Truth behind a TV sensation

As the Discovery Channel's popular "Shark Week" commences, experts say the drama is overblown

It's a holiday weekend, the height of summer, 40 years since "Jaws" turned sharks into shallow-water Hollywood slashers, and Americans are once again flinging their overheated, well-oiled flesh into the surf from coast to coast. That can only mean one thing: It's "Shark Week" time on The Discovery Channel.

An immensely popular summer staple since 1988, cable television's longest running thrill ride premieres again tonight at 8 p.m., and expectations are doubtlessly huge. Shark-cage daredevils, freakish wounds and dismemberments, spawning titles such as "Ocean of Fear," "Blood in the Water" and "Teeth of Death," disgorging a suspiciously realistic caper touting the return of the long-extinct 50-ton megalodon — "Shark Week" has set a high bar for drama.

But in doing so, Discovery has provoked blowback from conservation groups, who charge its unremitting demonization of the ocean's top predator has resulted in needless fear and the gratuitous slaughter of sharks. And Discovery Channel's new president, Rich Ross, has said "Shark Week 2015" will not feature any new fake documentaries.

In fact, wary ichthyologist Dr. Robert Hueter, senior scientist and director of shark research at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory, agreed to work with Discovery during a February expedition to Cuba. That groundbreaking initiative, in which American and Cuban scientists placed the first satellite transmitters on sharks in Cuban waters, airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday in an episode called "Tiburones: The Sharks of Cuba."

A student of sharks for more than 40 years, author of more than 150 related papers, Hueter talked with reporter Jessica Floum in an interview we'll call "Five Things You Should Know About Sharks":

1. Christmas tree lights are more dangerous.

More people are electrocuted by Christmas tree lights each year than are killed in shark attacks. "When you look at the numbers, sharks bite less than 100 people a year. Last year we had a total of 72 or 74 in the entire world and three were fatal. On the other side of the ledger, fishing activities around the world take about 100 million sharks every year . . . Approximately 1 million sharks are killed for every person that is bitten by a shark . . . A human life and a shark's life are not to be equated, but the real danger is to sharks more than it is to us."

2. Our planet needs sharks.

Robust shark populations are vital to Earth's ecology. "We're removing somewhere around 100 million sharks every year from the world's oceans. That's a huge amount and that's not sustainable . . . Sharks are what we call top predators in the ocean system. They sit on top of these food webs or food pyramids, and if we were to totally eliminate the sharks, it would cause ripple effects all the way down the food web and actually destroy certain ecosystems . . . For example, very good research that has been done in the Caribbean Sea or Pacific showed that when sharks are removed, the coral reef died."

3. There are no Freddy Kruegers in the shark realm.

"There are about 500 species of sharks in the world, and of those 500 species, about a dozen of them have been implicated in bites on people. What we call the 'Big Three' are the white shark, the tiger shark and the bull shark because these are animals that get to be fairly big bodied and they do go after larger prey. They'll go after other sharks. They'll go after marine mammals and big rays and so on . . . They're not looking for us. They're looking for a prey fish . . . Yes, we have white sharks out in the Gulf of Mexico and, yes, they can be relatively large, but they don't come in close to the beach at all. We've been tracking white sharks for the last few years that come into the Gulf. I think the closest they've come to this coastline is about 40 or 50 miles away . . . That's actually a very rare animal. Most sharks top out at about six feet long. Most of them are not interested in people. We're definitely not on their menu."

4. Call it a bite, not an attack.

"Most of the incidents of the unprovoked attacks — which I prefer to call bites — most of these are by smaller sharks like the blacktip shark, which is a more numerous animal. It's a fast swimmer. It's a fish eater. And this is the shark that is going through the surf and will sometimes make a mistake and grab someone's hand or foot or calf, let go, and that will be the end of that . . . We do get some shark incidents around the Fourth of July, and the reason is not because of the number of sharks, but because of the number of people in the water that weekend. Everybody goes to the beach. It's a hot time of year. Sharks are feeding. It's their time as well. When you get so many people in the water, sometimes paths cross and somebody gets bitten. . . . A lot of people are in the water where sharks are feeding and the sharks sometimes see a surfer's foot or a swimmer's hand and come up and bite and go 'That's not right' and leave."

5. Where the sharks are.

Some waters really do produce more shark bites than others. "This is more of an issue on the east coast of Florida: Volusia County, around Daytona Beach, Brevard County, a place we call 'Shark Alley,' where we get as many as a couple of dozen bites on people a year. And the problem there is this heavy surf . . . As we go farther north and get into colder climates on the east coast, the fauna begins to change. The shark species begin to change. You get species like the sandbar shark, which happens to migrate down here in the winter time . . . And then you get Mako sharks, blue sharks, and finally, again, the great white, which is really a cooler water animal that prefers to eat large prey when they get really big . . . like seals that live in the northeast in places like Cape Cod . . . The more serious injuries are off California by white sharks. Hawaii sometimes has serious attacks by tiger sharks. Those are not more numerous than Florida, but they're typically more serious."

— Billy Cox and Jessica Floum, Sarasota Herald-Tribune


Shark Encounters Since 2000

The graphic below reflects data from the Global Shark Attack File, maintained by the Shark Research Institute. It includes encounters where there was no bite.

United States
Total Encounters:812
Fatal Encounters:18
Last Fatality:April 2015

 

Expert insight

Dr. Robert Hueter is the foremost scientist in shark research. He leads the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla. Congress designated the center as a national research center in 1991. In February, Discovery Channel accompanied Dr. Hueter and a Cuban-American shark research team on a research trip in Cuba. The resulting program will air Tuesday, July 7 at 10 p.m. on Discovery Channel. Hear what Dr. Hueter has to share about sharks in the videos below.

A little about sharks

— Rachel O'hara, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

 

Mote Marine's Robert Hueter on how to avoid shark bites:

1. Don't swim after dusk, or early in the morning, because sharks' vision is more discriminating with light

2. Don't swim near fishermen

3. Don't wear flashy jewelry or items that can reflect sunlight

4. Don't wear bright bathing suits

5. Don't swim if you have open wounds