Here’s a story that illustrates the persuasive power of television.
Already well-documented are anecdotes from NASA astronauts and engineers who were inspired as kids by watching Star Trek.
We’ve also heard about forensic scientists who were influenced by science-based crime dramas like CSI.
And now we hear from Craig O’Connell, a noted marine biologist and shark expert who says that watching “Shark Week” on Discovery Channel as a kid inspired his very specific career choice.
“Growing up, I watched ‘Shark Week’ all the time,” he says. “I think I was 10 years old when I saw an episode where there was a shark entangled in a net used to kill sharks.
“I was very young, but it had a big impact on me, because I couldn’t believe we were killing sharks in this way.
“It’s something that inspired my entire career, which is focused on eliminating the senseless killing of these beautiful animals that are really important to the environment,” he says. “For the past 10 years, I’ve worked to develop shark conservation technologies that will allow humans and sharks to peacefully coexist.”
It’s fitting, then, that O’Connell is featured in two new “Shark Week” shows, Sharks Among Us and Jungle Shark, as part of Discovery Channel’s 28th annual offering of dorsal fin-filled programming.
Over the course of eight days, the network will present more than 100 hours of Jaws-themed shows. This includes 16 hours of new programs and a second season of Shark After Dark, a panel discussion show hosted by horror movie director Eli Roth (at 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday).
Any more such programming and Discovery is gonna need a bigger week.
O’Connell’s two shows have a common theme: Both involve his desire to protect people from shark attacks without resorting to killing the sharks.
Sharks Among Us, premiering at 9 p.m. Monday, addresses the public’s anxiety about what appears to be an increase in the number of shark attacks.
“There has been a slight increase in attacks, but nothing astronomical,” O’Connell says. “Last year, there were (a record) 98 attacks reported around the world. It seems like more, because the media hypes it up. It’s a story that gets a lot of attention and also, unfortunately, gives sharks a really bad reputation.”
The scientist notes, however, that a person is more likely to die by lightning strike than by shark attack.
“The truth is we swim with sharks almost every time we go to the beach,” O’Connell says. “A lot of times that you’re in the water, a shark swims by without bothering you and you have absolutely no idea. But when these really rare encounters happen, they get a lot of coverage.”
In Jungle Shark, airing at 9 p.m. Thursday, O’Connell and cinematographer Andy Casagrande (a guest in Thursday’s Shark After Dark) travel up the Serena River in the rainforests of Costa Rica, trying to determine why young bull sharks swim into fresh water and how they avoid the crocodiles that live there.
The expedition results in O’Connell creating a first-of-its-kind croc scent-based shark repellant.
“There hasn’t been much research done in that ecosystem, due to the fact that a lot of the sharks in Costa Rica are being killed off, especially for their fins,” the scientist says. “I wanted to see what was going on there.
“But I had no idea it was going to lead to this whole new concept of utilizing crocodile pheromones as a shark repellant. What viewers will see in that show is the very, very beginning of what one day could be a technology we use to protect swimmers and surfers.”
When O’Connell began his career, his emphasis was all about saving sharks. But last year he did a “Shark Week” episode in which he met shark-attack survivors Paul de Gelder (a guest on Wednesday’s Shark After Dark) and Hunter Treschi.
“Up until then, I had tunnel vision and focused only on sharks,” he says. “But I realized we need to find a technology that protects both sharks and people. That’s the direction now where my work is headed.
“One of the key things I hope people will take away from watching all of the episodes on ‘Shark Week’ is that these animals don’t deserve the reputation that they currently have. They’re not just mindless killing machines,” he says. “They’re very beautiful animals and they deserve our respect.”
- Begins at 8 a.m. Sunday and continues through July 3
- Discovery Channel