PBS BEATS SHARK WEEK AT ITS OWN GAME: OPERATION MANEATER

OPERATION MANEATER on PBS

Pros: very compelling information; more hard-hitting than anything on Shark Week…

Cons: but humans still don’t seem to get it that going into the ocean puts them at risk of a shark attack

Sheesh! Just when I thought it was safe to watch educational TV again, a little over a week removed from the 2014 edition of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, what does PBS do but air a program that not only was as or more interesting than most of the shows seen on Discovery Channel, but one that addresses issues that in my opinion, should have been the focus of Shark Week in the first place.

Evans spotting sharks
Host Mark Evans testing new technology for spotting sharks from the air.

Following in the footsteps of the Sex in the Wild documentary series that aired earlier this summer, Operation Maneater which premiered on August 27th seems to again indicate that PBS is striving to find a new audience with more hard-hitting nature-related programming. Hosted by veterinarian Mark Evans (who also featured on Sex in the Wild), this three-part series details the efforts of scientists to keep various endangered animal species from posing a threat to humans, which as might be expected, isn’t an easy task. The first episode dealt with none other than the great white shark. As shark attacks surrounding the city of Perth in Western Australia continue to increase (seven fatal attacks since 2010), the Australian government has enacted a policy of running drumlines in the surrounding waters. These lines are designed to catch sharks of the great white, tiger, and bull varieties greater than three meters in length, which upon being snagged on the line are killed via a gunshot to the head and dumped back in the drink. Needless to say, hasn’t been very popular with Australian citizens and seems downright barbaric and (to say the least) misguided in my estimation. Evans’ goal throughout this first episode is to examine possible alternatives to the ecologically damaging, wanton extermination of random sharks.

humane
A sensible manner of dealing with the shark problem

First off, let me say that shows like this which focus explicitly on issues relating to shark conservation are what Discovery’s Shark Week should have been presenting all along. I realize that the dozens and dozens of programs which feature shark attack victims recounting their “terrifying ordeals” get viewers to tune in, but these shows seem to have precisely the opposite effect on viewers of what I would hope Shark Week would provide. Certainly, the block of shark-related programming shows the majesty of these ultimate underwater predators and reaffirms to the reality-show devouring public that yes, sharks still exist and they’re still scary. Undoubtedly though, the constant presentation of “worst case scenario” shark stories and images of gnashing teeth only confirms many viewers’ prejudices about these animals.

yes
Don’t understand it?  IT MUST BE KILLED!

Let’s not forget that in that same period where seven Australians lost their lives by entering an ocean that is very much the domain of the shark that human beings killed millions upon millions of sharks– often in about as horrific a manner as possible by de-finning the creatures and dumping them – still alive – back into the ocean. Terrible as any loss of human life is, at some level, the human race is experiencing what I would be inclined to call some payback.

WARNING! THIS VIDEO IS EXTREMELY GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!

Allow me at this point to quote Evans himself when examining a device which emits an electric “pulse” underwater around a person wearing the unit: “…rather than rely on such a deterrent, it would be better to avoid such encounters in the first place.” The only way to completely avoid shark attacks is to stay the hell out of the water in the first place. The sooner humans come to terms with the implications of that statement, the better for everyone and everything concerned.

stay out

Let me get down off my soap box and back to the matter at hand: Operation Maneater examines the process by which Australia is fairly effective in warning the ocean-going public that large sharks may be patrolling their beaches by using helicopter surveillance in conjunction with a tagging program and social media updating. Literally, within a few minutes of getting either a visual confirmation of a shark or a sonic tag pingback, Australian beaches can be cleared. Still, as the program reveals, helicopter observation has been proven only to spot twenty percent of sharks that may be in the area, and one of Evans’ main goals in this episode is to investigate ways in which those numbers can be improved.

shark spotting
Shark spotting from the air can be a sketchy proposition.

Though various, sometimes outlandish methods of deterring sharks are discussed in the program (including use of sound waves, electronic field generators, and even a dive suit designed to resemble the deadly sea snake), a large amount of time is spent examining the possibility of utilizing multi-spectral imaging to identify sharks as they cruise underwater. This military-grade technology, consisting of a multiple-camera rig that filters out various colors and uses computer software to point out targets (i.e. sharks), is practically evaluated during the program through a series of tests and does seem to show some promise. Clearly, more research into its effectiveness is needed, and the cost of the equipment would probably be prohibitive at this point, so at best it’s an option that may be practical down the line.

rigs
Rigs such as these could be the next step in early shark detection.

Typical with PBS programming, Operation Maneater features a well-rounded discussion of its topics and a ton of straight-forward, factual information. As expected, there’s a sort of crash course in shark behavior and physiology, the most interesting part of which deals with research into shark brain functionality. The program also includes some wonderful underwater images of sharks in action during an operation to tag large great whites, and the use of slow motion footage and visual effects ensure the episode is visually stimulating. Future episodes in the series (which air over the next two weeks) deal with the polar bear and crocodile, so I would expect nothing less than for the overall quality of the program to remain at this very high level.

No sir
This doesn’t look like a good situation…

The most surprising thing to me about this opening episode of Operation Maneater was how fired up it made me. Frankly, it’s sickening to see sharks being killed for no other reason than existing in 2014 – even more so when you consider that many shark species are in real danger of extinction largely because of the creatures having been demonized in the years since Jaws hit movie theaters. The bigger picture question in my mind is why Discovery Channel in their week-long block of shark-related programming barely touched on the issue of the Western Australian Shark Cull – one would think that if the motivations for Shark Week were related to issues about shark conservation that this very real, obviously prescient issue would be discussed rather extensively. Instead, Shark Week offers up fake documentaries and sensationalism to put most reality shows to shame while avoiding any sort of real world, real life issues. It’s a good thing then that public television exists to tackle the difficult subjects that aren’t convenient in the context of publicity-oriented television. Anyway one looks at it, Operation Maneater is top-notch and those who think PBS nature programming is boring should probably check this show out.

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