Friday, July 27, 2007

Shark Week!

This week marks the return of one of my favorite times of the year - Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, seven straight days of documentaries on one of nature's greatest predators. As someone growing up wanting to be Jacques Cousteau, this was a Godsend and I've been watching Shark Week since it began about twenty years ago. And in those twenty years, I've noted some interesting changes in the content of these documentaries.

Some of the shows discuss the biology and behavior of sharks. Some explore specific species of sharks. Some discuss shark attacks. And some just consist of guys jumping in the water with sharks and talking about the experience. The vast majority of these shows gave fair treatment to the subject matter. The ones about sharks attacks, while discussing the horrors of these encounters, also talked about why sharks sometimes attacks people.

This is important because sharks, for a host of reasons, have a nasty reputation. Much of it comes from fear and paranoia created by movies like Jaws. People (myself included) fear the idea of being attacked in the water by large unseen predator. Unlike other maneaters (Lions, Bears), sharks aren't cuddley or cute, and aren't social or familial in the same way mammals are. Having said all this, people also fear sharks because they do, in fact, sometimes attack people.

And this brings me back to what has changed in the coverage of sharks over the years. Today, there is a greater emphasis to downplay the danger of sharks (statistically, you are three times more likely to be struck by lightning), and to demonstrate that sharks attack people because mistaken identidy. Much more time is given to discussing the danger that man poses to sharks through overfishing (especially in Asia where Shark-fin soup is a delicacy), pollution, protective nets, destruction of habitat, etc. We are also told more and more what maginificent, unique and extraordinary animals sharks are.

I don't really have a problem or disagreement with any of this. However, it seems to me there is a growing number of scientists, conservationists, and activists that have become what you might call shark apologists. At every opportunity, they tell us that we are the problem, sharks aren't really dangerous, and only attack when driven to it as a result of the consequences of man's encroachment on their environment. While there may be some truth in this, it seems to me that science and the study of the environment is increasingly being blurred with an environmental agenda that borders on propoganda.

Let me give you an example. Last Week I came across the Larry King show, where the discussion was sharks. Among the guests were Les Stroud (Survivorman), Phillipe Cousteau Jr. (grandson of Jacques), Jack Hannah of the Columbus Zoo, a wildlife photographer, a shark attack victim, and a shark activist. At one point, the host asked where the most dangerous places for shark attacks are. The answer from the one guest was "What sharks? They're almost all gone." She said that with a straight face while the rest of the panel nodded in agreement. Nevermind that we have statistics that show where most shark attacks occur, and that Cousteau Jr. had only minutes before pointed out the of number shark attacks worldwide has remained fairly constant over last 20-30 years, despite the purported decimation of shark populations.

The host then asked what the most dangerous species of sharks are. Stroud essentially blew off the question, saying that sharks aren't a threat to people; it's the other way around. Again, we have clear statistics that show what species (Great White, Tiger, Bull) are most likely to attack humans. One shark attack survivor who lost his right arm to a Bull Shark went so far as to say that if he had not put his arms out to deflect the shark away as it swam at him, the shark would have probably left him alone. Yeah, okay.

The impression one is left with after listening to this group is that shark attacks only occur when people swim into the shark's mouth. The last guest was a shark activist named Rob Stewart who has who has dedicated his life to the preservation of sharks, even risking his life in conflicts with foreign governments. His upcoming film Sharkwater chronicles his struggle. And listening to him (and the other guests) talk about sharks in the most reverant terms (their majesty and beauty), and how their lives have been changed by their experiences with sharks, I came to a realization. These people don't just love and appreciate nature and want to preserve it. I can appreciate that. No, these folks are in love with nature. I believe this reflects a growing religious tenor to the environmental movement. This love of nature accordingly involves a rejection of anything that places special importance on human beings. And this "faith" frames their worldview.

The guests on Larry King were so blinded by their faith, they couldn't even answer legitimate, straightforward questions, choosing instead to push their environmental agenda. The troubling implication is that science is becoming so politicized, it is difficult to sort out what is true, especially when you can't always trust the "experts."

One bonus to this year's Shark Week is the release of the the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death. It is arguably the finest film of its kind and was the inspiration for Jaws. It documents the first ever expedition to film the Great White Shark.


Jason Campbell said...

I love it!

I have two questions though. First, when people say "statistically speaking", exactly what frame factors are involved? Am I 1/3 as statistically likely to be struck by lightning as to be bitten by a shark attack going about my daily life? I can imagine an improbable event, like walking to my car in a thunderstorm and a freak bolt of lightning hitting me. But 1/3 as likely, to be attacked by a shark, DOING WHAT? Watching my daughter play on the Oregon coast? One of these eating machines gonna pop out of the surf like I'm Samuel L. Jackson from Deep Blue Sea?

Okay, so what are the odds of a shark attack if I'm a surfer? Scuba diver? Snorkeler in Cabo, Cancun, Australia, Hawaii? What if I do any of these things every year as a vacationer? Statistical probability, yeah right.

My other question is this. We've talked about the decline of the west, "white guilt", all that stuff a bit before. I'm beginning to think that it's broader than that. With all the postmodern ennui, disgust at the current affairs of the world, utter lack of purpose delivered to us by science and humanism, I suppose it's natural to exalt what we see as a purposeful natural system above our own. Sharks are beautiful and majestic besides the fact that the people who say this are vegetarians and sharks are *gasp* meat-eaters. Bloodthirsty (literally) killing monsters, if any of those words actually mean anything. "Human guilt" at its lowest.

Jake Shore said...

Good point. I'm not sure, but I think the odds of being attacked increase slightly if I'm a spearfisherman off the coast of South Africa or Dangerous Reef in Australia.

Believe it or not, I believe there is an element of white guilt involved. You see, Larry King's guests(all white) were very careful not to say anything too critical of the Asian countries responsible for killing millions of sharks every year. In China in particular, Shark-fin soup is in high demand. The shark's fins are simply cut off and the bodies thrown back in the ocean where they drown, unable to swim. If this were a western nation, these folks would be in the streets screaming about the wholesale slaughter and inhumane cruelty involved, while slamming the government for not acting to stop it.

These folks appeared very measured when they spoke of these eastern countries and their unregulated fishing practices. While they are horrified at what they see and have dedicated their much of their resources to shark conservation, they are unwilling condemn non-white third world countries (who got that way because of American policy, of course). Their fishing practices, while terrible, are part of their cultural heritage and therefore sacrosanct. But this would change if we only educated them.

That's a lot of speculation, but I'm probably not far off.