“It doesn’t give people much don’t feel comfort when I say this,” begins Dr. Christopher Lowe, preparing to tell me something deeply upsetting. “If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in the water, a shark has swam by you and you didn’t even know it.”
The irony is that Dr. Lowe is actually attempting to comfort me, as we are on the way to—God help me—dive with sharks. It is a stunt I agreed to because I thought it could add color to a story I’d been wanting to write for a while. Now I’m certain I’ve lost my mind.
Dr. Lowe is with me for a pointed reason. He’s a professor of marine biology and director of the shark lab at California State University, Long Beach. He’s also featured in World’s Biggest Great White?, a documentary special premiering July 28 on Nat Geo WILD as part of three weeks of SharkFest content across the network and its sister channel National Geographic. Next week, Discovery begins its 31st annual Shark Week, 20 hours of original shark-related content catered to fervent fans eager to complement their summer vacations with masochistic TV binges.
That leads me to the idea for this story, and the reason I have been conned into risking life and limb (in this case, not a cute metaphor!) in a shark cage on Eastern Long Island: Why are we so obsessed with pop culture content about big, frightening, occasionally lethal sharks, while simultaneously flocking to these creatures’ very homes to swim every weekend?
I’m familiar with the science of fear, and more than aware that with Shark Week, SharkFest, and other channels’ programming being a staple of summer TV for decades now, this question has been asked before. But we’re at, if I may say so, a turning point when it comes to sharks. Increasingly, we like them! A great white was spotted off the coast of Long Island earlier this year, and people were happy. The water is finally hospitable enough again for a shark to want to be there. A good thing!
So how do we reckon with the shark TV we know and love, where the scarier the shark sequence and more gruesome the attack, the better? It’s what we think we want from this kind of programming but, if you look closer, it’s at odds with what these shows are actually doing. They’re educating us about conservation and the reality that these creatures aren’t as terrifying—or human-obsessed—as we’re led to believe. They’re capitalizing on the sensationalism to draw our attention to those lessons.
In an increasingly woke culture, how do these things square with each other?
These are all ostensibly interesting questions I wish I never asked as we approach the final miles of our drive to the Long Island Aquarium, where this shark dive will be taking place. (I wouldn’t actually do this in open water. I’m not deranged.)
Dr. Lowe swears up and down that this exercise is crucial to demystifying sharks. It’s not so much exposure therapy as it is reality: When you are with the sharks, you see that they don’t rabidly go around eating people. They kinda just swim. It is at this point that I consider pushing Dr. Lowe out of the car.
“Our brains are programmed to get a little scared,” he says. “The problem is now it’s exploited to a certain extent.”
He calls those hyperbolic, dramatic shark specials we’ve come to associate with summer shark programming “a benefit and a curse.” The benefit is that it gets people interested in sharks and exposed to certain conservation messages. The curse: that excitement is not always for the right reason—stay out of the water or you’ll get eaten!—and can perpetuate sharks’ unearned reputations. That reputation sticks, he says, only if people never get the chance to see sharks in their normal habitats and see they don’t behave that way.
To see that sharks aren’t like Jaws, you gotta swim with Jaws. I have regrets.
This is, if you can believe it, the 31st year of Shark Week on the Discovery channel, an annual tradition that’s been likened to a holy event by Stephen Colbert, and that has so much popularity over the years that on an episode of 30 Rock, Tracy Morgan’s character, Tracy Morgan, once offered the inspirational nugget, “Live every week like it’s Shark Week.” Stormy Daniels infamously revealed that Donald Trump was watching Shark Week when she met him at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2007.
The mythology is that the idea was born out of a drunken outing at a bar, when one Discovery executive said, “You know what would be awesome? Shark Week!” and another scribbled down the idea on a cocktail napkin. Another, more plausible version is that the idea came out of strategic brainstorming, a way to take advantage of people’s post-beach viewing habits in August.
There were 10 programs in Shark Week’s inaugural 1988 lineup, launching with the show Caged in Fear. According to The Week, ratings nearly doubled Discovery’s normal average.
The programming evolved over the years with science-focused programs aimed at debunking the cultural stigma surrounding sharks mixed in with adrenaline-pumping footage of sharks breaching or attacking. A foray into docufiction with a “mockumentary” about the nonexistent Megalodon caught a fair amount of backlash, while stunt programming—like a special that had Michael Phelps racing a CGI shark—garnered headlines.
Internally, Discovery calls Shark Week its Super Bowl, as it’s the network’s biggest event, attracting viewers who wouldn’t normally be sampling its programming. This year, it includes a nightly talk show, Shark After Dark, and the channel’s first scripted Shark Week movie, Capsized: Blood in the Water.
“Our ability to get up close and personal with the sharks keeps evolving with technology that allows us access to new habits, behaviors, and amazing imagery,” says Howard Swartz, senior vice president of production and development for Shark Week. Cutting-edge technology allows the programming to remain fresh each year, “but it’s also playing around with the storytelling.”
As the years have gone by, it’s made sense that other networks would get in on the action. The extreme end of that is Syfy network’s ludicrous Sharknado movies. More comparable is National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD, which launched July 21 and includes three weeks of programming across the two networks. Its seventh go around, there will be 16 new premieres.
World’s Biggest Great White?—the special responsible for my invitation to risk death in a shark cage—is this year’s centerpiece, documenting the re-emergence of “Deep Blue,” thought to be the largest great white shark ever spotted at 20 feet long and two-and-a-half tons, as she feeds on a whale carcass off the coast of Hawaii.
“SharkFest is a focused event with real discovery and real science, without hype and without celebrity,” says Geoff Daniels, executive vice president of global unscripted entertainment at National Geographic, touting a mission to make sharks the “stars of our programming.”
He estimates that the network receives more than 100 pitches a year for shark shows based on the reputation of its lineup. “We feature specials that underscore new behavior, science and natural phenomena that affect the species, as well as showcase the efforts of the research community to study and save these incredible predators.”
No network is fully immune to the impulse to capitalize on our biggest shark-related fears—Discovery has I Was Prey: Shark Week, for example; Nat Geo has Forecast: Shark Attack—even though the reality of the situation is, as Dr. Lowe explains, shark numbers are going up and people are using the ocean more than ever before, yet the rate of shark bites is not dramatically increasing.
He estimates that with the rise of Go Pros and amateur shark footage, not to mention the decades of exposure to shark programming, sensationalized specials about shark danger and attacks will start to die off. “I understand the recipe for making these things, but I feel like it’s getting used over and over again and it’s getting old,” he says. We’re approaching 50 years since Jaws was made. “I think there’s opportunity for innovation there.”
He shares with me that he grew up on Martha’s Vineyard and was there the summer that Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws, a truly wild origin story for a man who would spend his entire adult life not scared of, but studying sharks. When everyone else spent that summer too afraid to go into the water, he gleefully dove in and relished the extra elbow room.
Swartz is also of the Jaws generation and, as such, had a conditioned fear of going into the open water because of the movie. “What Shark Week has done for me is debunk the common misconceptions that they’re these mindless killing machines,” he says. “I think as you respect and understand shark behavior and that you are 100 percent not on a shark’s menu, it takes the fear out of it.”
Now to test that theory.
It’s not that I was under any delusion that what I was about to do was even remotely dangerous. As if any of the parties involved would allow an entertainment reporter for a major website to do something with even the slightest risk of injury or, you know, having an arm viciously torn off by a shark.
And yet there’s the psychology of it. Pragmatism and logic only go so far. “What are you doing getting in a water with sharks, you damned fool?” is a much louder voice in one’s head.
It’s there when you start to stuff yourself into the wetsuit, like a sausage into casing. It grows in volume as you make your way toward the cage that will be lowered into the water. It’s practically screaming as you step into the cage, glance down, and see ACTUAL SHARK FINS peeking above the surface and circling beneath you.
There’s something doomsday-exhilarating about being lowered into the tank where three sand tiger sharks and three nurse sharks, each roughly eight feet in length, and four carpet sharks, about four feet each, are swimming. I stopped breathing when we first plunged into the water, partly because the water was cold, and partly because I realized, and there’s really no other way to describe it, that “Holy shit that’s a shark. Shark. Shark. Shark! It’s a shark.”
I spent about 20 minutes underwater with the sharks, thinking things like, “Why are the bars in this shark cage so far apart?” “Why does that one keep swimming so close?” and “That one is definitely circling me, am I going to get eaten?”
The diver who went down with me said repeatedly that we’re the equivalent of a zoo exhibit for the sharks. They’re just curious. And, besides, they had been fed the day before and so they won’t be hungry—something that I did not identify with at all and therefore had a hard time believing.
The experience, though certainly more unsettling and definitely more expensive and laborious, was akin to what much of the summer shark TV programming in 2019, specifically, has set out to do.
The shows don’t shy away from the idea that we are afraid of sharks, and that the mere sight of them is terrifying, which I was very much confirming at that moment. Sometimes it’s done with more sensationalized or dramatic flair than in others. But the end result, especially in shows like Biggest Great White Ever? or Discovery’s The Sharks of Headstone Hell, is not to scare but to appreciate. Chronicle how these massive predators behave and let us be in awe of it, even if that awe is tinged in fear. By the end of my shark dive, I had no designs to ever be near a shark in the open water or without bars of steel between us. But I did settle into somewhat of a comfort: They’re just sharks.
“We want to get people to the point where they say, ‘I was out in the ocean swimming and surfing and a shark swam by me. I had the greatest day at the beach,’” Dr. Lowe says. “Not, ‘I had the most frightening day ever and I’m never going into the ocean again.’”
That is lunacy. I do, however, understand the sentiment.
“Did you count all your fingers and toes?” an aquarium employee joked as I climbed out of the cage. I laughed and glanced at my thumb, thankful that the closest it will be getting to a shark again in the next few weeks will be while switching between shark shows on my DVR.