely to get hit by lightning than attacked by a shark (or both, if you're as lucky as this guy), but where's the fun in that? Better to imagine a world where merely dipping a toe in the ocean is like ringing the dinner bell. That's certainly how I lived most of my youth.

Having said all that, I don't think I'm afraid of sharks anymore. A few years of watching idiots try to feed great whites while hanging out of a cage or frolic in the surf within yards of fat, juicy seals have convinced me of the rarity of shark attacks more than hard data ever could. Job well done, Discovery Channel.

But could you at least do me a favor and bring back Sharkrunners? That was a great game.


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