INTERVIEW:

Expert Opinion: Shark Expert vs. 'Shark Night 3D'

on September 13, 2011 by Kady Lyons
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expertopinionsharknight.pngThere are salt water lakes throughout the world. The one that we are most familiar with here in the States is in Salt Lake City, Utah. They do exist, but they're most often super-hypersaline, which means that even compared to the ocean, they're really salty. Salt Lake and the Salton Sea these are land-locked lakes in really hot environments where you get a lot of evaporation and therefore a higher concentration of salt crystals that are just stuck in this lake. There are all kinds of cool organisms that exist in themthey create their own really cool environmentsbut a shark existing in that is probably not possible. In the movie, it wasn't clear how that lake was formed. It looked more wetlands and bayou, it had the feel of a place that has a lot of rivers and gets a lot of rain, both of which would make the water very fresh. It doesn't seem likely that that place could have a salt water lake with the exact conditions that marine animals could exist in.

In our lab, we do a lot of work with baby white sharks and from one of our new projects we have some site fidelity, basically sharks are sticking around a particular region for a couple days to two weeks at a time. However, they do have the potential to travel great distances. We've tagged sharks in southern California that then show up in Baja, Mexicothat's quite a long way. They're not doing that every day, but a lake that size probably wouldn't be a big enough area to maintain such a large shark. It's hard to keep a white sharks in captivity. The Monterrey Bay aquarium can keep baby ones in captivity for a short time, but when they get too big-say around six and a half feet-they have to release them. A tank is just too small.

The great white shark didn't seem as long in this movie as it has been in other shark movies like Jaws. To be honest, it didn't seem like it was that big. Eleven feet is adolescent size for a white shark. They can get much bigger. My favorite shark is the great white. It's a little cliché, but they're just really cool animals.

If all of those different species of sharks were in the same lake, would they attack each other? It's hard to say because those sharks would be very unlikely to co-exist in the same area in the wild. You had great white, sand tiger sharks, the hammerhead, the infamous cookiecutter sharks. We don't really know if they would fight? It would have to depend on resources. All those large predators probably wouldn't be supported by the fish in that lake, which might have them be beating up on each other. You never even see a fishthe only fish you see are the sharksso it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could prey on each other. If you're hungry and large, you can imagine what might happen.

It was interesting how at certain points of the movie, the sharks would appear instantly. And at other points of the movie when they needed to stretch out time a little, the sharks just happened to be mysteriously gone. In the scene where the guy was being dunked in a chair into the water below, the guy was calling them tiger Sharks, but they're actually sand tiger sharks. Completely different species and they're not considered aggressive to humans. They look intimating because they have a whole lot of teeth in their mouth, but mostly what they feed on are little fishthat's why their teeth are so pointy and sharp is to catch those little critters. And in the movie, they were quick-moving when they're known for being very slow and lethargic. The fact that it was super in-your-face wasn't a very accurate portrayal.

As for the other sharks, even though the great white is what we think of when we think of shark attacks, I wouldn't call it a really aggressive shark. The very first sharks that attacked, I couldn't tell what type of shark they were trying to go for? It seemed like maybe a mix of a bull shark and maybe a Galapagos because of the coloring. It just seemed like one of those amorphous sharks where they take a feature from one shark, and another feature from another shark, and make up a shark image of teeth, jaws, coloring and fins that's what you imagine when you think shark, but isn't actually a real shark itself. It was probably one of those Hollywood sharks.

As for the cookiecutter shark, our adviser, Dr. Chris Lowe, works on them. They're one of those sharks that isn't really talked about, but has unique characteristics. I was plenty surprised to see it. But while it's true that the cookiecutter does take little chunks out of animals, particularly big fishes or marine mammals or other sharks, the cookiecutter in this movie was almost portrayed as a piranha. That's not how they feed. They're more, "I'm going to bite you and then I'm going to run away really fast." They're biting animals that are bigger than they are-they're not going to be sticking around for the guy to notice he just got bit by a wimpy little shark. The bite and skedaddle. And I think she had like four bites before she passed away. It would take a little bit more than that to kill a person. But it's not a way I would want to go.

Everybody nowadays has seen the Discovery Channel's leaping great whites. It's an awesome feat to lift that much weight into the air. But in terms of being a hunting strategy, that's not quite how it works. The two leaping shark deaths in the movie were totally unexpected, so they worked for the movie itself. But when sharks are jumping like that, it's to ambush something on the surface from below. They don't leap out of the water to catch a guy on a tree. We're not quite sure how their vision is out of water, but they wouldn't be able to calculate where a person is as they're sitting on a jet skithey'd only be able to see the bottom of the jet ski. They're not used to hunting anything that's above the water-they're used to grabbing things from below.

The movie made a point of showing the lure of blood in the water. The only thing that it got wrongand you could argue that this is artistic licensebut the blood reacted the way food coloring does in water: it was a blob. But blood is water-soluble. It would dissolve instantly. And when they threw the bucket of blood on the girl, she was stained on her skin, but in the water it would wash right off.

And the movie had that box that was a shark repellant? There's been a lot of research looking into shark repellents, a non-invasive way of deterring sharks. For example, certain elemental metals are being researched because they're sensitive to magnetic fields. It's like if we smell a skunk and it makes us go awayit doesn't hurt them, but it makes them uncomfortable. But nobody's come up with a little fool-proof device like the bad guys' black box that would be a shark repellent. It's a nice idea, but we're really not there yet in terms of the science.

Oh, and the shark that was eating through the cage at the end of the movie? Biological tissue being able to break through metal? That was a little far fetched. And sharks are sensitive to the electric fields around metals. It makes them curious, like "I'm going to come check this out," but it doesn't mean they're going to eat through it. And it was unclear why they'd put a girl in a shark cage if they were intending to dispose of her-that's a pretty protected environment. Also, the sharks attacking the boats and eating propellers-sharks aren't following boats and jet skis around. They might be curious, but they don't just want to go attack them.

I never had cable, so I never really watched Shark Week. Every once in a while, I'd get to go to a friend's house and watch Shark Week. It didn't play a part in leading me into my career, although I've met people who were strong followers. As for the idea that some people are so into Shark Week that they'd pay to watch real people getting killed, that's a little sadistic. Shark attacks are something that you can't look away from because of the power of some of these animals, but as for enjoying watching that? They might need counseling. It was interesting that they were trying to take a jab at Discovery Channel because I'm sure that the Discovery Channel will have a few things to say about that: it's a giant being finger-poked by this little movie.

Sharks are just such cool animals and we really don't know that much about them in the grand scheme of things. They live in the ocean and we live on land. It's hard to study a creature that lives in a completely different world. They've been around for millions and millions of years, they have a lot of cool adaptations, and they've pretty much covered every niche of the ocean.

That people don't know much about them means that you can play with your imagination and think up all these types of scenarios that might happen. The movies can take certain liberties. It's not like dolphins, who we've spent a lot of time with. You'd never replace sharks in this movie with dolphins. When you say dolphin, no one's thinking, "Oh! Scary!" They're mammals, so we have more of an association with them, as opposed to a fish which we classify as something "over there" or separate from us. When people think of sharks, they think of killersand because it kills, it evil. But we have different feelings for a dolphin. It kills, too, but we're like, "Oh, that's not as bad." Technically, they're both killers. But people only associate teeth and blood with sharks, where with dolphins, they're like, "Aw, cute! It's not a fishhow wonderful!"

But the other layer isnot to put down sharks-but we really don't know how intelligent they are. Who knows if they could be? We do know that dolphins are intelligent, maybe even more intelligent than humans. And because of that, we don't judge when dolphins do things that if we looked it critically, we'd be like, "That's not a very nice thing to do: to play with your food when your food is alive." A shark isn't going to play with their food-they just go about their business. But the dolphin has this natural smile and cuteness. They're not just these cute, cuddly animals. There are darker behaviors that could develop in an animal with that much intelligence. But you only see dolphins on the hero side of things, never the villain. Think about the Killer Whale: it got its name because it kills other marine animals. It kills sharks. But people don't really think about why it got that name. It's like, "Oh! It's like a cute dolphin!" When you have this innate smile rather than a mouthful of teeth, that changes people's perceptions of you.

Sharks are so diverse. Knowing something like, the super fast speed of a mako shark, it's something people couldn't have even imagined 30 years ago. If you went back 30 years and told someone that great whites could jump out of the water to catch seals, they would think that you were crazy. Because they can surprise us, that leaves something to our imagination. And people look to make a dollar off of playing on our fears.

A lot of the shark movies star great whites, makos, hammerheads, tiger sharkslarge, charismatic sharks that make up only a small fraction of the sharks in the world. They make that point in Shark Night when one of the guys says there's like 300 species of sharksactually, there's more like 400. But that goes to my point. A lot of sharks are harmless to humans. People think sharks are "out to get them," but that's really not the case. You don't have a shark whose sole source of energy is feeding on humans. You'd have a whole lot more shark attacks if that were the case.

One thing that's really advancing our knowledge of sharks is the advancement of technology. The more toys we develop, the more we can answer questions that we couldn't even 10 years ago. A lot of people are interested in the ecology of sharks, so a lot of our advancement has come through tracking sharks. We've dramatically reduced the size of the tags on sharks and we've even added satellite technology that can tell us how deep the sharks are diving, when a shark is diving, how warm a shark is, what the pH of the shark's stomach is. We don't put cameras on sharks the way they did in the movie. How would you even attach it? It'd be difficult to keep a camera that could just pop off like the one here did on a shark for a long time, besides the fact that it would add extra drag to the animal that would make it expend extra energy to swim. The camera here was quite bulkyand I'm not sure why they put it underneath the shark when you should have it on the head of the shark to mimic what the shark might be seeing. Also, some of the sharks we study live in really murky waters. You couldn't see much, so the information you'd gather from it wouldn't maybe be worth it. Maybe if you were studying sharks in the Bahamas where the water is super clear.

Being around a shark is exciting. You're kind of in aweit's such a big animal compared to us puny humans. It's similar to if you go whale watching and you come across a blue whale-something that's so cool and it's lived this long and you're getting to be in the same realm as this animal. I'm nerding out a bit, but it's amazing, and I hope that other people will see this, too.

Kady Lyons is a Masters Student at Cal State Long Beach's Shark Lab.

 

Tags: Expert Opinion, Shark Night 3D
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