Sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley

Shark “research”

It is true to say sharks are in trouble worldwide. Almost any attention to their plight is a step in the right direction. Sadly all too often the attention the sharks receive in the media is of little value to their plight and is purely an attempt to boost the participants’ perception of themselves as “great shark experts”.

This article describes a show that is a perfect example of this. It describes the National Geographic Shark Attack Experiment Live. Does the name make you skeptical? It should. The “experiment” sets out to show little concern for the sharks – a perspex cage was placed in the ocean that a shark would quite likely swim into and risk injury (and I am sure there would be no reporting on this if it happened).

The National Geographic Shark Experiment starts from a premise that comes straight out of Jaws: sharks want to eat people. The only refinement is that the experimenters planned to figure out what garnish they prefer. What is shocking is that the participants are all people who present themselves as being very concerned about sharks. This kind of so-called research is exploitative, tacky, and in poor taste – but, more fundamentally, it does nothing to remove the stigma associated with sharks as mindless predators. It panders to the Shark Week mentality of sharks as ravenous beasts with blood dripping from their jaws, tantalises viewers – exactly as Jaws did – with views of bikini-clad women swimming with apex predators, and has no scientific content whatsoever.

An assortment of other “experiments” were performed, such as dangling a string of plastic beads in front of a shark to prove a bling theory (who thinks this up? no one swims with a pearl necklace on). Once the diver dropped it the sharks followed it down and possibly ate it. The swimming and splashing surfer test was not done near great whites as this would “perk the interest” of any predator… So now reef sharks are no longer predators?

The best for me was diving with a dictaphone and making it seem like this was an earth shattering discovery. Divers dive with all these sharks all the time with video cameras, still cameras, video lights and strobes. What does a dictaphone do differently to all that other electronic equipment? Who swims with a dictaphone, anyway?

Science has proven sharks to most likely be colour blind and use contrast as a visual tool. Dispelling the myth of “yum yum yellow” whilst in a pink bikini is hardly a myth buster. It makes one fairly sure that the “science” was not actually the main feature here.

Pretending that three or four tests done by a single individual can help us to draw any conclusions about sharks is disingenuous and misleading to an often ignorant public who only know what the media tells them about sharks. Real science involves multiple tests, control groups, and the scientific method.

What we already know (real facts by unscientific people): thousands of divers worldwide dive with shiny, dangling scuba gadgets, strobes, cameras, bright shiny regulators, a multitude of brightly coloured fins, masks and wetsuits. Some dive in swimwear with bright shiny silver cylinders strapped to their backs. These people have black skin, pale skin, or bright red sunburned skin. A vast majority of them urinate in the water, their wetsuits and their swimsuits… And you’re more likely to be involved in a car accident on your way to the beach than you are to be bitten by a shark.

And yet, a respected (I think) institution such as National Geographic chooses to associate itself with a television special that takes, as its starting point, the view that sharks are looking for (appropriately dressed) humans to bite. How classy and scientifically up to date.

Published by

Tony

Scuba diver, teacher, gadget man, racing driver, boat skipper, photographer, and collector of stray animals

One thought on “Shark “research””

  1. Hi Tony
    Most of what you state is true, with both National Geographic and the Discovery Channel moving towards “sensational” journalism. The same can be said about many organisations.
    However, we still know so little about sharks that I guess we need to do many experiments before we can prove anything. This was the same for the scientist dating back to the 12th century – and continuous to be the case.

    The car issue is like the coconut issue. Any statistics can be manipulated (first draw the line and then plot it).

    Prof Gibbons of WITS based the original research of the Shark Pod (now Sharkshield) on the response of sharks to covered flash lights which proved that sharks immediately responded to the capacitor discharge rate (impulse) of a camera flash underwater. Who would have thought that such a basic finding (experiment) would eventually lead to what we have now in the form of the Sharkshield. We hope that further research would take an array of sharkshields to the development of a foolproof non-contact shark barrier.

    To summarise, may be one in 100 crazy experiments lead to a real valuable finding.
    Regards
    Rudi Coetzee, Pr.Eng, Cert. Eng.

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