A Huff to the Pufferfish’s Puff

By Christie Wilcox | December 5, 2014 5:49 pm

6605799dba35561938a0ab69287af9d8This is a guest post by PhD student and science writer Jake Buehler. He blogs over at Sh*t You Didn’t Know About Biology, which is full of his “unrepentantly celebratory insights into life on Earth’s under-appreciated, under-acknowledged, and utterly amazing stories.”  

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

Giving Thanks

By Christie Wilcox | November 27, 2014 6:28 pm


Today is Thanksgiving. While as a holiday it is unique to the US and a few others, in many ways, Thanksgiving is universal. Basically every culture throughout history has had a celebratory feast before the dark of winter sets in. Harkening back to ancient harvest celebrations, Thanksgiving is about expressing thanks for all the good things in our lives. Though it has nearly been commercialized to death with Black Friday sales and overdone parades, underneath all that fluff is a holiday geared towards gratitude, a time to reflect upon one’s life and all of the little things there are to be thankful for. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Paradise in Trouble

By Christie Wilcox | November 18, 2014 2:06 pm

Two weeks from Friday, I’ll be defending my dissertation. It’s a moment five and a half years in the making, one that I’ve been excited for and nervous about for years. I should be eagerly anticipating the moment I step up to that podium, and even more eagerly anticipating the moment I step down, when if all goes well I’ll transition from PhD Candidate to University of Hawaii Alumnus. Instead, the thought of being an alum of this school leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Right now, the University of Hawaii at Mānoa is in bad shape. Years of budget mismanagement have led to a terrifying crisis, in which the main teaching departments are struggling to afford the instructors and teaching assistants they need to meet the demand of their students. The Vice Chancellor for Administration, Finance & Operations, Kathy Cutshaw, has been giving a “budget roadshow” presentation showing that the university it outspending its tuition revenue by almost $31 million. The Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Reed Dasenbrock, has pushed the colleges to immediately cut spending to rectify this, though such cuts are deep and harm the quality of education that can be provided to the university’s students. The Chancellor, Robert Bley-Vroman, however, keeps telling the media that the university as a whole is “in the black.” There is no transparency, no explanation for Dasenbrock’s sudden urgency, and no reason why dozens of TAs are fearful of the future—of what is coming next fall even if, as Dasenbrock is now saying, it doesn’t come this spring.

Almost 100 students standing outside of Hawaii Hall, the seat of the Vice Chancellors, to demand reform. Photo by Kurt Stevens.

Almost 100 students standing outside of Hawaii Hall, the seat of the Vice Chancellors, to demand reform. Photo by Kurt Stevens.

UH is not the only university in the country with systemic budget problems. It’s not the only university where graduate students are not unionized, leaving them unprotected. It’s not the only university where politics and greed have trumped the mission of the school to provide a quality education. And it’s not the only university where the graduate students have been compelled to rise up and fight back. But it’s not any university—it’s my university.

Ani DiFranco once sang “We have to be able to criticize what we love, say what we have to say. ‘Cause if you’re not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way.” I love the University of Hawaii. I love the lab that has been my home away from home, the colleagues that have become my family, and the school that has allowed me to get to this point in my career. It is because I love UH that I have to tell its story. I have to explain why almost 100 students marched around campus yesterday morning in red, screaming for change. Those students and I have only just begun to fight to save the school they love as dearly as I do. We won’t give up, not until we have a university that we can be proud of. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Science Triumphs in Oregon and Colorado: GMO Labeling Measures Fail

By Christie Wilcox | November 6, 2014 12:27 am

The midterm elections are over, and a number of significant changes lie ahead. Marijuana has taken several key steps towards legalization, more women than ever are in congress, and the Republican party has taken control of the senate—surely, it will be an interesting couple of years. But one thing hasn’t changed: GMO foods will not carry special labels, as the ballot measures in Colorado and Oregon followed suit with the failed propositions from California in 2012 and Washington in 2013.

GMO labeling initiatives in Oregon and Colorado fail to pass.

GMO labeling initiatives in Oregon and Colorado fail to pass.

Proposition 105 in Colorado failed splendidly, with close to 66% of the populace voting against the measure. Prop 92 in Oregon narrowly failed with less than 51% against. Many are up in arms about the failed measures on twitter, using hashtags like #monsatan and #nogmos. But No votes in both states are far from “losses” —they represent wins for science over the anti-GM initiative that is based solely in fear and propaganda. Read More

The Unexceptional Devil’s Hole Pupfish

By Christie Wilcox | September 30, 2014 3:57 am
The tiny opening to Devil's Hole, Nevada, where the most endangered pupfish in the world is found. Photo by Stan Shebs via Wikipedia.

The tiny opening to Devil’s Hole, Nevada, where the most endangered pupfish in the world is found.
Photo by Stan Shebs via Wikipedia.

The salt-encrusted earth of Death Valley is, quite literally, the hottest place on Earth. It is desolate terrain where even the most rugged life is constantly struggling to survive. Staring out across the dusty landscape, it’s hard to imagine that the entire area sits atop a vast aquifer, with millions of gallons of fresh water hiding below the arid surface. It’s even harder to believe this land was once a lush basin, where spring-fed pools and streams supported an abundance of life. Now, what remains from this fertile time can only be glimpsed where the ground has been torn open by earthquakes—deep, jagged fissures like Devil’s Hole.

The smooth, near-vertical walls of Devil’s Hole are hardly welcoming. Yet year after year, scientists climb the dangerous descent. Their goal? To count the few remaining fish that live on a small shallow shelf in these dark, warm, oxygen-depleted waters. These fish—the Devil’s Hole pupfish—are considered to be some of the most endangered fish in the world. They’re completely cut off from all other pupfish species, having lived in Devil’s Hole for countless generations, unable to reach their nearest cousins. In the spring of 2013, there were only 35 pupfish found during the September count. Only 35 members of this entire species left on Earth. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, More Science, select, Top Posts

3 Quarks Daily Science Prizes have been announced!

By Christie Wilcox | September 22, 2014 11:25 am

3QDscience_strange_quarkThe 3 Quarks Daily Science Prizes have been announced. Top Quark went to the ever-amazing Eric Michael Johnson for his deeply-researched and thought-engaging post on how Promiscuity Is Pragmatic. The second place slot, The Strange Quark, went to… ME!

I’m honored to be chosen for this award, judged by none other than the esteemed Frans B. M. de Waal. Eric and the third-place winner, Carl Zimmer, are both incredibly talented writers, and I’m truly humbled to be in such good company. For the Strange Quark, Frans picked my essay on Margie Profet and the counter-intuitive idea that allergies might actually be a good thing. Here’s what Frans had to say about the piece:

“My second choice is Christie Wilcox’s piece on the toxin hypothesis of allergies. It is well written and the recent mouse work she describes supports the view that allergies reflect a protective mechanism…

In fact, all three essays explore unusual ideas that seem to go against the mainstream, which makes for exciting reading, leaving one to wonder what other established ideas we may have wrong. As such, these authors promote the healthy skepticism that is the bedrock of science, and show that science is always in flux, always keeping us at the edge of our seat. In a society that sometimes turns away from science, or views it as a boring mass of facts, this is a most important message to convey.”

You can find out more about the prizes here. Be sure to read the other two fantastic posts (linked above), and you can read my entire winning post here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Shark Week loses nine million viewers, but Discovery says “everyone is absolutely thrilled”

By Christie Wilcox | August 21, 2014 4:51 pm

Shark Week is over, and as the week has progressed, the flood of negative press about Discovery’s favorite time of the year has weakened to a trickle. Instead, news organizations are talking about how well Discovery did this year in spite of the backlash. Shark Week “set records” say the headlines, and it’s no shock: given the increased sponsorship and the two-hour uptick in programming, Shark Week 2014 should have beaten 2013 with its fins tied behind its back. But guess what? It actually didn’t.

Discovery’s done just about all they can to spin the past week positively. “The King of Summer reigned with Discovery earning its highest-rated SHARK WEEK ever in its 27-year history,” begins Discovery’s most recent press release. The statement is so bold and so confident that one might miss the phrase “across several key demos” which immediately follows. A closer examination of the release reveals that the “good news” is riddled with caveats, in stark contrast to 2013’s version, which unabashedly bragged about being “the most-watched SHARK WEEK in the event’s 26 year history across all key demos” (emphasis mine). And even 2013 was trying to trump up the facts—it was only the second most-watched Shark Week ever in terms of total viewers.

The hard numbers are simple. In 2013, Shark Week drew in an average of 2,106,000 viewers during primetime programming. In 2014, Shark Week only garnered 6,000 more, even though they had 2 more hours of new specials and increased PR. In their key age demographic—18 to 49 year olds—there were 68,000 fewer viewers on average during primetime. Even if you look at the entire day, this year didn’t do better. In 2013, the total-day average for Discovery during Shark Week was 1,048,000 viewers—in 2014, that dropped to 1,035,000. Overall, it was only the third best Shark Week to date with 42 million total viewers, behind the 62.1 million viewers that tuned in for 2010 and 51 million viewers that watched in 2013. A 9 million viewer drop is not insignificant, especially when you have 2 more hours of time that you’ve produced to draw them in.

Discovery highlights the few ways that 2014 did better—but a straight up comparison shows it struggled.

Discovery highlights the few ways that 2014 did better—but a straight up comparison shows it struggled.

If you compare 2013 and 2014 Shark Weeks by day and time slot, a pattern emerges. Let’s start with Day 1: Sunday night is Discovery’s kick-off evening, and it was the night that Discovery aired the notorious Megalodon mockumentary last year. The fake footage seen round the world reeled in 4.8 million viewers, a good chunk of which then took to Discovery’s Facebook and Twitter to complain. Discovery decided to ignore the strong pushback and began 2014 on a similar note with Shark of Darkness, another 2 hour special focusing on a legendary shark that doesn’t exist using made-up events and fake footage to sell the story. Fool us once, shame on you, Discovery. Try to fool us twice, and you’ll net one million fewer viewers.

The rest of the week, Discovery was mostly unable to keep up with 2013’s viewership. Though the Shark After Dark talk show fared slightly better in 2013 (up 3%, according to Discovery), most of the programming lost little or lost big. The one notable exception was Alien Sharks 2, which netted more than 340,000 more viewers than the 2013 program that shared its timeslot, Spawn of Jaws. As the most science-based program of the week, Alien Sharks not only didn’t play into the fear-based hype of programs like Sharkageddon, it was the only show that didn’t focus on big, “scary” sharks (in other words, it was the only show that focused on the sharks that make up the vast majority of shark species).

Discovery’s viewers voted with their TVs, trying to send a clear message that science-heavy programming is what they want. That message is even clearer when you compare how the original Alien Sharks from 2013 did against the program in its time slot: Sharkageddon, arguably the most unscientific, fear-based program that Discovery Shark Week has ever created. Even with the hyperbolic title and promise to explain ‘the recent spike of shark attacks in Hawaii,’ Sharkageddon only drew in 2.4 million viewers, making it one of the least-watched programs of the year—over 700,000 viewer less than the same day and time reeled in last year with Alien Sharks.

But perhaps the most impressive PR spin was Discovery’s packaging of Shark Week’s social media coverage. Discovery was quick to point out that Shark Week “generated 70 primetime Trending Topics on Twitter over 7 days” and that “13 million people had more than 21 million interactions” on Facebook “marking the strongest year ever online”. Never mind that the Twitter buzz they bragged so much about was way down from last year according to Upwell—Discovery also glossed over the fact that the sentiment of this conversation was far from positive. A shocking 40% of social media mentions of Shark Week were negative, while an embarrassing 11% were positive, a recent analysis by the social media monitoring company Sysomos shows.

I guess Discovery is hoping that any social media mention is good social media mention? Image from Sysomos

I guess Discovery is hoping that any social media mention is good social media mention? Image from Sysomos’ Blog

Discovery claimed their new approach to programming (read: fear-driven and fake) was designed to “appease a different audience”. Instead, they’ve pissed off a  large chunk of their current one, and there’s no evidence that this new and different demographic is tuning in.

Not that Discovery is paying attention.

“Everyone is absolutely thrilled,” Michael Sorensen, Discovery’s vice president of development and production, told The LA Times just this week. “It shows you how engaged the ‘Shark Week’ fans are as we keep making it bigger and bigger.” I guess if by “engaged” he meant “outraged”, then perhaps Michael has a point. Shark Week fans are ‘engaging’ more and more through social media, telling Discovery just how little they appreciate the way they are lied to and manipulated. But the more Discovery ignores their comments, tweets, and posts, the less they will ‘engage’ at all.

So what will happen to Shark Week?

It’s hard to say. Discovery’s audience has tried to let them know that science trumps fear, and they’re sick of the same old ‘sharks are scary’ schtick. Yet at the same time, Discovery is going to find it’s hard to make science-based documentaries considering that Discovery has made a habit of betraying scientists’ trust, which means fewer and fewer will be willing to take the risk of working with them in the future. Besides, those scientists will be too busy fighting the array of myths about sharks that Shark Week has created to film incredible TV programs, especially considering that for all their talk of conservation, Shark Week doesn’t increase donations to shark research or conservation efforts (“It’s not easy to get people to rally around a creature that they’re conditioned to be afraid of” explains shark biologist Chris Lowe).

Meanwhile, Discovery seems hellbent on pretending that there’s nothing wrong on either front.

So my prediction? Shark Week 2015 will be even worse than 2014. There will be “more hours!” that will include more faked footage, more actors or waitresses portrayed as scientists, more fear, more hype, and more hyperbole. Discovery will continue to bluster on about how awesome they’re doing while scientists shake their fists and viewers do the only thing they can do to be heard: change the channel. We’ll just have to see if, after next year, Discovery will listen to them.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Sharkageddon may be the worst Shark Week show *ever*

By Christie Wilcox | August 16, 2014 8:00 am

Thursday night, I sat down with more than 15 scientists to watch Shark Week. Most of them don’t watch the annual spectacle—they’ve become embittered after years of Discovery’s fear mongering, mockumentaries, and lies. But this particular episode was different—it was all about our home, Hawaii. We all wondered how the sharks that roam our islands’ waters would be portrayed, and we joked about how many times we’d hear ominous music or see blood in the water. We wouldn’t have been so jovial if we knew what was in store.

I would argue that Sharkageddon is the worst Shark Week special this year, perhaps even to date. At least with the mockumentaries, there was the expectation that the audience would understand they were fake, even if that expectation was wildly off. Megalodon and Shark of Darkness carry disclaimers saying that the events were dramatized and that there is “debate”. Sharkageddon, on the other hand, is billed as truth. It pretends to lay out the facts and be a documentary. And it isn’t. Almost everything said in the hour-long program is wrong.

I won’t go into how the shark “danger scale” is ridiculous at best (cookie cutter sharks a “5”? Not unless that’s the lowest number!). I’m even going to gloss over the poor reenactments full of threatening music that make it look like sharks magically sneak up on their victims in crystal clear water (hint: that’s not what it looks like during shark attacks). Instead, I’m going to focus on false statements that were delivered as if they were cold, hard facts, and how Discovery used shady filming tactics to try and convince the world that Hawaii is in the midst of a Sharkageddon.

FACT: There is no evidence that shark attacks in Hawaii are on the rise.

Let’s start with the premise. The program is based on the notion that shark attacks in Hawaii are increasing; a “sharkageddon”, as they define it. The entire show is based on this notion—trouble is, there’s no evidence for it. Period.

It's not ok to distort your axis, Discovery. That's unethical.

It’s not ok to distort your axis, Discovery. That’s unethical.

Look closely at the graph Discovery places near the beginning of the episode. The gridlines aren’t consistent, such that the distance between 1 and 10 is only half the distance between 10 and 20. This is data distortion 101—a clear attempt to skew the data visually to make you think shark attacks are increasing more than they actually are. And that’s even if the data were accurate, which they’re not. I’m not sure where they got their shark attack numbers from, but the Division of Aquatic Resources in Hawaii has more than 20 years worth of shark attack data freely available on their website. There were 14 unprovoked shark attacks in 2013 and 10 in 2012. Note: even Discovery’s map only has 12 shark bite points on it. While the number of attacks was higher than in other years, the simple fact is shark attacks vary greatly from year to year. Here’s the real graph of shark attacks by year over the past decade:


There's no increasing trend in the past decade. A couple high years don't statically mean shark attacks are increasing!

There’s no increasing trend in the past decade. A couple high years don’t mean shark attacks are increasing statistically!

If Discovery had dared to run some statistics, they would have found that there’s no mathematical support for the supposed increase. A Mann-Kendall trend analysis of the data from 1993-2014 finds no trend despite the high numbers in 2012 and 2013. To be fair, the notion that shark attacks are increasing isn’t out of the question. Right now, we are unable to detect a positive trend given the data. Maybe in years to come, that will change. But so far this year, attacks are down—in 2014 there has been one shark attack. It’s not looking like the ‘trend’ is continuing.

But even if there is an increase, the various hypotheses (not “theories”—theories are well substantiated explanations) presented in the show are complete crap. What were those hypotheses?

  1. “Recent and unusual influx of great whites to the area”
  2. “Huge increase in these sea turtles right now because they have been protected.”
  3. “Sharks are becoming conditioned to the sound of spearfishermen, especially the snap of the gun”
  4. “Hawaii’s unique geology that brings deep water sharks near the shore.”
  5. “Repeat offenders”
  6. “The sharks of Kahoolawe are coming to Maui to feed.”

At least they have the courtesy to dismiss #1 off the bat, noting that white sharks were not suspected in any of the attacks. They go on to test the others with “experiments” performed by local “experts”. But everything, from the supposed experts to the experiments conducted, is not as it seems. I’ll address each of these hypotheses as they appear in the show (the last two together, since they focus on the same species and general science).

FACT: There is no connection between turtle populations and shark attack statistics.

“Shark expert” Photographer and surfer Juan Oliphant proposes to Kala Alexander—surfer on a mission for truth—that protections on green sea turtles in Hawaii are to blame for increased tiger shark attacks. The hypothesis, as it was stated in Sharkageddon:

“One possible conclusion lies in the population of Hawaiian green sea turtles. In 1978, they were added to the Endangered Species Act, and since then, their numbers have increased dramatically. This turtle buffet attracts more sharks to the shores where turtles feed, and more run-ins with humans at the water’s surface”

The notion surfaced last year when Rep. Joe Souki placed the blame for shark attacks on turtles in a news piece. “What we need to do is to lift the ban on turtles as a protected species, and maybe it could start with the Native Hawaiians as they do in Alaska where they allow the natives to go and hunt the whales during the whale season,” said Souki in an interview with Hawaii News Now.

Scientists were quick to respond. “The timelines of the turtle recovery and this increase in incidents, those timelines don’t match,” said researcher Kim Holland of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in the same article. He’s right—sea turtle populations have increased steadily since 1980, while shark attacks have only “spiked” in the past two years. If the two variables were related, you would expect to see steady shark increases, too, not a random jump. Holland also pointed out that turtles aren’t the main prey of tiger sharks. In fact, they only make up ~5% of the sharks’ diet. Around 70% of their diet is fish. So what of that dramatic scene in Sharkageddon of the tiger shark choosing the turtle over Oliphant?

Look a little closer.

See the fish? Look at the hind flipper.

See the dead fish? Look at the hind flippers.

There it is! A clear fish tail attached to the fin.

There it is! A clear fish tail attached to the fin.

While it was billed as the shark choosing between a man and a turtle, in reality, it was at best between man and dead fish. That’s some seriously dishonest filming tactics, even for Discovery. And what a surprise? The shark bites right where the fish are attached. You can even see a piece of fish falling off in this shot:

A chunk of fish falls as the tiger bites.

A chunk of fish falls as the tiger bites.

It wasn’t a “strategic bite”—it was where the food was hiding. And what about when the shark comes back to “finish it off”? Watch it again. It just takes the attached fish and leaves.

Alexander was right about one thing, though: “When it had a choice between its normal prey and you, it went for its normal prey.” It just wasn’t a turtle dummy that it went for, but rather the chum Discovery attached to it. This test doesn’t “prove that it’s a case of mistaken identity,” and it certainly doesn’t answer any questions about why sharks are attacking surfers (unless surfers have started lashing dead fish to their feet—which I don’t recommend). What it does do, however, is perpetuate the myth that turtle abundance is linked to shark attack increases, a myth that is being used to attack sea turtle conservation efforts that are still very much needed. Don’t blame the turtles. Even if attacks on surfers do occur because of mistaken identity—like is presumed with great whites and surfers off the California coast—there’s no connection between attack frequencies and turtle populations, and culling turtles isn’t going to protect surfers from future attacks.

While we’re at it: you can’t say that tiger sharks actively pursue turtles and in the same segment call them “indiscriminate feeding machines.” Do they specifically hunt turtles? Or are they indiscriminate?

And if they're indiscriminate, why don't they bite the watermelon?

And if they’re indiscriminate, why don’t they bite the watermelon?

Of course, tiger sharks aren’t indiscriminate. They eat a diversity of prey, but they don’t simply eat “anything”.

FACT: Spearfishing accounts for less than 10% of shark attacks in Hawaii, and those attacks are recorded.

Alexander next talks to Michael Jutt, a spearfisherman from Maui. Jutt claims that though there have been “a lot of attacks”, with “a lot of them end up going unreported.” Why wouldn’t a shark attack be reported? “Because they are considered provoked attacks.”

“Even if I was out today and shot this fish and a shark attacked me, it wouldn’t have been reported,” he said to Alexander.

Jutt’s only half right. It is true that spearfishing and fishing related attacks are often (though not always) considered “provoked” attacks, which means they don’t factor into certain statistics. But that doesn’t mean they’re not reported. The only way an attack goes unreported is if the person attacked doesn’t report it. On the DAR website, you can see a graph of shark attack by activity type for all attacks since 1950, including provoked ones. The orange and dark green bars represent those provoked attacks. Provoked attacks make up a small portion of the total attacks, and overall, spearfishing related attacks are less than ten percent of the total attacks in Hawaii.

14 fishing, 13 spearfishing, 42 swimming, 71 surfing

If spearfishing attacks “don’t go on record”, then why does DAR have these records? The numbers: 14 fishing, 13 spearfishing, 42 swimming, 71 surfing.

It is possible that spearfishermen aren’t reporting their interactions with sharks, but if that’s true, that’s on them. Clearly, some spearfishermen have reported shark attacks, or DAR wouldn’t have these numbers to begin with. But perhaps more importantly, if the spearfishing attacks that have occurred recently “weren’t reported” (as Jutt claims) then why is Alexander looking into them as the source of the “spike” in attacks? The “spike” is in reported attacks.

Meanwhile, to prove some kind of point, Jutt and Alexander go off in search of sharks that will come to the smell of blood in the water—I mean, the sound of a speargun. Jutt manages to shoot two fish, and the pair seem surprised when a few (looks like 5? Maybe 6?) Galapagos sharks arrive on the scene. “We have to get out of here, Mike!” Alexander tells Jutt.

Of all the sharks that Sharkageddon focuses on, I’m most familiar with the Galapagos. And yes, they will say a friendly hello if you are spearfishing in an area where they’re found. But there’s no reason those sharks should have scared Alexander and Jutt out of the water. I would know—I’ve been in their position.

Shot from the end of the dive, where ascent allowed me to get the most in frame. We were surrounded by about fifteen sharks at one point during the dive.

Shot from the safety stop at 15′, where ascent allowed me to get the most sharks in frame. We were surrounded by about fifteen sharks at one point during the dive.

But more to the point, Discovery concludes that because a few Galapagos sharks showed up when fish were speared, this “proved that sharks are becoming conditioned to the sound of spearfishermen, especially the snap of the gun.” Then they go even further. “But there’s a more terrifying prospect: these sharks may also be associating the expelling of bubbles and the kicking of fins as a sign food is near.” Come again, Discovery?

The “test” in no way examined whether sharks are attracted to the sounds of spearguns, scuba or freediving activity. To test that, you’d want to see if they show up and act aggressive when there aren’t bleeding animals around. In this case, the sharks reacted to one thing: dying fish. Or, in their minds, food. There’s no evidence that they associated any other aspect of the situation with that food.

Sharkageddon is spreading a dangerous message by saying that sharks are learning to associate water activities with mealtime. Not only is there no evidence that sharks are conditioned to associate food with the sounds of diving, there’s more evidence to the contrary. Divers are almost never harassed by sharks. I cannot even count the number of sharks I have seen on dives, even while spearfishing, and I have never been attacked. But perhaps images speak louder than words: if Galapagos are so terrifying, then why weren’t divers on a research cruise in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument afraid of this many Galapagos sharks?

Up in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, divers regularly encounter schools of hundreds of galapagos sharks.

Up in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, divers regularly encounter schools of hundreds of Galapagos sharks.

FACT: You have nothing, and I mean nothing, to fear from a cookie cutter shark.

“The next case in Hawaii’s Sharkageddon” is a bizarre one. “An unprovoked night attack,” the narrator describes, “from a rare and unusual shark.” Sharkageddon then goes onto describe the attack of Mike Spaulding, who was bitten by a cookie cutter shark ten miles from the coast while attempting the open ocean swim between the big island and Maui.

Sharkageddon very quickly glazes over the fact that this particular attack is the only bite that has ever occurred from a cookie cutter shark. And it isn’t a part of the supposed “Sharkageddon”—Spaulding was bitten in 2009, four years before the “spike” in attacks. Discovery isn’t unaware of this detail; they are careful to list the date on the reenactment correctly. Yet, the show implies this bite is related to the “increase” in shark attacks, and Alexander brings in marine biologist Jeff Milisen to track down “deep water killers.”

Your biggest threat, according to Sharkageddon? “The cookie cutter shark—the piranha of the open ocean.”


This is not a “piranha”. Image from Wikipedia.

I’ll admit that cookie cutter jaws are a little nightmare-inducing up close. But these sharks are most definitely not piranha-like in any way. Theodore Roosevelt once called the piranha  “the most ferocious fish in the world.” Piranha’s swarm and feed in a frenzy, while cookie cutters are solitary fish which take single bites out of large prey. You’re never going to get attacked by several hundred cookie cutter sharks at once and torn to shreds. You’re probably never going to get attacked by a single cookie cutter shark, no matter how much night swimming you do. I can say that because Discovery pointed out the only person in all of recorded history who ever has been bitten by one. Ever. EVER.

But Milisen and Alexander dove down anyway searching for one, and while protected by a cage (Really? How exactly would the cage keep out a fish that’s less than a foot long?), the two spotted their first animal—a hydrozoan. Which, by the way, is not “a fancy term for jellyfish.” Jellyfish are in the class Scyphozoa, while hydrozoans—not including the salps spotted by the divers (which are an entirely different phylum!)—are class Hydrozoa. I know it’s a little detail, but it’s exactly the kind of fact that Discovery shouldn’t let slip through. Then the divers saw other sharks—a tiger, a great hammerhead, and an oceanic white tip. Which lead to the new hypothesis: “Kala realizes that it’s Hawaii’s unique geology that brings deep water sharks near the shore.”

There are plenty of deep water sharks in the world, few of which have ever attacked a human being. While Sharkageddon makes them sound like man-eaters, the stunning diversity of deep water sharks was beautifully revealed in Alien Sharks 2: Return to the Abyss, which aired on Tuesday night. The special was rare form for Shark Week in that it accurately portrayed shark science without ‘near-death’ shark encounters or “dramatization”. Fear mongering aside, it would have been really cool to see some deep water sharks in Sharkaggedon. Unfortunately, none of the sharks seen by the divers were “deep water” sharks.

Perhaps the production crew simply confused “deep water” with pelagic or open ocean sharks. In that case, the oceanic white tip is a pelagic shark, and tiger sharks are known to cruise large stretches of open ocean. Hammerheads, though, are semi-pelagic at best, and preferring coastal areas. There’s nothing unique about Hawaii’s coastline that draws these sharks in. Steep drops in depth are found in many places around the world—the coast of California, for example. And if it was geology, how would that explain a recent increase? How exactly has Hawaii’s geology changed in the past five years? And if it were pelagic sharks to blame, you’d expect there to have been attacks from the most notorious of the bunch: the great white shark. The geologic hypothesis simply doesn’t make sense.

FACT: Tiger shark movement patterns are messy.

Jeff Milisen isn’t studying tiger shark movements in Hawaii. Milisen is a technician for Kampachi Farms, an innovative aquaculture business based on the big island. According to his LinkedIn, he is “currently working with novel aquaculture species, feed trials and the next phase of offshore cage trial.” He does, however, have a photography project on the tiger sharks of Honokohau harbor. The goals and methods of this project aren’t clear from the site.

Side note: if Milisen really does photograph these sharks daily or even frequently, then it seems especially surprising that he was intimidated out of the water by the regular crowd. Yet that’s exactly what happened in the show—the pair are forced to leave “while they still can”. (Now that I think of it, every time Alexander enters the water in this program, he “narrowly escapes.” How is it that hundreds of millions of scientists, surfers, swimmers, snorkelers and divers survive their day-to-day ocean activities, yet Alexander is almost attacked every time he gets in? With how sharks seem to be drawn to him, it’s a miracle he’s survived as a surfer this long!)

So has Milisen’s photo project shown there are “repeat offenders”? Not yet. On the other hand, Milisen has noted that sharks presumed to be repeat customers are simply mis-IDs. In his “Story of Laverne“, he says:

“To date, ten sharks have been photographically identified near the mouth of the harbor, many of which fit Laverne’s description down to their dorsal fins.  So “Laverne” is not one, but many tiger sharks intermingling with a variety of ocean users without a single adverse incident.”

Not only does he say he’s only photographed a small number of sharks (in three years?!), he readily admits that locals have been misidentifying the animals they presume return frequently.

Even if the two returning IDs seen by Alexander and Milisen solid, spotting two sharks that have been seen before doesn’t “prove” anything, except that these two sharks have returned this once. Have they returned, as Milisen says, “year after year after year”? What does the rest of Milisen’s data say? And what evidence does he have that it has to do with the fishing boat scraps, as opposed to any other factor (temperature, depth, habitat type, abundance of living prey fish, etc)? Milisen doesn’t have any answers. But other scientists in Hawaii do.

There are scientists studying the movement patterns of Hawaiian tiger sharks, but Milisen isn’t among them. Nor is Kori Garza—or, as she otherwise goes by, Kori Michelle or Kori McClanahan—a 23 year old model from Kaneohe who currently works as a “pirate” for Captain Bob’s Picnic Sail. In 2013, she was a Pacific Islands Fishery Center Young Scientist with a project on corals, but she has no affiliation with shark research in Hawaii. And it was very clear to the shark scientists that watched Sharkageddon with me that she has no idea how to tag a tiger shark (my profile of Mark Royer from last year shows what real shark tagging looks like).

If you want to understand shark movements in Hawaii, you have to ask the experts, the Shark Lab at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. They have extensive experience with Hawaii’s tiger sharks, and have employed a diverse set of tags and cameras to understand the movement, ecology and behavior of several shark species.

Their work over the past few decades has revealed that tiger shark movements are complicated. The sharks have large home ranges, and while they might return to a site within days or years, their movements can be erratic. Males and females behave differently. So do individuals—some stay in one area near the coast while others will venture far into open ocean. Movement patterns observed in Hawaiian tiger sharks might be related to mating, or pupping, or feeding, but no one is entirely sure. Camera data are revealing when, where and on what they feed. This work is ongoing—you can even see how tagged tiger sharks are moving around the islands this week, but so far, there’s no evidence that sharks from Kahoolawe are particularly fond of Maui, or vice versa.

Seriously, how cool is this site?

Seriously, how cool is this site? I’m guessing this work was what Discovery meant by the “tool” at the “public’s fingertips”: “the results of an ongoing research project aimed to track the movement of tiger sharks”.

The underlying premise for all of this Sharkageddon “theorizing” is much more sinister: by implying the same sharks are being habituated to people and hanging around to feed, Discovery is implying that there are certain sharks that bite people and others—the ones that live their daily lives in less populated areas—that don’t. This line of thinking is what leads to shark culling efforts like the current one in Western Australia. We tried culling in Hawaii, for the record, in the 1990s (you know, the last time someone claimed there was an “increase” in attacks). It had no effect, and was discontinued when research showed that tiger sharks don’t hang in one place.

Finally, on a cultural note, there’s no evidence that native Hawaiians would “purposefully change their fishing spots so they would not habituate the sharks.” Native Hawaiians respected sharks, and some were revered  as `aumakua (the manifestation of ancestral spirits). Hawaiians had a special relationship with their shark `aumakua, and would feed and pet sharks believed to be the embodiment of relatives, trusting that those sharks would protect them. Such ancient traditions are why there is a cultural exception to the legislation that bans shark feeding in Hawaii today. Furthermore, Hawaiians were well-versed fishermen, and knew when and where to find their catch. They extensively used fishponds and a diverse set of fishing gear. Seasonal changes in fishing location were more likely designed to maintain catch and rest resources, not keep sharks from coming around.

The verdict?

Not only is there no support for the show’s entire premise, each of the hypotheses presented are factually wrong or illogical. Sharkageddon’s pointless pontificating doesn’t leave us any closer to explaining why shark attacks occur—or where, or when. Alexander ends on a conservation message, which Discovery, of course, ensures is brief and buried with credits. But this final thought is what Discovery should have focused on all along. Sharks are vital to Hawaiian ecosystems. We don’t need another “documentary” villifying these ecological and culturally important animals—we need one that explains why they matter, what they do for us, and why we should be fighting to save them.


A note on Sharkageddon’s cast members:

While Sharkageddon featured many people with different ideas, none of them are current shark researchers in Hawaii. While there is no doubt that they all care deeply for Hawaii’s sharks, Discovery should have known that they were not experts on the topics being discussed. The constant manipulation of information regarding these ‘experts’ backgrounds shows that Discovery intentionally misled viewers to make their show appear more credible. Here are the key players in the show, their background and relationship to sharks.

Kala Alexander: Alexander is a professional waterman and actor. He has appeared in Hawaii-based movies and TV shows including Blue Crush, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Hawaii 5-0. He is most notorious for being the ‘enforcer’ of the Wolfpak, a ‘surf gang‘ that enforces the unwritten rules of the North Shore. You can read his perspective on the Wolfpak and the events in his past that made him infamous in his 2008 Outside Magazine article.

Juan Oliphant: Oliphant received his Bachelor’s in fine art photography and sculpture from BYU Hawaii in 2000, and has been photographing marine animals since 1992. He worked from 200o – 2003 as a captain and divemaster for Sea Shepherd Global and from 2000 – 2008 as a senior captain and media manager for Hawaii Shark Encounters. He is the co-owner of Water Inspired, a team of photographers that support shark conservation.

Mike Jutt: Jutt is a spearfisherman from Haleiwa, Maui. His YouTube contains a video of an encounter with a tiger shark while spearfishing as well as other spearfishing videos, and he worked in the past as a lifeguard on Oahu’s North Shore.

Jeff Milisen: Milisen obtained an M.S. in Molecular Biochemistry from UH Manoa in 2012 studying the captive husbandry of venomous cone snails. He obtained his BS in Biology from the same institution in 2009. He began work at Kampachi Farms while still a student, and has since become a research technician for the aquaculture group. Prior to his work at Kampachi Farms, Milisen spent 2 seasons aiding NOAA’s Marine Debris Project in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. He volunteered for the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology Shark Lab when he was a student, but he has not worked with them since.

Kori Garza: also known as Kori Michelle or Kori McClanahan. She was a 2013 Pacific Islands Fishery Center Young Scientist with a project on corals while attending the Marine Biology program at Hawaii Pacific University. Currently, she is a 23 year old model from Kaneohe that works as a “pirate” for Captain Bob’s Picnic Sail.

Why it matters to set the record straight

Some might question why I have bothered to detail the shady filmmaking practices and overall inaccuracies in Sharkageddon. My answer is this:

The truth matters. Discovery has made their reputation off of being “the world’s #1 non-fiction media company.” As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’ve come down hard on them in the past for their mockumentaries and for unethical PR tactics. But this special goes above and beyond what I considered their worst offenses. Sharkageddon didn’t just contain an accidental slip of the tongue or the errant incorrect factoid. The production team systematically sought to prove that Hawaii is becoming more dangerous because of shark attacks—a “fact” which isn’t true—and through over-dramatized reenactments, staged “experiments” and unreliable “experts”, they deliberately deceived their viewers into believing them. All of the producers and movie makers involved in the editing and final production of this special should be held accountable. This wasn’t about ‘taking the audience on a different journey‘—it was about selling a lie, plain and simple. It’s disingenuous; it’s dishonest; it’s deplorable—in other words, it’s the worst of what Discovery Shark Week has become.

In an ideal world, Sharkageddon would get pulled from the channel. They would issue an apology to the 2.4 million viewers that watched the special when it aired and explain how they went wrong. They would not just vow to do better, they really would do it, and truly earn the trust of their viewers. But we all know that this is not an ideal world, and so long as Discovery makes money off of their special breed of bullshit, they will continue to seek ratings by any means necessary.

There is a glimmer of hope: Discovery’s fear-based tactics appear to be backfiring. Their ratings and viewership are down, and their stock is stumbling. I wrote this post because all of this tells me that Discovery’s audience is listening. They are tired of the lies. Someone has to #FactCheckSharkWeek, and since Discovery seems unwilling or unable to do so, it’s the least I can do.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

Tear Gas: the chemical warfare agent used on demonstrators in Ferguson

By Christie Wilcox | August 14, 2014 3:09 pm

The clash between police and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri has escalated significantly over the past few days. Police dogs and handguns have been swapped out for tanks and assault rifles. The protestors are being shot at with rubber bullets and wooden baton rounds, but perhaps the most disturbing images surfacing are those of police suppressing peaceful assembly with tear gas. Currently banned for use in international warfare, tear gas is still legal to use domestically, and has become a go-to for riot control. To understand what the use of tear gas means for the citizens, members of the press, and government officials currently in Ferguson, here is a scientific explainer of what tear gas is, what it does, and what scientists and medical professionals think of its use.



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MORE ABOUT: CS, Ferguson, Tear Gas

Shark Week’s ratings show there’s blood in the water

By Christie Wilcox | August 12, 2014 5:08 pm

It’s the third day of Shark Week, and Discovery has already come under fire for their programming choices. Their big special on kick-off night—Shark of Darkness: The Wrath of Submarineturned out to be another fake documentary, making up people and events to perpetuate the idea that a 30+ ft long great white patrols the coast of South Africa. The legend of Submarine is a particularly fishy topic choice, as its origin can be traced to the 1970s when some journalists decided to make up a story to see how gullible their readers were. Yet again, the all-too-quick disclaimer failed to let a good chunk of the audience in on the charade, resulting in a spike in tweets like this:



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CATEGORIZED UNDER: More Science, select, Top Posts

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