The Old Great White She Ain’t What She Used To Be

You’ve changed Shark Week, and now we’re drifting apart – I never thought that could happen. Once you were the highlight of my summer, nay, my year. There was a time when I genuinely declared Shark Week to be better than Christmas. It helps that Shark Week was seven times longer and I didn’t have to spend it with my relatives, but it was still the best week of my year anyway you bite it. So why is it that the annual event I used to go all Beatles-first-time-in-America over has become something that I roll my eyes at now? The answer goes deeper than the ocean. Well, not quite that deep; deeper than a shallow tidal basin, but not Marianas Trench deep. It’s deep- it’s deeper than just Shark Week is what I’m trying to say.

For those of you who weren’t aware, last week was the 27th Shark Week. That’s four more Shark Weeks than official James Bond movies (we’re not counting bullsharkshit like Sean Connery’s remake of Thunderball). Airing annually on the Discovery Channel since 1987, the “King of Summer” for cable broadcasting has helped to raise awareness of the apex predators of the ocean so that the once fearful public has become the now adoring public. The good news is that the overall fears of the public have given way to greater interest, but the quality of the shows on Shark Week have shifted into a less scientific, more spectacular set of specials that are hosted by people who can hardly be called shark authorities and probably belong on Duck Dynasty, i.e. they don’t belong on TV. There is also the issue of filling the bottom of the screen with live broadcasting of social media comments about how awesome Shark Week is.

I thought last year’s Megalodon special was as low as they would go. Surely someone somewhere at Discovery Channel HQ would realize that the supposed camera evidence of a living Megalodon was crappy CGI that would be rejected from a Sy-Fy channel movie (but not its sequel where the shark gets mutated with a Dinobat!). Of course, it was the Discovery crew that pixilated the false behemoth in there. It also doesn’t help that the people in the special are almost all actors, from the scientists to the deckhands. The main marine biologist, a Dr. Colin Drake was played by a South African actor with a glamour shot on his IMDB page, which lists the Megalodon show as something he’s acted in. No shit, you can actually see all that on IMDB. He even played a doctor in the Free Willy that starred Steve Irwin’s daughter!

Let’s get one thing straight right now, Megalodon, a large shark that fed on whales and could have grown to over 60 feet, is extinct. The last ones died out 1.5 million years ago and any marine biologist will tell you that’s the case. The biggest debate scientists have about Megalodon nowadays is not about whether it still lives or not (because that’s not a debate; it’s fucking dead and we’d damn well know if it wasn’t!), but whether to place it into genus Carcharodon with great whites, or in Carcharocles an extinct genus that Megalodon would be a little lonelier in.

This year we got to see a follow-up to the Megalodon show and another “documentary” that utilized “real found footage” to show the world a first-hand look at the fabled Submarine. Submarine is the name of a massive great white shark that supposedly lingers along the coast of South Africa. It has many unsubstantiated accounts and no hard evidence to support its existence beyond a few scientist speculating that a white shark could grow to over 20 feet. Yet none of that stopped Discovery from putting together an hour-long special with “real camera footage” that accounts the harrowing events after the sinking of a charter fishing boat that much like the shark that attacks it, never actually existed. The “victims” involved have their characters all too well developed in the moments we see on the boat (which is damn good camera quality), and every time the Submarine attacks the camera always seems to just miss the action and only gets snippets of a dorsal or tail fin when it does see something (which is shitty camera quality, you know, all the better to hide the bad CGI with).

Science blogger Christie Wilcox recently published for Discover Magazine (not the same thing as The Discovery Channel) an angry article where she compares Discovery Channel to P.T. Barnum because they are showcasing false freakish curiosities to draw people in for a closer look. Worse yet, they aren’t just tricking us viewers. For the past two years, The Discovery Channel has misled scientists in interviews they have recorded, interviews that they have only used the bits they like most for the special they are filming it for. Some scientists have since complained that parts of the interviews they gave for Discovery have been spliced together to make it seem like they are saying something different from what they actually said. Tsk tsk Discovery, you’re making things up again, Arnold (and yes, Olaf the Snowman is voiced by the fat kid from the original Broadway production of The Book of Mormon).

C’mon Discovery! This might help ratings now, but it’s gonna fuck thing’s up for you in the future when nobody of actual intelligence comes to help make your shows anymore! And to add insult to injury, you’re selling out! There are official sponsors for Shark Week and none of them are the slightest bit reminiscent of sharks. Somehow I don’t picture anything from a dogfish to a great white driving a Volkswagen or drinking a Redd’s apple ale, yet they’re the official car company and beer of Shark Week! And hey Gillette, if you want a really good shave just rub a shark’s skin from tail to head. Sharks are covered with specialized teeth called denticles that when touched from head to tail feel very smooth and allow them to swim as hydrodynamically as possible, but going the other way will cut into your skin. So if you really want those pesky mustache hairs gone grab a shark!

But the problems with Shark Week stem from the problems with the channel it’s broadcasted on. I’m not the first person to notice that the Discovery Channel has had a change in overall programming over recent years. Where once was “Wild Discovery” is now “Crabfishing Truckers Chopping Down Trees in Swamps While Goldmining in Souped Up Cars That Were Salvaged from Some Old Lady’s Farm in America”, a title more befitting one of Rick Sanchez’s inter-dimensional TV channels. Discovery Communications, a cable network that contains such household names as Animal Planet, TLC, OWN, The Science Channel, and of course The Discovery Channel, as well as many more, seems to have become more concerned with viewership in the coveted 18-34 year old range of boobtubers than it has with keeping shows that have a standard for higher education and sound scientific background on the air. This has led to less of the programming that the people who initially became interested in those channels watched and more of the “reality TV”-based shows that flood their airways now. Not exactly keeping up with the motto of being “The World’s #1Nonfiction Media Company” there Discovery Communications. (To anyone younger than I, that’s not read as “The World’s Hashtag One Nonfiction Media Company”.)

Now I’m not saying that every show on previous Shark Weeks was gold, but the overall quality of shows throughout the week was better before. The fantastical focus on great whites – undeniably the most popular shark – jumping out of the water without hardly a mention of other species (that still live at least) clouds the water a bit. What variety has been thrown in often is over-sensationalized too, like the hammerhead show from this year. It should be noted that there have still been some good shows in recent years, including this year, but instead of being the highlight specials that receive the most advertising they are pushed behind the “Hey Look, We Found Megalodon!” kind of shows because those are flashier and attract more attention than the “We’ve Gathered Further Data on the Habits of Dogfish” kind of shows.

For the most part I like the talk show Shark After Dark that concludes each night after the shark specials. It has been airing since last summer and it is especially good when they have actual shark experts on set to discuss more than what’s trending. Usually it is a typical late night talk show with celebrity guests and bad jokes connected to Shark Week merely by a common theme, but it has its moments of education when the shark layman host, Josh Wolf, and other non-shark versed guests ask the shark scientists sitting next to them about the amazing animals they study. I love that child-like wonder and interest in the simple questions that often get overlooked because the shark experts already know it so well they hardly think about why it is like it is anymore. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, or how much you do or do not know about sharks, all questions are welcome because we’re going to laugh at the question and answer no matter what and we just might learn something along the way. And if we can keep the silliness and the “Oh bro! Sharks are so tight!” approach to shark science on Shark After Dark (just please, no more Tara Reid; she poisons intellect with airheaded stupidity), and then have the rest of the week’s programming be based in fact and what’s actually captured on camera that would be great.

The best thing that Shark Week still does though is what it’s always done well: brings awareness to the awesome predators of the deep. It still inspires young and old across the world to take an interest in sharks and respect them rather than fear them, as well as advertise their plight at the hands of humans. The problem is that continuing to show fake shark shows can lead to questions about the validity of everything they say throughout the week. What happens if people don’t believe that millions of sharks are killed each year just to have their fins hacked off to be made into soup while the rest of the still living shark is thrown back in to sink to the bottom and die? That sadly does really happen, and Shark Week is great about spreading this message and other conservation concerns to the masses, but if Shark Week becomes synonymous with leaping Megalodons people will begin to doubt it all. Hopefully future installments of this once great last hurrah of summer will become even better than its best years. It’s alright if you don’t get to see the big great white you searched for, just show us what you found without any alterations to the camerawork and we’ll still gobble it up like a tuna tailfin. No more living Megalodon crap, no more sensationalism. All I’m asking for is honesty and variety and maybe a hot girl in a bikini every once in a while. You supply me with that, Shark Week, and I’ll keep watching.

Thanks for reading my Shark Week complaints! If you’d like to learn more about sharks from reputable sources check out any number of books or journal articles that were published after being peer-reviewed by people who actually study sharks; they’re not hard to come by. You can also visit an aquarium if there is one nearby you and learn more about sharks and their fellows under the sea. Some really nice aquariums I’ve been to are Newport Aquarium in Newport, KY just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, and South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, SC. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL is pretty nice, but you have to pay extra to go into many exhibits (including the sharks). I was outside of but did not get to go into the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD, and Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, WA, both of which I hear are quite nice. I would love to go to the Georgia Aquarium in, you guessed it, Georgia, Atlanta specifically. They have whale sharks (the biggest fish alive today) there which is super cool. Also on my must see list is the Monterey Bay Aquarium (take a guess where it is). They are one of the few places to have (briefly) kept a great white shark in captivity. Check out their Seafood Watch list to help eat healthier and more ocean consciously.

If you want me to write about something in a future blog leave me a comment below or email me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Monterey Bay, feel free to contact me if you’re hiring. (That goes for you other aquariums too.) Tune in next week for a musical menagerie!

Stay Sharky,

Alex

P.S. A little dessert after eating all that.

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