Monday, July 18, 2011

Shark Week & Conservation: the time of year when hype, reality, and rational voices vie for our attention

It's summertime, August is approaching, and that means it's time for Discovery Channel's Shark Week. This ratings bonanza for Discovery (over 30 million viewers last year) continues to thrill a large segment of the general public while infuriating many pro-shark activists with program titles like Deadliest Waters or Anatomy of a Shark Bite. There's no doubt that Discovery tries to have it both ways by providing a measure of conservation content (they actually did a rather well-balanced piece on shark conservation for Discovery News - see below) combined with programs that pander to the malevolent killer shark stereotypes. Discovery seems to have found a balance that allows them to have their cake while eating their vegetables too.

During this time period, sales of other shark-related films (like my first documentary, Island of the Great White Shark) enjoy a momentary surge; press reports of shark sightings and human-shark interactions increase in frequency; and shark advocates roll their eyes and wring their hands in frustration.

Case in point would be the following promotion for a Shark Week program picked up by outdoor writer Pete Thomas for GrindTV. South African photographer Chris Fallows has made a career filming sharks and is known for his striking images of great white sharks leaping into the air when ambushing prey. He is part of a Shark Week program titled Great White Invasion - Immediately sounds ominous, doesn't it? Chris is attempting to debunk some of the myths regarding the ferociousness of these apex predators by approaching one with a paddleboard.

The shark is curious, no doubt, but appears to realize that the board and its rider are neither prey (a seal or sea lion) nor something to scavenge, like a dead whale carcass. It's in shallow water so it's not going to attack with a powerful lunge from underneath, as is its usual method, so it swims about somewhere between mild curiosity and disinterest (notice the moment in the video when it simply treads water, looking at the board and its rider - probably thinking, What the heck is this?

The risk to Chris Fallows is that, in fact, some sharks like to bump objects to check them out, particularly if they are wondering if it is an inanimate carcass. I have experienced that before firsthand. While I hung over the side of a Zodiac (a sturdy inflatable raft) filming white sharks, a large 15-foot male approached us and then "bumped" the raft a good foot and a half into the air and, with a flick of his powerful tail, proceeded to smack me across the side of the head. Me and the captain got the message and headed back to the main boat, our adrenaline pumping and my left cheek stinging.

However exciting incidents like that may be or whatever heart-racing programs Discovery's Shark Week may have in store for us, the reality of what sharks themselves are experiencing at the hands of man cannot be overlooked. People may not love them - and the fact is, they don't have to - but they do need to respect them and understand their vital role in maintaining a healthy ocean as critically important predators and scavengers.

And it will be the wisdom of rational voices that ultimately gets the job done. In Australia, Mick Dowers, founder of the Anti-Shark Finning Alliance, makes his case on ABC Brisbane radio's Breakfast with Spencer Howson. What better way to start a cat fight than to then bring on a Chinese Australian to comment - let the fight begin, eh?! But, no. Two rational people with their own points of view discuss the issue calmly and you can begin to hear common ground developing.

Click the 612 ABC Brisbane logo to download audio file (mp3).

That's what it will take: rational people talking about a less than rational practice in an attempt to preserve both, a dwindling species and a fading cultural history.

1 comment:

Mick Dowers said...

Mick Dowers here from The Australian Anti Shark Finning Alliance. You are so right, a balanced dialogue between people is so much more constructive and that is what took place on 612 ABC Brisbane Radio on Monday 18 July 2011. I would like to thank Spencer Howson and Leong Hiew for their involvement in this discussion.