Monday, May 11, 2009

Filmmaker's Journal: ramblings about sharks and the media

Let's face it - shark conservation is a tough sell. They don't have the mammalian intelligence connection like whales and dolphins. They don't have the warm and fuzzy factor that makes us feel for polar bear cubs and penguins. No, unfortunately to most people, sharks are lurking just beneath the waves waiting for us to venture out just far enough . . .

And that's such a shame. Because - despite the critical role these animals play as scavengers and hunters that help to maintain balance in the marine ecosystem - as long as people fear them, they will listen politely to the arguments about the shark's importance, they will be put off by the gruesome images of shark finning, they will rationalize the very remote possibility of shark-human interactions . . . and they will do nothing.

And today there is much going on to reinforce that fear. And some of it is coming from the very people who wish to protect these animals. I have said before, I am a big supporter of safe and responsible shark ecotourism - shark diving, if you will. But my concept of "safe and responsible" that promotes conservation, works with scientific research, and provides a safe environment for both divers and sharks, is not the same concept as some others in the industry. Over the past several months, there have been a series of media publicity and community public relations gaffes the net result of which has been to show shark diving to be a haven for wreckless thrill-seekers and it is fueling government and community forces to clamp down or place an ouright ban on shark ecotourism at some key sites.

No doubt about it, at one time shark diving was a major thrill-seeking adventure sport, something only for the bravest of hearts. But it has evolved as an educational experience in the hands of responsible operators, in tandem with their understanding and concern regarding the future of sharks. Still there are some who cling to the images of the past and that short-sighted approach simply puts the media into its own feeding frenzy.

Now I must admit, as a filmmaker, I can appreciate their dilemma to some extent. Nature filmmakers have to wear three hats: the advocate, the storyteller, and the businessperson. In an ideal world, or an ideal film project, all three of these roles would work in harmony. But often one or two of them are in conflict.

The advocate wants to promote conservation; so the facts are important so that viewers will accurately understand and appreciate the subject animal. The storyteller wants to tell a good yarn; a dash of excitement, a little drama or pathos, and maybe a happy ending. And the businessperson understands the realities of what the broadcasters are buying, what the advertisers or the viewer ratings are demanding in terms of programming. Getting all three of these to work together for the benefit of the shark is a challenge.

Case in point: here's a short clip taken from my YouTube channel, RTSeaTV, that was done as a lark while I was filming a piece on Isla Guadalupe shark diving for a major online magazine. A colleague of mine, marine biologist Luke Tipple, and I were testing a two-man cage and at the last minute thought about making something out of whatever I shot on this one dive. It involved being in open water with great white sharks - something that is a highly calculated and thought-out risk taken only by professionals - and the cage proved to be an excellent platform to work from with plenty of easy exit/entry points (and by the way, totally unsuitable for regular shark diving customers!).

So, a little excitement and awe mixed with some important facts and a call for conservation. But does it help or hurt the cause? In a short clip, one can get a measure of balance; however filmmakers seeking to do long-form projects are always challenged by the pressure to pander to the gentleman in Kansas kicking back with a Bud and ready to change the channel to NASCAR or flip to YouTube if he doesn't see a shark attack in the next five minutes. Sigh . . .

So what does this all say? That we just keep on trying, whether it's sharks, global warming, or whatever your cause du jour. We try to do what's right, we suffer and carry on from the mistakes of others, and we never lose faith that, perhaps little by little, people will see that truth is the best antidote to fear and the key to understanding and respect.


WhySharksMatter said...

I'm hoping to concisely explain shark conservation to novices via this post- doing my part to make shark conservation less of a tough sell.

RTSea said...

Thanks, David. Good post.

One of the issues I am concerned with is reaching the general audience, the yet unconverted. Many of the shark blog audiences consist of shark advocates; so it's a bit like preaching to the choir. As a filmmaker, I try to focus on reaching a broader audience (hopefully) and that's where the challenge often lies.

Keep up the good work and think of ways to reach the masses effectively.

the One called "Bitey".... said...

If I may add a small point of view:
"the pressure to pander to the gentleman in Kansas kicking back with a Bud and ready to change the channel to NASCAR or flip to YouTube if he doesn't see a shark attack in the next five minutes"

- this is not the person we really need to be reaching; someone who sits back letting life go by on the boobtube, looking for cheap, visceral excitement, who will always move on to the next outlet and find something. We care not for these people. They neither contribute to the issue nor in most cases to societal growth or health as a whole.

Keep making the strides toward the people who care at all about anything beyond "Spike TV" and cheap beer - these are the people that influence opinion.

(Granted, easier said than done given that SharkWeek is such a successful franchise, and they'll buy any footage from anyone....)

RTSea said...

"Bitey" - thanks for your comments and, for the most part, I'm in total agreement with you. Those who influence the decision-makers are typically the ones who are a little more on the ball and proactive. Those are who I try to connect with through screenings and speaking engagements.

The dilemma for filmmakers is that the more vicarious viewer (my description in the post being a little flippant I will admit) is who still makes up a majority of the viewing audience for shark programming. The networks know that and license/produce the programming that appeals to that market. And filmmakers - if they want to put food on the table - are compelled to deliver what the networks want.

But I'm less inclined to write off the non-committed just yet and will continue to reach them as best I can within the parameters available.

Shark Diver said...

I think Bitey comes up yet again with another good point. Terry Goss yes?