Shark Week: Science and Empathy Meet in ‘Shark Storm’ and ‘Shark Exile’

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

If you’re fascinated by schools of sharks and how we can keep beaches safe without culling, Thursday’s Shark Week premieres are for you.

In Shark Storm (10 p.m. on Discovery), Tristan Guttridge and his team study aggregations of sharks to find out what brings them together in large groups at different locations around the world, whether it’s 200 scalloped hammerheads around Cocos Island, as seen in the clip above, or 300 whale sharks off the coast of Mexico. It’s crucial for two reasons. Knowing when, where, and why these large concentrations of animals occur may allow the closure of areas during peak times, such as mating season, to protect the sharks from capture (large groups can be easily and illegally exploited by fishermen). And, Guttridge says, it will foster the public’s increasing appreciation of sharks.

“I think 20, 30 years ago a lot of people thought sharks were mindless killers. That perception is changing, and it’s because of these types of studies that talk about the complexity of shark behavior, that shows that they’re social, that they can learn from each other, that they can recognize individuals,” he says. “I don’t know what it is with humans, but I feel like we just seem to be more empathetic to animals that we can relate to. Relating to a shark is a bit tricky, but if you see their personalities and things like that, it’s a little bit easier to, and I think that’s another reason why these types of studies are really interesting and why I did my whole PhD on working with social behavior in sharks.”

A hundred days spent in observation towers watching lemon sharks socialize in the shallows was inspiration for one of the most fascinating sequences in the hour. Guttridge sets up an experiment to see if lemon sharks can learn to hit a target for food. One shark, on its own, does it in two weeks. A second shark is added, and while swimming with the initial subject, it masters the task in two days.

The team also observes and tags whitetip reef sharks to see if they hunt at night with the same sharks they rest with during the day. The night dive provides the tensest moments of the hour. “It wasn’t seeing the whitetips hunting,” Guttridge says. “We all had our torches. We’re lighting up the reefs and all the reef sharks are going crazy, and this massive Galapagos shark, which clearly wants to take out one of the whitetips, enters the frame and then disappears. You don’t know where it is and what it’s doing. But for me, that’s why I work with sharks: so I can get to do those types of things. I mean, it’s just mind-blowing to see how those animals work together to hunt and feed at night and then having other animals try and take advantage of that situation.”

The night’s other premiere, Shark Exile (9 p.m.), follows another important effort to protect sharks. Australian shark scientists and shark attack survivor/conservationist Paul de Gelder want to end the country’s practice of lining popular beaches with nets and baited hooks to capture sharks that could be dangerous to humans. Why? Because many sharks and other marine animals die in the nets, and attacks still happen. There’s another option they want to explore. Brazil has been able to reduce shark attacks around Recife by 90 percent, thanks to a catch-and-move program conceived by Fabio Hazin. The hour shows how the Brazilians will catch a shark south of Recife, bring it aboard their boat, and keep it calm and healthy while they transport it past the former hot spot. Equally important, Hazin shares why the sharks don’t return to Recife after they’re released.

As you see in the promo above, the Aussies experience some challenges trying to implement the technique, but they are ultimately successful. “Hopefully that gives governments around the world, and especially Australia, a new approach at how to maintain sharks in their home in their ecosystem, because that’s where they belong,” de Gelder says.

Shark Week continues through July 30 on Discovery.

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