SHARK WEEK 2015: Final Wrap Up – Sharksanity: The Return and Shark Island
on Discovery Channel
Pros: Shark Island paints a detailed portrait of a population in the midst of a genuine shark crisis
Cons: Sharksanity is a waste of time
After numerous “big-hitter” programs premiered early and had been repeated throughout Shark Week 2015, this annual block of Discovery Channel programming devoted to the ultimate undersea predators faded out with, well, a bit of a whimper. Saturday, July 11 saw the premiere of a new volume of Sharksanity, a show which first showed in 2014 that more or less acts as a sort of pat on the back for Shark Week producers. Acting as a sort of “greatest hits” lineup, Sharksanity: The Return chronicled the best moments from the week’s programming, placing an emphasis on jaw-dropping spectacle rather than on well-founded science. As might be expected then, South African researcher Dickie Chivell featured prominently: it was he, after all, who had not only unveiled “Chewie,” the underwater measuring device during Island of the Mega Shark, but also climbed into a decidedly flimsy-looking “ghost cage” which placed him right in the midst of a swarm of aggressive great whites. Chivell has made quite a name for himself in the past two years (2014 saw him climb aboard a floating female shark decoy – and come precariously close to being a meal), and if Sharksanity is any indication, he’ll be back for another round next year (if not before and provided he’s not eaten).
One of the main “points of interest” (???) during Sharksanity was the unveiling of a series of viewer’s choice awards which celebrated some of the best moments from the 28-year history of Shark Week. More amazing to me than the list itself was the amount of similar countdown-type shows that Discovery Channel puts out there year in and year out. In fact, just prior to 2015’s Shark Week, the channel aired a program called Shark Week Sharktacular, hosted by filmmaker Eli Roth (who later hosted Shark Week’s Shark After Dark aftershow), that did almost the same thing, running through the best events in Shark Week history as voted by fans. Hey, if Discovery Channel didn’t keep telling us how awesome Shark Week is, who would? Seriously though, I find these sorts of “congratulations; good job” sort of shows to be very annoying: I’d rather be watching, I don’t know, actual shark documentaries, but maybe that’s just me.
Sunday, July 12, the last day of Shark Week 2015, offered up a final, noticeably low-key show: Shark Island chronicled the efforts of scientists and locals living on Reunion Island, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, to come to terms with an increasing number of shark attacks. In the last four years, seventeen attacks, seven of them fatal, have occurred offshore, prompting the government to make ocean swimming and surfing illegal in the name of public safety. While the local government employs a team of armed “shark watchers” to monitor the coast during specific times designated to allow local surfers back into the water (and it seems that the locals on Reunion Island do love their surfing), American marine biologist Craig O’Connell starts to investigate the reasons for this increase in attacks while looking for appropriate ways of promoting safety without harming the local shark and fish populations.
More ominous than many of the week’s other documentaries, Shark Island features interviews with concerned locals and attack survivors which allow viewers to really get into the mindset of the population of this island. Continuous images of the shark-related graffiti which peppers the island speaks to the severity of the situation, and though it’s difficult for me to really make sense of people continuing to surf in an environment that has become the most dangerous area for shark attacks in the world, the real question is what has led to this unfortunate condition. The documentary examines the notion that nearby fish nurseries and wildlife refuges are to blame, but more or less comes to the conclusion – surprise! – that human behavior is responsible. Decreasing fish populations in the open ocean where sharks used to hunt for food has drawn the creatures closer to shore in the hunt for a meal, and an increasing amount of seaside development has caused the nearby waters to become murky: exactly the type of conditions that bull sharks thrive in.
The scientific portion of this program is somewhat limited to specific segments: a decent amount of time during the program is devoted to an explanation of the bull shark, arguably the most dangerous shark in the world in terms of the sheer number of attacks on humans. These sharks are known for their aggressive behavior, and during breeding season, males are pumped up with the highest testosterone levels in the animal kingdom – which may explain why most of the Reunion attacks occur during the winter months. Bull sharks’s poor eyesight is likely also a contributing factor in these attacks: since they patrol muddy waters, the sharks presumably mistake errant human feet or hands for typical prey items, backing off after they realize they’ve literally bitten into something they can’t chew. In any case, Shark Island certainly creates a portrait of a population facing a serious shark crisis of the type seen in the first Jaws film.
As expected, Shark Island is capably made, with amazing camerawork showing just how picturesque Reunion Island truly is. It also has an appropriate amount of pathos to it, but if anything, it’s a bit lacking in the shark department: mostly talk, with little footage of the creatures actually on the prowl. Hence, I’d call this an interesting but fairly mediocre Shark Week program, one that’s probably the most interesting for its depiction of the local culture and for its finale, in which various non-lethal anti-shark methods are examined. I started to lose hope when the narration began to suggest that a mass-extermination of sharks was the only way to stop the ongoing attacks, but the show actually finishes with a more conservation-minded conclusion. I’d give this particular program three stars out of five.
Overall, Shark Week 2015 gave a viewer precisely what would be expected. Many of the shows here prescribed to the “bigger is better” mentality, and numerous programs made it their goal to find bigger, bolder, and all-around badder sharks. Several of 2015’s shows continued storylines that had been started in previous years, but I found many of these to be among the week’s more forgettable offerings. Year in and year out, there are major breakthroughs in shark-related research, and I was generally impressed by the level of new scientific information featured throughout the week: it’s always a good thing when I, admitted shark junkie, learn something new from Shark Week.
Without doubt, the best thing about Shark Week 2015 was the lack of the type of hokey, utterly phony programs like the Megalodon mockumentaries that were feature events in years past. Hopefully, this demonstrates to other cable “educational” channels that a solid lineup of responsible and factual programming can be as (if not more) effective than outright sensationalism put forth just to gets butts in the seat. Considering that Discovery has planned a Shweekend (read: “Shark Weekend”) event for late August, the deluge of shark programming isn’t over quite yet, and one can only hope the quality of these documentaries continues to head on an upward trajectory.
Shark Week 2015:
The Outstanding: Shark Planet
The Ugly: Sharksanity