With their raw strength and unbridled ferocity, sharks evoke so much power and energy that we use the name to describe business moguls and successful entrepreneurs. Add on the unfortunate reality of shark attacks on humans, and sharks take on an almost mythic nature—they excite our wildest imaginations and simultaneously haunt our worst nightmares. It is no surprise, then, that when BBC set out to film the most awe-inspiring and captivating scenes of the natural world for Planet Earth—the most ambitious and most expensive nature documentary series of all time—sharks had to be a focal point.
In a particular scene from the ninth episode of the Shallow Seas section, Sigourney Weaver somberly narrates the frightening attack by a great white shark on an unsuspecting mother Cape fur seal. Achieving a mid-air arabesque as its multiple rows of teeth rip through the seal’s thick blubber, the great white asserts its dominance at the top of the food chain with an undeniable, yet eerie, grace. The footage, shot in stunning HD, is slowed down so that viewers can soak in the grand scale of the gruesome kill and mourn the loss of the orphan seal pup’s mother.
Though visually stunning, the scene paralleled footage I’d seen thousands of times before on Animal Planet’s The Most Extreme or during Discovery’s Shark Week, only shot through a more kick-ass camera. Cute seal is swimming. Shark fin appears in water. Seal is oblivious. Seal gets eaten. Like Avatar vis-à -vis Pocahantas, Planet Earth told the same old story with better graphics: great whites are ferocious killers.
But is the “killer” label appropriate? Other species, such as the tiger shark, bull shark, and the oceanic whitetip have been known to consume humans, but none is more haunted by the killer label than the great white. Whether it’s in big-budget Hollywood films or Animal Planet miniseries, great whites constantly play the role of the unremorseful man-eater. The statistics, however, paint a different picture. On average, sharks kill one American each year. Compare that to bees or dogs, which are responsible for 53 and 31 American deaths per year, respectively. Even inanimate objects are deadlier than the “killer” shark; skateboards and swimming pools are more likely to take human lives than sharks. Despite the facts, the killer label endures.
If you expand the victim pool to all animals, of course, all sharks are killers, in that they are heterotrophic carnivores who rely on the consumption of other animal matter for energy. Even the enormous whale shark, appreciated for its docile nature and plankton diet, consumes fish and squid on occasion. But sharks are not alone in their affinity for meat. From the domestic cat to the BBQ-loving Texan, many inane and unthreatening organisms eat other animals for food. So yes, sharks are killers. Unfortunately, through their filmmaking the naturalist-director community has done sharks, especially the great white, a disservice by focusing on this limited dimension of “sharkness.”
Eating is without a doubt an important component in the life cycle of a great white shark, but it is only one part. Great whites are one of the more social species of sharks, having been observed swimming in hereditary clans, reflecting a relational awareness and solidarity fairly unique among shark species. Great whites are also ovoviviparous, meaning that rather than laying eggs, like most other fish, they give birth to live young. But instead of featuring these behaviors that humanize sharks and incite empathy (which it does over the series with other carnivores and known man-killers like polar bears, lions, or grizzly bears), the producers of Planet Earth decided to perpetuate the label of sharks as vicious killers.
In the name of conservation, television programs like Planet Earth can no longer ignore the social and “human” aspects of great white sharks. The species is already listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but these majestic kings of the sea face a litany of anthropogenic threats from overfishing to rising sea water acidity. Therefore, in the same way that the World Wildlife Fund endeared pandas to the world to promote their conservation, ecologically-motivated docu-series like Planet Earth need to champion the cause of shark preservation by offering a holistic portrayal of the great white. Otherwise, the great white may go the way of the dinosaur—or the cassette tape—and disappear into the abyss forever.