Shark Week is upon us. This Sunday night, June 26, the Discovery Channel will begin airing its 28th annual week dedicated to these carnivorous fish. (Scroll down for a detailed guide to watching.)
Shark Week has been a reliable pop culture phenomenon and ratings bonanza for Discovery through the years. Stephen Colbert once called it one of our holiest weeks. But it’s occasionally disappointed on scientific accuracy.
Okay, that’s a bit of an understatement: The Discovery Channel has, at times, completely made stuff up.
Remember “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” and its sequel, “Megalodon: The New Evidence,” the so-called documentaries featuring “scientists” hunting for an enormous, long-extinct prehistoric shark?
These shows were pure fiction. The scientists were actors, and the events of the “documentaries” were scripted. Discovery, initially, did little to inform viewers that the programs were taking such creative liberties.
In January 2015, the network said it would do better — partly in response to the megalodon outrage, and because Discovery had a string of other suspect shows (like that the network tried to get a man devoured by a snake). It promised less hype and more science in Shark Week 2016.
We wanted to know what shark scientists thought — in particular, the scientist who helped bring Shark Week’s pseudoscience to light.
David Shiffman, a PhD student studying shark biology and conservation at the University of Miami, has been one of Discovery’s most vocal critics. Every year, he fact-checks Shark Week programming live on Twitter. He’s exposed how Discovery producers have misinformed biologists in order to get them to appear on the shows. And he’s written thoughtfully on this website about his “love/ hate” relationship with Shark Week.
“Last year was better,” he writes, “more science and natural history, no fake documentaries, less fear mongering nonsense.”
And this year’s Shark Week lineup is — overall — looking solid as well, he says.
As a service to Shark Week viewers (and those merely curious about the scientific brouhaha), Shiffman has annotated the programming lineup, highlighting what to watch and what sounds dubious.
He classifies the programming three ways:
- Watch: If he thinks the shows will be strong on science, natural history, or conservation issues. (He notes that he has not seen any of the shows beforehand.)
- Maybe watch: Shows he’s slightly less confident will be accurate.
- Do not watch: “Or watch and loudly criticize,” he writes.
He notes that overall, the programming is extremely white, in two ways: The shows lean heavily on great white sharks, and they overwhelmingly feature white male researchers. Which is a shame. Even though great whites are the “scariest” for viewers, there are other fascinating sharks in the ocean — just like there are diverse people studying them.
What to watch:
“Tiger Beach” (Sunday 6/26 8 pm)
This one is all about our lab’s Shark Research at University of Miami tiger shark research in the Bahamas! I’ve participated in this research (though I’m not in this special) and I can tell you that it’s visually stunning stuff, beautiful animals in an incredible setting.
“Return of Monster Mako” (Sunday 6/26 9 pm)
Monster Mako last year focused on researchers studying mako shark behavior in the Gulf of Mexico, and the sequel looks like more good stuff.
“Jaws of the Deep” (Monday 6/27 9 pm)
This is the latest in Shark Week specials featuring Dr. Greg Skomal and his high-tech studies of great white shark behavior. This one uses ROVs and underwater cameras to observe deep water behavior.
“Air Jaws: Night Stalker” (Tuesday 6/28 10 pm)
The latest in the always visually stunning “Air Jaws” series documents nocturnal hunting behavior in great white sharks.
“Sharks vs. Dolphins: Face Off” (Wednesday 6/29 10 pm)
This special is about how sharks and dolphins interact with one another. It focuses on the research of my committee member Dr. Mike Heithaus.
“Shark Bait” (Friday 7/1 9 pm)
This is another special featuring Dr. Greg Skomal’s great white research, this time with a focus on seal hunting off Cape Cod.
“Blue Serengeti” (Friday 7/1 10 pm)
This one focuses on Dr. Barbara Block’s high tech tracking and videography research off California.