Discovery Channel’s Shark Week finally features females

by   Profile Hannah   When 21st July 2017
Measuring sharks for science. Photo: Joanne Fraser
Hannah tail-roping a large lemon shark. Photo: Joanne Fraser
Ornella diving with adult lemon sharks. Photo: Hannah Medd
Lady shark divers and advocates unite at DEMA 2016.
Me diving as part of a global reef shark research project.
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Cristina Zenato, shark diver and advocate.
In a man's world...Between the dives for filming for Shark Storm. The 5mm Mares open cell kept her warm! Photo: Ornella Weideli
Finishing her interview for "Shark Storm". Photo: Ornella Weideli
Ornella during filming "Shark Storm". Photo: Carlos Felipe Chacón Rodríguez

No doubt about it, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week gets a
lot of attention with more than 2.5 million viewers in 2015. However, the
network has been criticized for focusing only on the few large and charismatic
species like great white sharks while ignoring 400+ other species,
sensationalizing shark attacks despite their rarity, causing mass confusion
with a mockumentary about the existence of Megalodon sharks (they are EXTINCT),
and missing major opportunities to support conservation efforts.

At the same time, I can credit a Shark Week documentary for
getting me involved in shark research. After watching Air Jaws, I knew I had to
get to South Africa to see great whites breaching out of the water, which led
me to graduate school at the University of Cape Town, where I worked on several
shark research projects. This propelled me into my role now researching and
advocating for coastal sharks in Florida. But I couldn’t help wondering… With
so many cool shark species out there, innovative science and interesting
questions being asked, why was Shark Week focused on such narrow subjects?

Slowly, over the past few years, it seems Discovery is striking
a better balance with “edu-tainment” style programs. New shows are featuring
real scientists discussing their research and contributing facts, not just hyped
up scare tactics. Programs like “Alien Sharks” increase the exposure of little
known shark species like the frilled shark. Sharkopedia is the informational page hosted on Discovery’s website and Shark Week is
supporting some conservation efforts.

One major miss, in my opinion, is a lack of diversity in
hosts and presenters. Very few on-screen contributors are women, even though I
can quickly name dozens of female researchers and advocates that could
significantly contribute to the programs. I have female colleagues that are slogging
through mangroves studying lemons sharks, tracking down endangered sawfish in
Africa, using DNA analysis to trace illegal shark catches, teaching thousands
of kids every year to care about sharks, and fighting on an international scale
to enact better protections for sharks worldwide…just to name a few.

When I started watching Shark Week, I wanted to see the
sharks and would suffer through the attack re-enactments, fake blood, and girls
in bikinis to learn what I could. I was thrilled to see Dr. Alison Kock finally
featured a few years ago, fully-clothed, talking about her work on the movements
of great white sharks along False Bay, South Africa. It seemed about time since
she was the only scientist working in the area on these sharks that had been
the mainstay of Shark Week for years. And this year, even more female friends
are being featured. Victoria Elena Vasquez, a researcher from California, is on
“Alien Sharks”, Lindsay Graff and Cristina Zenato are on “Sharktacular”, and
Barbara Wueringer’s work is featured on the sawfish show. The work of others is
featured throughout the week. 

My friend and fellow Mares sponsored diver,
Ornella Weideli, is featured on “Shark Storm”. Ornella is a PhD candidate with
incredible field experience investigating aspects of several shark species’
life histories, community ecology and dietary patterns. She has studied the
diets of young lemon sharks in the Bahamas, worked with large species like
hammerheads in Florida and dived with massive bull sharks in FIji. She is
currently working on her PhD project using creative techniques to learn how juvenile
sicklefin lemon sharks and blacktip reef sharks coexist in shallow nursery
areas on an isolated atoll of the Seychelles in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Co-leading the science on “Shark Storm” with Dr. Tristan
Guttridge, Ornella and the team shows viewers the social behaviors of sharks in
incredible locations from Cocos Island, Mexico, to the Bahamas. She will also
be showing millions of viewers that women can do all aspects of shark research.

In 2012, Ornella and I, along with Ruth Harries and Lindsay
Biermann made up four of the 6-person science team, tagging large coastal
sharks in Jupiter, Florida. One night, an award-winning journalist and his film
crew joined us on the boat. After interviewing the lead scientist, who happened
to be male, the journalist turned to us four and his only question was “What is
it like being girls in this field?” This question seemed irrelevant since he
had just watched us handle an 8.5-foot lemon shark, collect blood and tissue
samples, measure her from nose to tail, record the data and release the animal
in just a few minutes. I commented that the field of sharks, like science in
general, may have a reputation for being male-dominated but those of us on the
ground know the reality: there is work to be done and women ARE contributing

My hope is that Discovery Channel’s Shark Week continues to
integrate science and facts to educate its viewers and uses its extensive reach
to effectively support conservation. I hope producers continue to recognize the
vital work of women in shark science and advocacy. Because when millions of
female viewers see someone that looks like them on one of the most popular
shows on TV, it is bound to inspire them to get involved and we all know sharks
need the help!

Tune into Discovery Channel’s
Shark Week starting July 23rd for all the shows mentioned above and
many other programs and follow our Twitter conversations about the programs @SharkStudies using hashtags #SharkWeek and
#WomeninStem and #SharkLadies

Written by
Profile Hannah
When 21st July 2017
Location Jupiter, Florida, United States

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Ivan on Jul 26th 2017
You make some very good points! Let's hope Discovery hears them!

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