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Thursday
Aug052010

Shark Week and Jaws of Death

I wonder what Shark Week means to people. Maybe I'm banging my head against the wall in sharing my concerns here but I have some very mixed feelings about the much acclaimed Shark Week which concludes this weekend. Shark Week is a series of daily episodes on the Discovery Channel lasting one week that is replayed throughout the year and recreated anew annually. Typically, these episodes emphasize the predatory nature of sharks and portray them as merciless, arbitrary killers hell bent on eating anything in sight. In fact, more of the focus lately is on shark attacks and their victims. Unfortunately, this lop-sided perspective on sharks reinforces and even nurtures an already negative view of the public toward these creatures.

In 1975, Steven Speilberg directed a fabulous movie called, "Jaws". This story, written by Peter Benchley, depicts the small town of Amity during their summer holiday season as a Great White Shark wreaks havoc on the community by attacking and killing local residents and tourists who are engaging in a variety of beach activities unaware of the threat existing below the surface. One of the most famous scenes is of a woman swimming in deep water being attacked from below and dragged under by a massive Great White in dramatic fashion. In 1975, this movie was impressive. In 2010, this movie is still ubiquitous for it's suspense, gore, and drama. It was also a HUGE success among its peers winning an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Grammy, a People's Choice Award, and a host of other awards and nominations. Jaws became arguably the single most iconic movie ever to cast an animal as the villain of the story.

The problem is...it was just a movie!

In a day and age where television shows are enjoyed and praised more when they very closely connect "real life" to our vivid imaginations, hopes and fears, Jaws was a brilliantly profitable model. However, many T.V. viewers would agree the technology used to depict sharks in the 21st century is far superior to that used in the 1975 film, Jaws. Enter "Reality T.V." and a well tilled field conditioned for a crop of further shark demonizing on the backs of five Jaws films of a similar thread. The Discovery Channel cornered and secured this developing concept with Shark Week. Shark Week began two decades ago and has risen to mainstream prominence.

These are my positions:
-Jaws. I don't fault the film Jaws for cultivating a negative attitude toward sharks. Jaws is a film. Films often exploit fears to create drama and suspense and the public obviously enjoyed it and found it to be very entertaining.
-Public opinion. Unfortunately, the downside of sharing very compelling, life-like films like Jaws with the public is the effect it has on conscious and subconscious behaviors and attitudes.
-Discovery Channel. The Discovery Channel claims to be dedicated to satisfying curiosity and making a difference in people's lives through their content, their talent, their viewers, their employees and their practices. The name "Discovery Channel" might project a sense of science and truth to their brand of entertainment but in the case of Shark Week, science and truth is a thin layer of substance evident only where it reinforces the shark attributes that best entertain the public. In other words, profitability, not science and truth, determine the nature of content shown on many of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week episodes. I wonder...if sharks weren't the blood-thirsty, man-eating monsters they're portrayed to be would shows about them be as profitable?

Harmony seldom makes a headline. ~Silas Bent

Several years back I took a scuba diving class and tested for my recreational scuba certification. Almost immediately after, I traveled to Costa Rica to dive off the Pacific Coast for my first recreational dives. My dives were incredible. My point in sharing this is to highlight one of the encounters there that had the most profound impact on me. On one of my last dives there, at around 45 feet of depth, our divemaster gestured for us to follow him around a large rock with an overhang. Upon reaching the designated area I acknowledged the direction our divemaster was pointing and turned my head there when I saw a shark. At first, I felt fear. I kept looking back and forth between the shark and our divemaster until it dawned on me that the divemaster didn't look scared. In fact, he didn't look bothered at all. I also noticed that other divers were no more fearful than the divemaster. On this very dive, we would encounter five more sharks and I would encounter my first bit of sound reason concerning the behavior of sharks.

Since then, I've sought out shark encounters in Roatan, Honduras; the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador; and Pacific Harbour, Fiji where I encountered Bull Sharks, White Tip Sharks, Black Tip Sharks, Reef Sharks, Hammerhead Sharks, Galapagos Sharks, Silky Sharks, Nurse Sharks, Whale Sharks, Leopard Sharks, and Seven-Gill Sharks and not one of them while in a cage. I've developed a different sense of sharks than those portrayed by the media especially the Shark Week episodes. This brings me back to my opening statement. I'm mixed about the Shark Week notoriety because I would really like to see sharks portrayed 'as they are' not just for the size of their teeth or the impact of their bites. The other side of the coin is that sharks need more media attention because shark populations are rapidly declining due to a practice known as shark finning. For more on this, visit our Shark Center.

Here are the facts...in the U.S. alone, you're over 300 times more likely to be killed by an act of terrorism than by a shark. You're almost 600 times more likely to be killed by electrocution. You're over 2,000 times more likely to be killed by the flu. Finally, you're over 4,000 times more likely to be killed by accidental drowning. These figures were compared over a 10 year period.

Yet even as I write this, close personal friends of mine are so affected by what they've seen on the television about sharks that they are terrified to swim in the ocean.

My challenge to you reading this is to consider the facts behind shark behavior and educate yourself about them. Enjoy the oceans. Enjoy these creatures. Let me know what you think about sharks. Leave me a comment.

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Reader Comments (1)

You are so right Nathan! The shark is villianized to the point where people watch the gore and terror because it's like watching a train wreck. They can't take their eyes off the horror. And the television broadcasters play upon viewers like that in order to keep themselves in business.
With that said, I too watch shark week on Discovery because I am curious about the shark. Some of what they broadcast has some merit (very little) and yet I'm not sure what the Discovery Channel is setting out to do - educate people on the ever declining shark populations or gain an extra buck at the expense of the shark. The show has informed me about shark behavior and has led me to appreciate the "gentle giants" and their beauty. My favorite are the little black tips on the end of the Great White's fins. Frankly, I'm bored with watching the attacks. Give me some scientific data and facts for once.
I remember when the general public were terrified of the big bad wolf and we (humans) destroyed them almost to the brink of extinction.
And now people are terrified of Grizzly Bears. Again, they were almost extinct.
When is it going to stop? How do we get people to help preserve these animals when TV is only making them out to be horrifying man eaters?
For that answer, "we're gonna need a bigger blog..."

August 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSelena Kidder

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