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Shark Week experts debunk biggest myths people have about the sea creatures: ‘They’re not just hunters out there to destroy people’

In Entertainment
July 09, 2024
Shark Week experts debunk biggest myths people have about the sea creatures: ‘They’re not just hunters out there to destroy people’

Just as weather conditions align for the ideal beach vacation every year, Discovery unleashes Shark Week upon the world.

It’s timed to raise awareness about the predators lurking in our oceans, but as scientists and divers will tell you, sharks aren’t just scary. They’re also magnificent creatures in need of protection.

Now in its 36th year, the Shark Week 2024 lineup includes shows that are both educational and frightening.

In 6000-lb. Shark, marine biologist Tom “Blowfish” Hird searches for the fattest Great White Sharks off the coast of New Zealand to study what they eat. Wildlife biologist Forrest Galante tracks down critically endangered creatures in Alien Sharks: Ghosts of Japan. Paul de Gelder, a shark attack survivor and professional diver has more of a reason than most to spur the creatures forever, but he helps investigate deadly attacks on fishermen and come up with a humane solution in Great White Serial Killer: Sea of Blood.

The three shark experts spoke with Yahoo Entertainment about the enduring appeal of Shark Week and which other creatures deserve a week of TV shows dedicated to them.

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Forrest Galante: I don’t think it’s just sharks. I think people have a fascination with animals that they think can kill them, especially big-tooth predators like tigers, polar bears and crocodilians. Sharks might be at the top of the list because they live in an entirely alien world to us — the ocean. Unless we put on a whole bunch of gear, we have no ability to observe what’s under the sea. It’s like looking at another planet, and sharks are the kings. They reign supreme in the aquatic domain. Shark Week helps us visualize and understand that. It’s like watching Avatar.

Paul de Gelder: I think it’s partially because most people won’t ever get to see a shark in their lives. They exist in a mythological realm for a lot of people. We know they’re there, but we’ve never seen them. This is an opportunity for everyone to see the most impressive sharks do the most impressive things they can do, but also do a deep dive investigation into the science of them. It’s so much excitement and adventure — high-seas pirate stuff.

Forrest Galante

Forrest Galante holds a deep-sea species of shark in the Shark Week series “Alien Sharks: Ghosts of Japan.” (Courtesy Warner Bros. Discovery)

De Gelder: The public only really cares about sharks once a week every year or so. Sharks are so under threat. We’ve lost up to 70% of all large shark and fish species in the ocean in the last 50 years. We’re on a very dangerous decline into wiping out our ocean sea life.

Galante: Trying to convey how important conservation is while still making it educational and entertaining and lots of fun and lighthearted is what matters to me. Filming in Japan was tough — you don’t really see it in the 44-minute show, but over the course of three weeks, there were a lot of illnesses, really bad storms, super cold conditions. We nearly sunk a boat. At the end of the day, you’ll watch those 44 minutes and say, “That looks fun!” And that’s the point. You want people to say that so they care about the species, learn about them and want to protect them.

De Gelder: Every time humans try to change nature, nature always pushes back. The best thing for us to do is try to work in unison with nature. We’re the most intelligent, advanced species on Earth. Let’s act like it and use our big brains and the tools we can create to keep ourselves safe, but also allow the ocean to be safe as well.

Tom “Blowfish” Hird: It’s very simple. For non-sharky people, you have to consider, “How do we sell this?” In Hollywood, it’s “teeth and tits.” For sharks, it’s “teeth and fins.” When you spend time working with sharks, you see that those scary moments are just a tiny sneeze amid all the other things sharks can do. They show off different behaviors — they can even be playful.

It’s great to be able to show so all the different sides of sharks, especially great whites, who have this terrible mysticism to them for most people as fearful creatures.

Tom Hird

Tom Hird gets into his cage before a dive in “6000-lb. Shark.” (Courtesy Warner Bros. Discovery)

Galante: When Jaws came out, there was this idea that if you got in the water with a shark, it was going to rip you to shreds. Now I can’t open Instagram without seeing a gorgeous bikini babe swimming next to a great white in open water. I think the narrative has shifted — maybe a little too far to the other extreme, where we’re starting to understand they’re not just mindless, toothy killing machines. They’re not just hunters out there to destroy people. They’re intelligent, unique, incredible creatures. A big part of why the stigma is shifting away is Shark Week. For 36 years, it’s helped people understand how complex and unique these creatures truly are.

Hird: Sharks are my favorite. I’ve never been asked what my second favorite animal is. I’d say fish but that covers a lot. I do like puffer fish — that’s where my name [Blowfish] came from.

Galante: My 4-year-old asks me that at least five times per day. My favorite animal is the gharial. Are you familiar with that creature? It’s a crocodilian of which there are less than 400 left in the world. It’s got this long, skinny snout with a big bulbous thing at the end of it. They’re an incredible evolutionary adaptation to crocodilians that only occur in India.

De Gelder: Yeah, absolutely sharks. There is no other large predator on earth that I can think of that can kill you but will let you share its space. Think about walking around the forest: You can’t go up to a bear or wolf or mountain lion and put your hand on its head and say “Good day, big fella! All right, you go off,” then push them away. Sharks will actually allow you to do that. I find them so magical and special.

Paul de Gelder

Paul de Gelder welds a shark cage in “Great White Serial Killer: Sea of Blood.” (Courtesy Warner Bros. Discovery)

De Gelder: One-ish. [He gestures to his missing hand, which he lost along with a foot in a 2009 shark attack.] I didn’t die.

Hird: The crack of the tail of a thresher shark causes cavitation in the water, which means it flashpoint boils the water at the impact point, which is cool. The tasseled wobbegong, which is one of my favorite sharks, uses its tail to lure fish towards it, then it strikes so quickly fish don’t recognize they’ve been hit. Horn sharks can pick up the screw-shaped eggs that they’ve laid and physically screw them into rocks so they stay there. Also, there is a recorded incident of a shark attack in utero — a sand shark was being dissected and the pup inside her uterus bit the scientist. There was once a severed arm found inside a tiger shark, which proceeded to instigate a murder investigation because the tattoos on the arm were linked to a missing man connected to a mob death. Oh, there are so many.

Galante: I think crocodilians. Maybe they’re not underrepresented. People love crocs. There’s the reality show Gator Boys and stuff like that. I think we should give Croc Week a go.

Hird: Sponges. They’re really interesting creatures — I mean, they’re boring as hell, but they’re super cool. [Chanting] Sponge Week. Sponge Week. Sponge Week. Sponge Week 2025! Make it happen!

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