Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Shark Week on Discovery: A Help or Hindrance?

Ah, Shark Week. For years, Discovery Channel has unleashed this panic-inducing gem, ensuring that everyone thinks twice before stepping into the water over summer. Remember the year it was in 3-D?

Growing up, I enjoyed Shark Week. As a young person, I didn't read into it much and was hypnotized by these sleek powerful survival machines.
This year, I indulged in "Blood in the Water", which recounted the bloody summer of 1916 that inspired "Jaws", i.e. "The Massacre at Matawan Creek" and the attacks on the Jersey shoreline. In all honesty, I found the true story to be far more disturbing than Jaws - not just because it was real but because humans were so out of their element that summer. When you put it into perspective, there's a difference between having Quint the shark hunter onboard (one of my favorite movie characters of all time) and living in a time when nothing was understood about these creatures, including the idea that they could actually
kill a man.

Like any kid growing up in the 80s (especially in Florida where my mot
her took us out every weekend on the boat), one couldn't help but think Jaws was going to come right up and steal you in the blink of an eye. Hell, even when I was in the swimming pool, I was convinced he would make an appearance (a la Jaws 3 when he broke into Sea World's Shark Encounter). All these years later, I still think about it every time I go through that tunnel. Between Jaws and the Ghoulies, toilet bowls were even off-limits to kids after midnight.

As a massive fan of the movie theater experience, I must say of all my hundreds of unique cinematic experiences, watching Jaws with a live audience is still my favorite. I used to sit in the back of the theater at revival screenings in Los Angeles and watch the crowd move in sync and terror. All these years later, Jaws remains one of the most perfected films of all time per audience reaction. Every single note or beat Stephen Spielberg and John Williams created sent shockwaves through viewe
rs, who responded with frequent gasps and synchronized seat-jumping. This film evoked such an extreme reaction after the film's release that sharks were slaughtered in mass numbers and the population is far from safe about them, not us).

A demand for shark fin soup is also on the increase as is shark cartilage for medicinal purposes, especially in Asian countries. The popular belief is that

since sharks are relatively healthy and rarely get sick, ingesting shark must have health benefits. There is no medical proof to back this claim. Sharks are caught by boats, their tails and fins severed, and their bodies thrown back into the ocean to sink and die. The image of sharks around the w

orld has severely suffered due to the role of the media and Shark Week is certainly a large contributor to arguments against sharks, not pro-species. One walks away from watching Shark Week with a sense of fear and terror and not a deep understanding of this mysterious creature. While there were a few shows dedicated to learning about the habits of sharks, the majority were exploitative features on shark attacks, which seemed non-stop. From watching the week, one would think sharks were out for our blood attacking us every chance they get. The sheer panic of the programming and the constant floodgate of dramatic recreations and gore were sure to bring in ratings, the desired effect. I was disappointed by the hypocrisy of the occasional shark commercial randomly thrown in to r
emind us all about shark conservation while the programming largely incited an opposite reaction.
Let's get our facts straight about sharks.

They are a vital part of our ecosystem and as the ocean's top hunter, a necessary part of the food chain. Shark decimation affects every creature in the ocean and affects the natural order and balance of the undersea world.

A few shark facts we can sink our teeth into:

You are 1,000 times more likely to drown in the sea than you are to be bitten by a shark.

About 100 people in the world are bitten by sharks each year. Of these, five to ten die.

The chance of being killed by a shark is one in 300 million. The chance of being killed by airplane parts falling from the sky is one in 10 million.


"Great white sharks kill and inju
re fewer people each year than other types of shark."


In fact, hundreds of thousands of people die a year from dog bites (No one ever thinks twice about letting a dog into their home) yet you can count the number of shark-related human deaths a year on one hand. More people are killed by vending machines a year than by Jaws!

It's important for people to let go of their superficial tendencies and quickness to believe what they hear relating to these creatures that really aren't all that interested in human flesh. (Clearly, the human fear is mostly psychological, sharks embodyin
g many physical attributes and traits we have grown to associate with monsters.) In a time when we are armed with education at our side and doctors that actually know how to do blood transfusions and the common man knowing how to make a tourniquet, should you happen to get a shark bite, your chances aren't too bad nowadays. Sharks mistake humans for other food sources such as seals (especially when they are on surfboards and can look like seals from below) and unless a shark is protecting it's territory or has made an error in judgment, you probably aren't going to be killed. A shark might take an inquisitive bite, but once it realizes you aren't preferred food you have a good chance of survival. The majority of shark-related deaths are the result of massive blood loss, which can occur depending on the bite and certainly if an artery is severed. However, us modern day folk have a lot more medical training and shark education than we did in 1916. While the real life events were indeed terrifying, it's been nearly 100 years and we haven't seen such a string of occurences again. There is always an exception to everything.

So, what do you d
o if you happen to bump into a shark in the ocean that appears to be in attack mode? They used to say punching a shark in the nose worked, because it temporarily blinded them. Not that sharks use their eyes anyway when they bite (their eyes roll backwards to protect them), not to mention you run the risk of miscalculating and shoving your fist in its mouth. Some people try to poke them in the eyes to escape. Supposedly (and I don't know who the rocket scientist is that actually tried this), since the shark is the ocean's top expert it is unaccustomed to a challenge. If you swim away from an animal in predatory mode, it will swim after you. If you duck underwater and stare it right in the face, it is used to everything in the ocean swimming away from it and becomes confused and figuratively shrugs its fins and wanders away. Good luck with that, I'll leave that one up to you. Report back and let us know what happens >:p Though I can confirm that there was a dog that tried to maul me as a child and as I ran it came after me but when I slowed down and walked and didn't look back at it, it turned around and walked away. Predators do like a good chase and there's no point trying to outswim the Michael Phelps of the sea.

While you should
be fine swimming in the ocean and humans unknowingly swim alongside sharks frequently without any mishaps, you should exercise common sense and keep a few things in mind if it's a concern. While they have poor eyesite and mostly rely on smell, they are attracted to contrasts in color so you should probably pick bathing suits that more closely resemble the colors of the ocean and avoid yellow and orange which might create a strong color contrast with your environment. Don't go swimming alone or in any way injured and definitely not bleeding (that includes you, ladies) and avoid swimming in the middle of the ocean or any unguarded location. Overall, you should be pretty safe from shark attacks and we are a far greater threat to them than the reverse. A jellyfish sting is probably a more realistic concern (I can vouch for this, they hurt!).

I grew up in the Shark Tooth Capital of the World so it's not a surprise that I realize their importance (Kudos to anyone bored enough to look it up). Every year, the Sharktooth Festival is celebrated in my hometown and there's no shortage of teeth and souvenirs. However, the shark is quite revered in town as it should be across the globe where they make important contributi
ons to our ecosystem.

A great documentary to watch is Sharkwater: The Truth Will Surface, the 2006 documentary release that goes into great detail about the shark fin industry and the perils all sharks in our oceans face and the horrid statistics on the decimation of the shark population, particularly since the film Jaws was released as well as the implications of these actions. Also, the filmmaker challenges us to rethink our preconceived notions of sharks by putting himself at the helm and swimming in shark-infested waters just to prove his point that they aren't anywhere near the monsters of public perception (the footage of him swimming and petting wild sharks is pretty awe-inspiring). This film rips Shark Week in half while providing you with beautiful photography and a new found appreciation for these increasingly rare populations.

I encourage Shark Week to be consistent in its message and to vote in favor of shark conservation and run more specials and programming in defense of sharks instead of dramatic accounts of rare events. I'd love to see a documentary like Sharkwater make it's way onto next year's lineu
p. If anyone has suggestions for Shark Week or would like to voice their concerns about the mixed messages the channel has sent, visit Discovery Channel's website and voice your opinions. Never underestimate the power of expressing your views and inciting change.

FYI: While it wasn't common knowledge in 1916 in America that sharks could kill a human (even the foremost 'shark experts' in the country were in denial), a few images made their way right along with mythological monsters in books, art, and tales to demonize the creatures, before the advent of modern media, such as the famous painting "Watson & The Shark" (1778), based on
the first full report of a shark attack (the victim survived). I first saw this painting at the Louvre and was intrigued. Notice the shark has fictionalized features as the painter had clearly never seen a shark firsthand. The modern conveniences we take for granted!

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