The film “Jaws” has become a staple of pop culture, and serves for many as the first exposure to sharks, which typically means a fear of putting a toe in the salty sea. However, for the past 28 years, Discovery Channel has dedicated a week of programming to both educate and entertain the public on what these fish are really like and the vital role they play in the ecosystem.
For Floridians in particular, beaches are a staple of the summer life, as everyone flocks to the coasts with towel and sunglasses in tow. Knowing sharks and what it means to step into the water with them, often unknowingly, is smart, and allowing Shark Week to be a sort of summer school is a useful method of learning.
Surviving Shark Week can be a rewarding experience. There are many species of sharks and many facts out there to enhance public knowledge of these creatures that have lived in oceans for 450 million years.
Many people are familiar with the great white shark, but not the large filter-feeding sharks such as the basking and whale sharks. Or, perhaps viewers have never even heard of the Greenland shark or know a shark can easily be put into a trance when turned upside down.
While in recent years Discovery has had an unfortunate tendency to air faux documentaries, such as 2014’s “Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine” which supposedly tracked a 35-foot long great white shark and provided audiences no useful facts or information on the true marine predator. Thankfully, this year Discovery appears to be prioritizing education over dramatization as programs step away from these faux docs, perhaps because National Geographic Wild serves as competition now with its own shark-oriented programming block, SharkFest.
This year’s lineup sees Discovery balancing the fun of seeing great whites hunt, arguably the main attraction, while providing doses of a broader understanding of sharks. For instance, Monday’s lineup has the sensationalized “Return of the Great White Serial Killer,” a ridiculous title for what is really an investigation of recurring attacks at Surf Beach. Yet, after that program there is “Alien Sharks: Close Encounters,” in which viewers will see the uncommon shark species that live in the deep sea.
As for the Florida beach bum, one new program airing this week specifically focuses on Florida’s waters. “Shark Trek” features researchers trying to understand the rise in great white sightings along the Sunshine State’s coasts, a study hyped as the biggest look at the great whites which call Florida waters home.
Beyond the entertainment aspect, Discovery does enter the depths of conservation for the sharks that make the week of watery programming possible. The channel has made it a yearly effort to raise awareness about the nearly 100 million sharks killed every year solely for the harvesting of their fins as part of the shark fin soup market. Additionally, Discovery has petitions ready to get finning banned in certain waters or get major chains to drop shark fin soup from their menus.
There are many rows of teeth in Shark Week’s jaws, with education and entertainment being the main drawing points of the week of underwater programming. There are the fun shows that show great white sharks launching out of the ocean to catch a seal, but there are also the documentary-heavy shows that highlight other sharks or the ecosystems of certain waters. Regardless of what a shark fan may be on the prowl for, there are plenty of options to pick from the week-long airing of shark programs that started Sunday, from the highly informal to the purely entertaining.
Perhaps after a week of digesting shark facts, visiting the beach will invoke less imagery from the rogue great white of “Jaws” and more of an understanding that there are fish out there, a few which are potentially dangerous, but mostly just minding their own business.