I Was A Scientist Featured On Shark Week and I Was Not Lied To

Posted by Jeffrey Milisen on Monday, August 25, 2014

I was approached in March to help out with an episode for this year’s Shark Week on Discovery Channel.  From the get go, I knew what the premise of the show was about.  I figured it would be hyped and sensationalized.  I assumed I would be misquoted because that’s just what the media does.  And when we went out three nights in a row and didn’t see anything, I knew they would CG some sharks in place because a Shark Week show without sharks would be rather dull.  And because we didn’t see any sharks, I didn’t have any sharks to react to, so that was all done with some very creative editing.

There is a growing complaint from scientists, divers and the like claiming that Shark Week’s sensationalist approach exploits scientists and is disingenuous to what diving with sharks is about. The reality is that Shark Week is like the Barney of shark documentaries: grown-ups don’t watch the purple dinosaur looking to learn something novel about the ABC’s just like scientists and ocean users shouldn’t expect to gain anything from the programming in Shark Week.  It isn’t written for those in-the-know, and if you are reading this, it probably isn’t meant for you either.  It is written for the country that popularized reality television.  Do you really believe that America is going to switch over from the Kardashians to watch real science?  “Come quick, kids, they are starting the ‘Summary of Pelagic Longline Bycatch!” 

Scientists are often very good at science but very bad at public relations.
  It is a peeve of mine that science training seems to remove our ability to speak to real people.  And that is why documentary production has been left in the incompetent hands of those who spawned Duck Dynasty; scientists aren’t creative enough to come up with a program that gets the truth across while connecting with its viewers.

Every creative piece needs to relate to an audience, and Discovery’s intended audience (most people) connects with sharks through shark attacks.  The concept plays on a set of ingrained fears that have evolved to reside in everyone.  My dad and I discussed this subject the other day.  He was the inspiration for my interests in marine science and diving, and as a scientist, he took offense to the focus on shark bites on the Discovery Channel.  We then moved right on to my recent gallivant to the Philippines to play with thresher sharks.  His very first question was, “Are they dangerous?”  Even my dad, a learned member of the marine science community and somebody who should know better, relates to sharks first through their ability to injure. And why not?  That is how we relate to land carnivores as well.  We spent our first million years of existence as a species running from polar bears, lions and wolves. Now they all have some sort of protection because deep down, we love our monsters.  Sharks are getting there too.  Last year four species of sharks were listed on CITES Appendix II.  This is a huge step in the right direction and one that should serve as precedent for future protections.

  Which brings us to an article in Discover Magazine’s blog by Christie Wilcox who, for her research, went so far as to visit my outdated LinkedIn page.  It is too bad her research didn’t include a phone call.  In her argument about the importance for accuracy, she mentioned, “Hydrozoans are NOT a fancy term for jellyfish.”  Please Google subclass Hydromedusae and tell me those aren’t jellyfish.  In spite of Christie’s sometimes inaccurate rant about inaccuracies, she did raise some important questions that deserve answers.  

“Have they returned, as Milisen says, “year after year after year”? What does the rest of Milisen’s data say? And what evidence does he have that it has to do with the fishing boat scraps, as opposed to any other factor (temperature, depth, habitat type, abundance of living prey fish, etc)? Milisen doesn’t have any answers.”

Hold on for a second, Christie. Let’s look at these questions one at a time.

Have the tigers returned year after year? 

The below images are two examples of animals that have been shown to return in successive years.

Above is the animal I am calling “Laverne.”  She is a large shark with a very distinct first dorsal fin.  My notes refer to it as a “cockscomb” cut, but it could also be a deformity.  Regardless, the top image was taken on September 16, 2012 and the bottom image on June 30, 2013. 

This is Shark 5 as recognized by a full set of complete fins minus a distinctly rounded cut in the tip of her first dorsal fin.  Where the tip of the first dorsal would otherwise be, she sports a unique three-pronged jagged edge. In order from top to bottom, the images were taken on September 15, 2012, June 28, 2013 and July 7, 2014 respectively.  

What does the rest of Milisen’s data say?

That is a great question. We are finding that many sharks will come into the area and stay for a few days before moving on.  Examples include “Tony” (shark 2) that was observed in the mouth of the harbor on June 24, 27 and 30 of 2013 and shark 5 that was sighted 3 times between September 12-16 in 2012. 

What evidence does he have that it has to do with fishing scraps as opposed to any other factor such as depth, temperature, habitat type, abundance of living fish prey, etc.? 

This is strictly observational, but I have personally seen tiger sharks consuming discarded fish carcasses on multiple occasions.  I am not aware of any accounts of tigers in the area actively hunting live prey.  Furthermore, according to this page the peak season for the most sought-after fish in the area (marlin, yellowfin tuna, and ono) coincides with May, June, July and August-when the vast majority of tiger shark sightings occur.  While there is some freshwater runoff, this harbor is not a major estuary where other carrion might be washed out to sea nor is there very much else in the area that would make up a significant portion in the diet of a large shark, let alone 20 of them.  We see the sharks everywhere from the surface down to beyond scuba depths over habitat that is strikingly similar to most other sites along the Kona Coast and we even see a few when the temperature drops in the winter.  As far as we can tell, they are most likely there for the leftovers.

If you want to do something about Shark Week’s programming, if you really care, then blogging about it on the internet isn’t going to change anything.  Get out there, make your own documentary and sell it to Discovery.  Meanwhile, I am going to continue fielding questions from concerned citizens whose only reason for caring was an episode they saw on Shark Week.

Tags: shark week discovery channel tiger opinion 

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