The summer news for sharks would be incomplete without mentioning the American Shark Week phenomenon. Once again, Discovery Channel has followed its tried and true formula of using sharks to generate millions of dollars, by presenting them as monsters just waiting to get their teeth into the viewers.
Discovery's angle seems to hinge on the fear people have of the unknown, and especially the unknown in the water where they swim. Shark Week has been so good at tweaking and magnifying this fear, that generations of viewers who grew up watching the show are afraid to go in the water.
Yet, all over the world wild sharks are welcome visitors during shark dives.
How is this possible, without the divers being torn apart?
I asked divers to describe what they felt on finding themselves deep in the sea, surrounded by sharks, and they used similar words to describe their feelings. In every case, they spoke of being thrilled by the experience. Not frightened. Many expressed having a transcendent experience on meeting sharks for the first time, saying that nothing had prepared them for the riveting reality.
They spoke of feeling touched by the supernatural in the silence in which the sharks appeared, and of the sensation of being absolutely present and aware:
“You are part of their world for a moment—you enter their territory and they don't attack you. They come and swim around you, and they display perfectly. There is no aggression, but instead a feeling of communion, of really being together.”
“They move so slowly, yet you can see the power in their movements—they have incredible qualities you can sense.”
“They are your size, and you are there, one on one! You're looking, and its looking back, and you can see its response to seeing you, as if you have shared something—its a real encounter with an intelligent wild animal. Because of that communion you feel that sense of respect—you want to respect these animals because they respect you.”
“Its just magical to see them.”
What is wrong with this picture? How can they be talking about the same animal that is featured on Shark Week?
Because Shark Week is about shark pornography (a Discovery term), not sharks as they really are.
With shows entitled, “Shark of Darkness : Wrath of Submarine,” “Megalodon : The New Evidence,” “Air Jaws : Fin of Fury,” “JAWS Strikes Back,” “Alien Sharks : Return to the Abyss,” “Monster Hammerhead,” and “Zombie Sharks,” Shark Week is not about reality or science, in spite of frequent mentions of the word. It is about making money with a horror entertainment show.
When confronted about what they were doing by representatives from The Shark Group in a meeting in 2008, Discovery executives said that they were happy with their shark pornography. They bragged about the multi-billion dollar profit that their shows had generated since 1987, and claimed to be giving the audience exactly what they wanted by presenting horror shows. They were unconcerned that it was they who had made sharks the subject of that horror by showing little but stories featuring their open jaws, and bloody teeth.
They were also unconcerned about the ethics of demonizing endangered marine animals, while claiming to be presenting scientific facts. Their web-site claims to be presenting “quality non-fiction.”
Sharks have paid a terrible price for the riches made by Discovery. Along America’s east coast, the slaughter of sharks is obscene. The hatred launched against sharks over the decades has fuelled shark hate killings and monster shark tournaments, which, year after year, filled the landfills in countless towns and cities with mountains of decaying sharks.
Though catch and release has been claimed as the solution to this cruel massacre, expert eye-witnesses claim that the excited and malicious monster hunters fight more than 80% of the sharks gut-hooked—their fragile internal organs are sliced and torn apart, and upon their ‘release’ they simply sink.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce (NOAA), two million, seven hundred thousand sharks were killed by sports fishermen in the U.S. in 2011. This figure could be low if those killed on private boats, and not reported, were added in.
Nevertheless, many shark NGOs have joined in to capitalize on the exposure and the chance for donations, and even some scientists continue to go along for the ride. With tagging methods as the favoured means of gaining data on living sharks, the true natural behaviour of these important marine animals remains obscure to many researchers.
The problem is not only that there is a fatal prejudice against sharks, but that it is not even recognized. In the case of other animals, such as snakes, everyone knows that there is a deep bias against them, but in the case of sharks, the stark contrast between sharks as they are portrayed, and sharks as they really are is unseen. The public actually believes that sharks behave the way they are shown on Shark Week.
And Shark Week audiences are unlikely to try to find out the truth about sharks for themselves, because, of course, they are scared of them!
(c) Ila France Porcher 2014
Author of "The Shark Sessions"