We are posting the following with no byline since the writer must remain anonymous for professional reasons, but we can confirm firsthand that they work in a world-class aquarium and must deal with pop culture's negative effects on the perception of sharks on an almost daily basis.
Right on the heels of the (undeserved) attention that the Syfy original film Sharknado is getting is that end-of-summer tradition on the Discovery Channel known as “Shark Week." For someone who has made a career out of working with these animals, you’d think that I’d look forward to seeing them being brought into the public’s awareness. Believe it or not, Hollywood’s misconception of sharks combined with a public that doesn’t know fact from fiction turns these defenseless animals into bloodthirsty killing machines.
For the past five years, I’ve spent 40 hours a week attempting to teach people about aquatic life, which might seem like a strange career choice for someone with a degree in anthropology. This isn’t to say that I haven’t amassed a lot of knowledge about animals--sharks in particular--but it’s a useful reference point when it comes to understanding how long I’ve been studying people. As much as I’ve learned about sharks over the years, both from my own research and the research of colleagues, I’d also like to think that I’ve learned just as much about people. The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from both is the amount of “knowledge” your average person gains through pop culture and just how much of that information is wrong.
Before we get to the bad, let’s try to focus on the good shark movies.
To refer to Jaws simply as a “shark movie” feels like we’re doing a disservice to everyone involved in the film and how it has forever changed Hollywood. It’s amazing to think of how all of the glitches with the shark special effects are what caused director Steven Spielberg to show the monster as little as possible, which only emphasized the fact that Jaws isn’t about a shark. It’s about people. You have Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the man of science, debating with Quint (Robert Shaw), a man of legend. Caught somewhere between the two worlds is Brody (Roy Scheider), trying to maintain order and find out what he believes in; ultimately showing the audience that the truth falls somewhere in between.
The monster of the film combines traits of multiple different sharks to create a terrifying amalgam of an animal that has never and will never exist. Even the size of it is an exaggeration made from rumors of reports of possible great whites who might have been seen somewhere by some guy at some point. Sure, there have been “reports” of these animals getting to be 30 feet long, but none of these sightings are well documented, most of them are based on visual estimates, and these sightings are from a time when people weren’t doing nearly as much research as they do today. Knowing what we know now about these animals, 18 to 22 feet is a much more reasonable size for great whites, but of course, there are some exceptions to the rule.
Another film that focuses on the humanity of realizing the respect we should have for nature and the helplessness we can feel because of it is Open Water. The film is based on the real disappearance of divers Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left out in the ocean on a diving trip because of an inaccurate head count. Although the film shows the couple surrounded by sharks, and makes the assumption that the couple was eaten by sharks, the idea of being stranded in the middle of nature, disoriented, and with no hope of rescue is what makes the film so unsettling. It could have just as easily been set in the desert or a forest or the arctic, but the tension that builds is based on a married couple coming to terms with their hopelessness and how it’s all based on one simple human mistake.
I don’t want to come across as some sort of pretentious Grumpy Gus who needs all of his films to be about humanity and our struggle, because I can also thoroughly enjoy something like Deep Blue Sea, a mindless creature feature. For those unfamiliar with the film, it involves a group of scientists trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which is done by experimenting on sharks which inadvertently ends up making them supersmart. Of course the sharks are upset about this, so when a terrible storm destroys the underwater lair of the scientists, the sharks escape, wreak havoc and eat Michael Rapaport. Obviously the sharks are the villains, but they might as well have been octopus or stingrays or eels to begin with, as it wasn’t until science intervened that they were turned into supersmart killing machines.
With the good, comes the bad, and in this case, the bad really tip the scales of how sharks are portrayed in Hollywood. I know what you’re thinking, and no, using the word “scales” isn’t my attempt at a pun, because we all know that sharks don’t have scales and instead are covered in dermal denticles, which are essentially small teeth. Wait, that is something we all know, right? Maybe?
A film like Shark Night does say that there are almost 350 species of sharks and mentions that bull sharks are the only species that can live in both fresh and saltwater, which are both accurate statements. Or maybe you prefer the Australian film Bait that gives more realistic sizes of sharks, placing a great white as closer to 12 feet. Despite bringing in facts, this doesn’t change the fact that “real” sharks are depicted as being starved and having college coeds fed to them so rednecks can capitalize on the popularity of Shark Week or having a tsunami trap people in a flooded supermarket with a great white stalking them, both concepts being completely insane. I like to think that the general movie fan understands the insanity of a tornado of sharks or a megashark being unfrozen to battle not only a giant octopus but also a crocosaurus, whatever the hell that is. Come to think of it, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a “crocosaurus” isn’t even a real thing! (I’ll Bing it and get back to you.) One thing I am sure of is that just by putting “shark” in the title of something, the audience can expect to see top predators reduced to a one-trick pony. Or in this case, a one-trick sea pony. Should’ve stopped at the scales pun, don’t you think?
But even with the obvious silliness of Syfy movies, an outlet as reliable as the Discovery Channel - once highly respected for bringing nature and wildlife into your own home and now has a game show that drops naked people into the jungle - has started exploiting sharks more and more, year after year. Even reading the names of some of the new shows for this year, ”Sharkpocalypse”, “Great White Serial Killer” or “Voodoo Shark”, conjure images of a poorly Photoshopped poster that you might see being advertised for the Syfy network. Even if the shows themselves have educational value to them, such as the rising numbers of shark populations in certain parts of the world, the possibility of one wild great white being involved in more than one human death, or the mysticism of bull sharks in the Louisiana bayou, the names cheaply highlight the fantastical and deadly nature of these animals.
More people die every year from coconuts, icicles and vending machines than die from shark attacks. Similar to most other sharks, even the great white shark only needs to eat roughly 2% of its body weight a week to survive. Putting that into perspective, that means that a 3,000-pound shark only eats around 30 lbs a week, whereas a human eats roughly 1% of their body weight daily. Some people say that there’s no such thing as bad press, but the only time you really hear of sharks in the press is when something awful happens. You don’t hear quite as much about how humans are responsible for the deaths of over 100 million sharks every year because, well, who cares? They’re just fish! And these fish are obviously gunning for Ian Ziering!