Shark Week: Has the Discovery Channel's sea creature celebration descended into sensationalist pseudoscience?

Themed programming intended to promote conservation and highlight plight of species routinely accused of serving up spurious entertainment content instead

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 23 July 2018 14:51
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Shark Week 2018 Promo features Shaq

Shark Week marks its 30th anniversary this week.

For seven days starting on 22 July the Discovery Channel broadcasts dedicated shark-themed programming, an idea first trialled on 17 July 1988 and intended to draw attention to the plight of the sea creatures and dispel myths about their alleged ferocity.

Shark Week proved a surprise hit, the public’s fascination clearly unabated since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws became the blockbuster hit of the summer in 1975.

Subsequent big screen imitations – from Deep Blue Sea (1999) and The Shallows (2016) to the Mega Shark (2009-) and Sharknado (2013-) bargain bin franchises – have reinforced the idea that the fish are insatiable killing machines with a penchant for human flesh, and left many with a primal fear of sea bathing and menacing dorsal fins slicing through the waves.

Recent reports of attacks on swimmers in New York and a sighting in Cornwall have caused further alarm.

The Discovery Channel’s efforts were initially intended to tackle popular misconceptions about the threat sharks pose and present the truth about these docile ocean dwellers, 100 million of which are killed every year in illegal commercial fishing operations.

But as the event’s popularity has grown, the channel has felt the need to push the envelope further and offer more dramatic coverage, attracting star hosts like Jaws author Peter Benchley, comedians Craig Ferguson and Andy Samberg and the horror film director Eli Roth. It has also drawn accusations of sensationalism and peddling pseudoscience.

Since 2010, a giant, 446-foot-long inflatable shark known as “Chompie” emerges from the broadcaster’s office headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, now a firm fixture of the celebrations but perhaps an inadvertent emblem of the season’s drift towards jokier content over serious coverage.

The 2013 spoof documentary Megaladon: The Monster Shark Lives about the apparent rediscovery of the prehistoric beast drew particular flack from science bloggers for crossing the line between fact and fiction.

Marine biologist Jonathan Davis claimed that an interview he gave to the producers of a show called Voodoo Shark, denying the existence of the mythical “Rooken” of the southern Louisiana Bayou, was edited to appear as though he were saying the opposite and was in competition with local fishermen to find it.

“They were clever in their questioning by getting me to respond to a vague question with a response that could be used as an answer to a completely different question,” he told io9.

Historian George Burgess was similarly irritated by a show in which he appeared re-enacting the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the Pacific towards the close of the Second World War, when crewmen cast into the sea were forced to fight off shark attacks to survive.

“They made the film crew go back and insert more scared-to-death guys in the water and injected it throughout the film to make it more scary,” he told The Verge.

Undeterred, the channel has continued to produce full-on docufiction with titles like Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine, Monster Hammerhead, Lair of the Mega Shark, Great White Serial Killer, Zombie Sharks and even Megalodon: The New Evidence.

In 2017, a swimming race between US Olympian Michael Phelps and a great white shark similarly caused upset when it was found to be computer-simulated.

Arguably even worse than dragging the credibility of respected academics through the surf or belittling the serious challenges faced by sharks in the wild, the channel ran a commercial in which 1990s soul star Seal was devoured whole, midway through singing “Kiss from a Rose” on a pier.

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