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SharkFest to Sharknado: Nat Geo Wild's experts on pop culture evolution of sharks

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Aaron Sagers
Jul 25, 2017

When Matt Hooper shows up in Amity Island to help out with its shark situation in Jaws, Mayor Vaughn questions the oceanographer's intent as a ploy to get his name in National Geographic. Though Jaws lore states Hooper did eventually get on the cover of the prestigious magazine, he is still outfinned by shark biologist Dr. Greg Skomal and photojournalist Brian Skerry.

Two big fish in the shark world, the guys have been friends for more than two decades but approach their shared love of the 400-million-year-old creatures in different ways.

A National Geographic Photography Fellow (with his work being included in the magazine's 50 Greatest Photos of All Time), Skerry has hunted sharks for the best shots. He snapped photos of the great white breaching the water in epic fashion for a bite to eat but also shoots to highlight the evolutionary beauty of sharks, especially of their fins. Skerry has a new book of photos, simply titled Shark, and a special titled Mission Critical: Sharks Under Attack as part of National Geographic’s wildlife SharkFest programming block on the Nat Geo WILD channel, which kicked off Sunday and continues through this week.

Meanwhile, Skomal has been in the field since 1983 and tagged more than 108 Atlantic great white sharks since 2009. Skomal is a senior fisheries biologist with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries since 1987 and currently heads up the Massachusetts Shark Research Program (MSRP).

Together, Skomal and Skerry are part of a public relations campaign to improve the public's understanding of sharks and convince the mainstream of their importance to the planet in maintaining a balanced marine ecosystem. They each contribute to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in Chatham, Mass., on Cape Cod that educates through interactive exhibits of the large residents (probably a couple dozen, at the least) who swim in the waters off Cape Cod as preferred feeding grounds. The Conservancy is also behind the Sharktivity smartphone app that allows users to track tagged great whites in global waters.

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Skerry and Skomal joined me at the Conservancy to talk about their efforts as well as how popular culture such as Jaws influenced them ... and helped create a problem. They also discuss how modern entertainment can be both helpful and damaging for the perception of sharks in real life.

And yeah, because we're SYFY, we totally talked to these shark nerds about the relevance of Sharknado. And, spoiler, they dig it.

Within the first few minutes of talking with each of you, you brought up Jaws. How did that movie lure you into the science of sharks and the photography of them?

Brian Skerry: I can only say that when Jaws came out, I was 14 or 15 years old. I was always interested in the ocean, so it didn't take much to entice me. I went on opening night, in the fifth row in Worcester, Massachusetts. I just loved it. It was bigger than life, and these guys became heroes of mine. Hooper was a cool, smart, irreverent scientist studying sharks.

Greg Skomal: It was a great inspirational film for me for all the same reasons. I was fascinated by sharks as a young kid, and grew up on Long Island Sound, where it wasn't the most pristine body of water. So everything I knew was coming from books and Cousteau. And the movie Jaws. I am often quoted as saying guys like us got pushed into the water instead of scared away from it.

And yet it demonized sharks.

Skerry: Even though it demonized sharks, we weren't thinking back then. We didn't know what we know today. It inspired a generation of researchers. It certainly inspired me. If I had been better at math, I probably would have been a scientist. I wanted to be Matt Hooper but ultimately became Quint!

Skomal: There was a documentary a few years ago called How Jaws Changed the World and how it inspired a lot of scientists, engineers, photographers, and filmmakers.

Jaws author Peter Benchley said he couldn't write the shark as a villain today but would instead be the victim because of man's decimation of the shark population. He seemed to express some regret for Jaws and its impact of shark populations.

Skerry: He never apologized for it. He shouldn't have. Also, he made a fortune! I got to be friends with him late in his life and he talked about knowing what he knew later in life, he couldn't have written Jaws. He spent much of his late life working for the conservation of sharks. So I think we've all had this evolution.

Skomal: Peter was too hard on himself. If you look at where shark populations went in the '70s and '80s -- they crashed – and it really correlates with the development of the Mursaline-Pelagic longline of fisheries, which had nothing to do with Jaws. Because of the growing market for shark fins and the movement of fishermen from traditional ground fish fisheries, sharks became a target group of species that the National Fisheries Service promoted as an underutilized resource ... so a lot of fisherman geared up and went into it. It was a massive expansion of commercial fisheries.

Skerry: And to that point, part of the demand for shark-fin soup was a growing middle class in places like China. As the middle class grew, they wanted to do what the emperor did and they started eating shark-fin soup.

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Why are sharks such great movie monsters?

Skomal: Hey, if you look at statistics, they do occasionally bite and kill people! So, it's one of those monsters living in an environment foreign to us. Even when we get in the water, you take precautions. Imagine a monster living in a place you don't normally go.

Skerry: Benchley talked about that. He inadvertently tapped into this primal fear humans have of being eaten by a wild animal, especially in this place that's an alien environment. A human being is going to be terrified of getting eaten by a bear or lion, but we see cute pictures of grizzlies with their cubs and we make stuffed animal and want to hug them. But a great white shark is still enigmatic.

Brian, you mentioned if there was a 20-foot-long truck-sized predator on land, we'd know everything about it. So, even though the research is growing, the mystery of this thing underwater contributes to our primal fear?

Skerry: Absolutely. The work Greg has been doing the last few years in the Cape is the first ever. There is almost no data on Atlantic white sharks. How can it be, in the 21st century, the largest predatory fish in the ocean that's inspired myth and tales, we know almost nothing about? We don't know where they come from, where they go, where they have their pups, where they're mating. The work here is the first steps in the process.

Greg, if I could give you the answer to one scientific mystery about white sharks, what would it be?

Skomal: A segment of our shark population -- once they get to be about three, three and a half meters long – migrates out to the Mid-Atlantic as far out as the Eastern Atlantic. It follows the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and dives down to depths as great as 3,000 feet every day through a very broad temperature range. None of us know what they're doing! We want to know what they're doing. Everybody is trying to figure out what these big migrations mean for these sharks we think of as being more coastal.

Is the conversation about sharks within popular culture and great whites a good thing?

Skerry: I think the conversation is a good thing. But where it gets off the rails is when popular culture takes a turn into bad fiction. If your intent is to scare people, and demonize a population of animal, I don't necessarily think that's a good thing. I want to demystify sharks, but don't want to portray them as house pets. They're not kittens. There are dive operators out there that will tell you that you can hug a shark. That's absurd. They are predators, and having a clear understanding of what they are is fine.

Programming like SharkFest is a good thing. But having a documentary called "Great White Serial Killer" or whatever is not good. So many sharks are being killed each year, and it's unnecessary. We don't have an appreciation for their value to the planet. As long as we see them as pests, it's a short stretch to eradicate them.

Skomal: We live in a very different time than when we saw Jaws. My science gets out there through social media. Scientists now have more direct contact with people. But sharks are always going to be exploited. I don't know if it's to demonize, but it's all about making money. I don't mind a show that's obviously entertainment and so unrealistic people look at it as almost comical. I don't like documentaries that portray sharks as demons. I am old-fashioned when it comes to a good natural history documentary, which means factual.

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Where is the line between harmless entertainment and problematic demonization?

Skomal: There's Sharknado on one end, which I think of as entertainment. And you have a National Geographic article, or published paper, at the other end of the spectrum. Then the lines blur with the mockumentary. You're coming across as telling the truth, and you're not. You're demonizing an animal. Discovery has been guilty of that. Megalodon is a very good example. People walked away from that show and thought, "That's real."

Skerry: I had an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Right next to my exhibit was a true megalodon jaws. There was a 12-year-old boy looking at it who asked if I'd ever seen one. I said, "No, they're extinct." And he says, "No, they're not." I get into this conversation with a 12-year-old kid convinced I was an idiot because I didn't know megalodon were still out there swimming in the ocean! That doesn't serve us well. It's really about truth. We live in a world where "fake news" has exploded, and people trying to change our point of view through manipulation. We need sources of truth in the world we can go to as a beacon. That's what National Geographic is trying to do by remaining a scientific, truthful organization.

Since you brought up Sharknado, what are your thoughts about it in relation to shark education?

Skomal: I've seen two of them. It's Saturday morning stuff with my kids. I actually had The Weather Channel call me out and do a funny interview when the first one came out. They asked, "Is it possible this could happen?" No! But I enjoy it. It is entertainment. I don't look at them critically. Sharks flying around, eating people, and people cutting themselves out of sharks is so absurd, it's entertaining. It engages people. Maybe there is a 6-year old who types into Google, "Can sharks fly?" and learns something.

Skerry: It is not that different than Greg and I being inspired by Jaws. A lot of people said Jaws was bad for sharks, but at the end of the day, it inspired a generation of researchers. That is not a bad thing. If there is some kid out there who sees Sharknado and gets jazzed about sharks, maybe his entry to that world is through a weird portal – but ultimately he or she becomes a great shark researcher, or storyteller about the ocean. I don't want to be quick to take a highbrow attitude about anything that isn't pure truth. As long as you know it's fake.

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