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Shark Week

Jesse Hicks

Shark Week attempts to educate while satisfying viewers' desire for thanatopic frisson -- that sublime realization that you're not at the top of the food chain.

Shark Week

Airtime: Various
Cast: Les Stroud, Dave Salmoni, Erich Ritter
Subtitle: 20th Anniversary
Network: Discovery Channel
US release date: 2007-07-29
It's best not to be caught in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy.

-- Les Stroud, Shark Feeding Frenzy

With the 20th edition of Shark Week, the Discovery Channel once more devotes an entire week of programming to the ocean's "perfect predators." Their popular reputation as the epitome of nature red in tooth and claw makes sharks "the stuff of nightmares," as animal behaviorist Dave Salmoni puts it in the episode, Shark Tribe. Discovery's newest offerings attempt to dispel this myth through education, while still satisfying viewers' desire for thanatopic frisson -- that sublime realization that you're not at the top of the food chain.

Shark Feeding Frenzy, Tuesday's feature, offers the bluntest execution of this approach. As host Les Stroud explains, "Sometimes, sharks attack humans, and I want to know why." He conducts several tests with the help of "five of the most dangerous sharks in the sea." A short, stylish Ocean's Eleven-esque sequence introduces them, so you can almost hear the exclamation points: Reef! Tiger! Hammerhead! Lemon! And Great White! For the next hour, these icons of the deep help Stroud on his "quest to find out what sharks really like to eat."

Stroud's trials are of marginal scientific value, and Shark Feeding Frenzy has the "news you can use" tone of a local newscast. After dunking different-colored mannequins into Great White-filled waters, he decides that black is the least enticing. Yellow, on the other hand, deserves its Navy reputation as "yum-yum yellow." (Luckily, nearly all wetsuits are black.) Stroud also tests whether sharks find human or tuna blood more provocative, whether they prefer a real surfer to a fake turtle, and whether they'll attack a 50-pound slab of beef. Despite the claim that the show's aim is to determine "how we can stay off the menu," it seems more like a reason to show sharks eating things. Still, Shark Feeding Frenzy wins the prize for most unintentionally hilarious line by a host: "Given these factors, it can never be completely safe to hand-feed sharks, even while wearing a chain-mail suit."

Top Five Eaten Alive takes a similar tack, with the implied premise that shark-attack survival stories teach viewers how they too might stay alive. The more sensational point, though, is "What's it like to be the hunted." After several stories of gruesome attacks survived through luck, quick thinking or the swift action of nearby friends, the program introduces Erich Ritter, shark behaviorist. Ritter presents himself as a kind of shark whisperer, saying, "There is no dangerous shark, only dangerous situations." He puts his theory to the test by wading into a school of bull sharks. Minutes later, one bites deep into his calf, tearing the muscle from the bone ("Caught on camera!", the narrator reminds us).

The show concludes with Ritter's return to the scene, his left calf now a mass of bone and scar tissue. He wades into the water. He moves deliberately, wanting the sharks to know, he says, that, "Something new is there, but it's not a threat." They ignore him. As the credits roll, he says, "The shark is always the bad guy. This has to stop. They need a break." The narrator adds that humans kill 100 million sharks a year, though this abstract number hardly detracts from the previous 40 minutes of shark attacks.

Wednesday's feature, Perfect Predators, is less sensational, if only because it features less shark-human interaction and a more explicitly conservationist stance. An analysis of seven different sharks from an evolutionary perspective, the two-hour program features commentary from a number of marine biologists and researchers. Though Perfect Predators focuses heavily on science, its CGI graphics, stock footage of jet fighters and cheetahs, and a throaty voiceover help maintain dramatic tension.

Scientific pursuit also motivates Shark Tribe. Animal behaviorist Dave Salmoni and South African shark scientist Ryan Johnson visit tribal "shark callers" on the coast of Papua New Guinea. The callers, of whom only two remain active, have long attracted sharks using only coconut rattles and song. No one has scientifically studied the technique, and Johnson believes it may provide valuable insight into shark behavior.

The shark callers see their work as a spiritual ritual, a perspective Salmoni and Johnson accept only partially. The two duly go through the purification rituals necessary to become shark callers, then spend days on the open ocean. During downtime between unsuccessful calls, the subject of conservation comes up. Salmoni says he'd be unable to kill a shark even if he caught one, given what he knows about the "shark population crash." Johnson rightly reminds him that it's not subsistence fishermen who are to blame; it's Western, industrialized fishing. And that's it for that conversation. Though Discovery's program isn't titled "Pro-Shark PR Blitz Week," it's surprising that the topic of conservation isn't addressed more fully.

The truth is, Shark Week uses sharks to illustrate a familiar primal conflict: man vs. nature in a universe innately hostile to human life. The week's opening feature, Ocean of Fear: The Worst Shark Attack Ever, makes that clear. It tells story of the USS Indianapolis, a Navy ship torpedoed by the Japanese at the end of World War II. The Indianapolis sank in minutes, leaving almost 900 men adrift (this is the story Quint tells in Jaws). Men who'd made their home at sea suddenly saw it turn against them. They drifted for four days, plagued by thirst, exposure, and fear. Sharks, attracted by the sound of the sinking ship, began to circle them, eating the dead and occasionally attacking the wounded. As the days dragged on, a collective near madness took hold.

Ocean of Fear effectively portrays an unforgiving sea, one that only 317 men survived. But as shark researcher George Burgess points out, only a small portion of the 500 deaths resulted from shark attacks. Most were caused by dehydration, exposure, and drowning. Arguably, the ocean killed those men. But the documentary is subtitled, "The Worst Shark Attack Ever." Better, it seems, to have a "perfect predator" as a scapegoat than to confront man's precarious place in the natural world.


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