Shark Week started last night, and it runs through Saturday. For millions of Americans, the Discovery Channel’s annual weeklong marathon of shark-themed documentaries is must-see TV. For many of America’s shark scientists, Shark Week represents something more, and the associated rituals and complicated emotions it stirs can be confusing for their non-scientist friends. We asked David Shiffman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami studying shark ecology and conservation, to explain his Shark Week traditions.
You mentioned “complicated emotions.” How do shark scientists feel about Shark Week?
Many of us have a love-hate relationship with Shark Week. It’s always exciting to see our favorite animals on TV. However, in recent years, Shark Week’s reputation for factual accuracy is, to put it charitably, mixed. Shark Week can also be exhausting for us. I’ll be watching every episode and providing live fact-checking and commentary on twitter, and I’ve done about 20 media interviews so far. So if you attend a Shark Week viewing party with shark researchers, expect lots of surprisingly loud outbursts—some of joy, and some of frustration or even anger.
Wait, a Shark Week viewing party? Is that really a thing that people do?
Yes! Really! Is that really any weirder than attending a Super Bowl viewing party when your team isn’t even playing?
Are there any taboo subjects one should avoid discussing with shark researchers at a Shark Week viewing party?
Hoo boy, there sure are! These are pretty generally applicable to any interactions with marine biologists, but emotions can be particularly raw during the “Most Wonderful Week”. If you’re talking with a graduate student, don’t ask when they are graduating—if it’s soon, they’ll proactively tell you, if it’s something they don’t want to discuss because they’re frustrated by lack of progress, they won’t bring it up. Don’t ask if they are featured in any Shark Week specials—again, if its good news, they’ll bring it up. And you shouldn’t ever ask any scientist why they went to graduate school in the sciences instead of medical school medical school.
Oh, this is a big one: don’t ask why we chose to study sharks and not dolphins. Many shark researchers hate dolphins due largely to public misunderstanding of the differences between dolphins and sharks. Also because people ask us if we are getting graduate degrees in marine biology to become dolphin trainers at Sea World (that job does not require a graduate degree in marine science). People think dolphins are all sweet and innocent and that sharks are scary and mean, but did you know that some male dolphins intentionally kill newborns so that those newborns’ mothers will be more willing to mate? They also torture and kill babies of other species. Dolphins don’t really “save” swimmers from sharks, and in fact sometimes try to rape or drown swimmers. They also have lots of STDs. See, you got me started ranting about dolphins. Don’t do that.
What should I talk about with shark scientists?
Most marine biologists enjoy our work and really enjoy talking about it. Ask us what we’re studying, what our favorite part of our job is, if we have any good stories about working with sharks. Also, most of us are regular people who have lives outside of our jobs, so feel free to ask about whatever you’d talk about with anyone else you’re meeting at a party, like movies, or what your town’s local sportsball team has been up to lately.
Are there any traditional Shark Week viewing party foods or drinks?
Any truly authentic Shark Week viewing party feast should include a seal. If you can’t get a Marine Mammal Protection Act exemption, though, you could always go with gummy sharks, shark fin cupcakes, or shark-shaped watermelon.
To wash it all down, you’ll need some sharky alcohol. Our great nation is blessed with an increasing variety of beers featuring sharks on the label, including Landshark Lager, Lost Coast Brewery’s Great White Lager, and anything by Dogfish Head Brewery. Be sure to open these beers with a shark bottle opener. There are some liquors with sharks on the label, including mako vodka. If you aren’t a purist, it’s ok to use liquor featuring any kind of marine life, like Black Seal or Kraken. My personal favorite shark-themed mixed drink recipe is the SharkNado, which is made with sparkling cider, sprite, whiskey, rum, and vodka-soaked gummy sharks. And for your mixed drinks, be sure to use shark fin shaped ice cubes.
Should I bring a gift to a Shark Week viewing party?
This isn’t strictly necessary, but host gifts are always appreciated at any house party. There are lots of shark-y gifts available. You can even get a shark-y gift for the host’s pet!
What should I wear to a Shark Week viewing party?
The dress code is usually Shark Chic. Just wear your favorite article of clothing that has sharks on it.
Um… what if I don’t have any clothing with sharks on it?
Hahahaha, good one! I’m pretty sure that everyone has clothes with sharks on them.
What do I do if a situation arises that isn’t covered in this guide?
Feel free to ask me about any Shark Week viewing party etiquette, or any question related to sharks, on my twitter (LINK: Twitter.com/WhySharksMatter) or Facebook Fan Page (Facebook.com/WhySharksMatter). I’m always happy to answer people’s questions.
Happy Shark Week, everyone!