Watch Shark Week for Fun. Do These Five Things to Make a Difference.

Photo by JimmyDominico via Pixabay (CC0)

Today is Saturday, July 21, 2018, and many of us are watching the light at the end of the tunnel grow brighter as we approach the 30th annual Shark Week, beginning on Sunday, July 22.

This weird, annual tradition holds a special place in my personal cosmos, as it launched less than a month after my birthday in June 1988. Now, thirty years later, we’re both still here, but I’m not sure how wise we are. We’ve learned some things, made mistakes, but — and I say this with a little bit of #side-eye here — I think I might hold the wisdom card on Shark Week, despite the positive environmental intentions that the Discovery Channel might have.

Admittedly, Shark Week and the Discovery Channel have received a lot of flack over their thirty years running, and I’m also admittedly not here to add to the pile of fluff. In short, their use of pseudoscience is obvious, and their writing for entertainment purposes (and advertisements) is unquestionable. Period. But much of the attention they draw promotes insightful conversation, and at times even encourages change — at least among friends during their drinking games, binge-watching, and late-night pizza.

Now, I won’t lie and say that I have never watched Shark Week… or that I will never watch Shark Week again. I’m also not going to say that I don’t watch horror movies that centralize terrible enemy sharks and Megalodons. In all honesty, Shark Week is entertaining, horror movies and slasher films are thrilling, and I have every intention of going to see The Meg when it hits theaters in early August, because I’m still searching for that legitimately-creepy creature of the deep (Jaws is great fun but never really did it for me, creep-factor-wise).

The difference is what I do with that entertainment.

Am I going to sit through the week of episodes, enjoy my time, eat some pizza and nachos, and then move on? Or am I going to allow the episodes in and go to another place, consider the actual impact of sharks-on-humans or humans-on-sharks, and question what I can do about it? Am I going to question why a show like Shark Week even has to exist, why its message matters, and what I can do to make that message go further — to make the show (sorry, Shark Week, no offense) essentially obsolete?

Of course I am.

I mean no harm to Shark Week or the Discovery Channel, because I am going to enjoy my time; I only wish that those things we enjoy could be of entertainment value and nothing more. That we could watch, read, and move on, without consequence. But that simply isn’t the case with Shark Week.

Particularly in the past year or two, I’ve been asking myself when I watch these shows what more I can be doing with my time, or at least how to supplement that time with actions that will lead to positive change.

Whether you’re looking to supplement your Shark Week binge, or if you’re in fact looking for something more educational — and of higher impact— to do with your time, here are five actions to get you started:

Feel free to watch Shark Week (or not), but make a point of watching these films:

You can make your Shark Week more intense by rounding out your week with more horror-intense films, like Jaws or Sharknado or going to see The Meg in theaters with me, but you can also look into some legitimate documentaries that will actually teach you something without slipping into docufiction or pseudoscience. I highly recommend checking out Blue Water, White Death, which is entertaining, creepy, supported by facts, and if that isn’t enough for you, a large inspiration for the original writing of Jaws. I also readily point you to Sharks 3D, with Jean-Michel Cousteau, purely for the length of the study (nine months) and the fact that basically the entire study culminates into observations under-water. I enjoy both of these, in particular, for the fact that they are scientifically- and naturally-focused, and they also function as a breath of fresh air amidst all of the movies that place the shark (specifically the Great White) in the horror mastermind driver’s seat.

Turn your TV off, or stay up late and binge-read these books:

I could recommend several fantastic nonfiction reads to you about close-encounters with sharks, incidents of being surrounded with sharks, and even poor-planning when moving through shark-infested waters… but my goal here isn’t to keep your brains trained on sharks as the enemy, or even sharks as a predator. (Yes, they are a wonderfully efficient predator, and they should be respected, but I think our fear of their predatory characteristics overrides the respect and protection that they deserve. They deserve more of the respect many of us have for the Big Cats, that we love but could tear us apart in an instant if they wanted, and we know it.)

Instead, here are three mostly-fictional reads that can take you into a new mindset. They’re YA, graphic novel-style, and just fun adult fiction, but they’ll get you into a better place with sharks if you aren’t already there — -and then you can get into the heavy stuff when you’re ready. For this journey, I’m recommending Everything is Teeth by Evie Wyld, which takes us through one woman’s over-obsession with sharks… The Shark Club by Anne Kidd Taylor, which follows one woman’s budding love of sharks… and Shark Lady: The True Story of How Eugene Clark Became the Ocean’s Most Fearless Scientist by Jess Keating, which does just what its subtitle promises, exploring a deeply-dedicated love of sharks that was later taken out to the seas and, more importantly, scientific study.

Take a page from a kid, and write a letter:

Back in 2011, then-nine-year-old Sean Lesniak was moved by the presence of shark finning across the country, and reached out to his congressman to promote this as an illegal act in the state of Massachusetts. Not only was the congressman moved to push this statewide bill forward, but it offered an important step toward the congressional bill now in movement to ban shark finning across the United States.

I’m not saying we all need to do something as big as write a letter to our congressmen that is later repurposed into a state-wide bill. But I do suggest having conversations, spreading the knowledge that you have, and maybe even doing some writing, whether it’s submitting a letter, maintaining a blog, or publishing essays with important biology- or environmentally-focused science magazines. Anything that gets the word out is worthwhile; anything that begins to change the public mind of the predatory nature of sharks is important. Do what makes you the most comfortable, what makes your heart sing; it will be enough and more.

Go visit some sharks, though not necessarily in the way that you think:

Of course, the easiest and most cost-effective way of seeing sharks is going to be by visiting your local or nearby aquarium; the one closest to me is the always-awesome Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, where they often have fundraisers or other opportunities to donate funds or your time for important missions, wildlife, and overall conservation efforts. This isn’t the worth path to take, by any means, even with the arguably-promotional and entertainment-focused mission that some aquariums have. I’d say, go with the ones that offer these other ways of donating, and also provide statistics or other evidence of how those funds are being spent, to ease your mind of the type of organization that you’re supporting. But the other thing to keep in mind is the impact these places can have on children; yes, they are more focused on entertainment, but this gets kids engaged, asking questions, and shouting, Hey-wow-look-at-that. So much in our screen-focused lives now fails to draw this reaction out of children, so it’s important that we expose them to experiences that still do.

All of this being said, I also prefer, when I’m able, to visit rescue-rehabilitation-release centers, which are equipped to take in predatory species like sharks but often are not found with one. These are less focused on entertainment, generally-speaking, and more so emphasize the importance of living mindfully of the environment around us, rescuing and caring for creatures that have fallen prey to poor choices (and environmental changes and more), and educating us on these animals from a purely medical- and biological-standpoint, before returning those who can be released back into the wild. It’s an incredible and humbling experience to visit one of these places, and the funds are typically guaranteed to go back into the rescue efforts and care for their housed animals, and supporting local support of the environment.

Learn about sharks and events that go beyond Shark Week:

Trying to research all of the shark-related topics that Shark Week doesn’t cover — they only have a week’s worth of air time, after all — will begin to feel very daunting very quickly, so I recommend starting with two topics: First, consider breeds of shark that never make an appearance on Shark Week, and that you may have never heard of. There are over eighty species of shark, so I doubt anyone other than an enthusiast would know all of them off the top of their head. Research one or two names that you don’t recognize, or even image-search these breeds and see which one is the most visually-appealing to you. That can be a fun place to start.

Second, browse around for shark-related and aquatic-related developments on the news. New bills, oil spills, species that are close to extinction, and more. Again, this could amount to a very daunting task, but doing quick searches and browsing just the titles of current events will give you a sense of what’s going on. Then you can dive into the events that appeal to you the most, making it more likely that you will actually read whole articles on the subject. Then if you’re really invested, you can start browsing those less-interesting but just-as-important topics.

At the end of the day, just don’t let what entertains you stop there.

Ask questions. Consider holes in the plot. Think about what you might have done differently if you were such-and-such a character. These were the questions we were encouraged to ask when we were teenagers plugging away in the K12 system, and we hated a lot of that work, sure; but as adults, these questions can fuel informative, even ground-breaking, conversations that lead to real change. Change that could materialize through sending a letter to a congressman, posting a video on Youtube, writing an essay for thousands of readers, or even teaching a course on environmentalism. All of these actions, however small they feel to us at the time, have the ability to touch others’ conscience and potentially lead them to take action in their own way. A cycle.

That’s all this really is — a cycle that Shark Week started, that I’m encouraging you to take up. Feel free to watch Shark Week, have fun, and eat some calories. I probably will. Just try to go a little beyond that this year, too, and reach out to someone else about something you thought, something you felt, beyond the grotesque and reactionary while watching. You may be surprised, positively, of what comes of that conversation.

I almost always am.