Chris Hemsworth paddling out to surf. (National Geographic/Craig Parry)
National Geographic/Craig Parry
SharkFest 2021 kicks off today. It is an epic event—combining 21 hours of original programming and 60 hours of enhanced content across four networks over the course of the next six weeks. Sharks are simultaneously fascinating and terrifying—both of which spark intense interest and drive the popularity of an event like SharkFest. For me, personally, I am also very curious about the science and technology being used to research shark behavior and develop protocols or devices that can help keep people safe when they’re invading the home of the sharks and venturing out in the ocean.
The fear of sharks and focus on shark attacks and deadly encounters with sharks is actually a little irrational. Yes, sharks are predators and many species of shark are fully capable of killing a full grown human being. That said, sharks don’t eat people and they are not actually interested in even interacting with people, never mind eating them. Marine scientists generally believe shark encounters are either mistaken identity, or purely being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If you factor the number of people who go into the ocean around the world each year, the total number of shark encounters and shark deaths is infinitesimally small. The reality is that the risk of dying from fireworks is 11 times higher than getting killed by a shark. Dying in a train crash is 24 times more likely, and getting killed by lightning is 47 times more likely than getting killed by a shark.
Opening night of SharkFest 2021 has a full lineup. “When Sharks Attack” premiers on National Geographic at 8pm Eastern time, followed by the marquee event of the SharkFest kickoff—“Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth,” which airs at 9pm Eastern and then winding down with “Rogue Shark?” at 10pm Eastern.
When Sharks Attack
This episode takes a look at what happens when sharks descend on a local community—turning the beaches deadly and perplexing scientists. It reveals some of what researchers are doing to try and understand seemingly random spikes in shark activity, and how violent or deadly interactions with sharks can be prevented.
The islands of Whitsunday off of Australia were terrorized by a rash of shark attacks in 2018. “Rogue Shark?” explores the series of shark attacks and attempts to determine what was to blame. One theory is that there was some factor that caused more sharks to be in the area, and possibly exacerbated the possibility of human / shark conflict. Perhaps a shortage in the normal food supply? Another theory, though, is that all of the attacks were the work of a single shark—a rogue shark that was more willing to interact with humans and more violent.
Chris Hemsworth diving at Fish Rock, South West Rocks. (National Geographic/Craig Parry)
National Geographic/Craig Parry
Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth
Actor Chris Hemsworth goes on a mission to uncover the science of shark behavior and discover how humans and sharks can safely coexist. After an increase in local shark attacks along the east coast of Australia, Hemsworth seeks to understand different species of sharks and their behaviors while also exploring new preventative measures and the latest technology to help stave off shark-human encounters. Former world surf champion Mick Fanning joins Hemsworth to share the story of his own encounter with a great white—which occurred live on television during a surf competition.
Preventing Shark Attacks
Another part of the “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” episode features Dr. Charlie Huveneers, associate professor at Flinders University, and the work he and his team are doing to develop deterrent devices to prevent violent shark interactions. One of the senses sharks use to detect prey is an ability to detect the electric field of potential targets. Dr. Huveneers is focused on the use of a device that generates an electric field to overwhelm the sharks senses and deter attacks.
What they have found so far is that use of such a device reduces the odds of a shark encounter by 60%. That still leaves a 40% chance—but remember that is 40% of an exceptionally small possibility in the first place. When there are so few shark encounters or shark attacks to begin with, cutting the chances of a violent encounter by more than half is pretty significant.
Eight people were killed by sharks in Australia in 2020. Hemsworth notes, “If the eight people who were killed by sharks in 2020 had been able to use a deterrent like this, then 5 might still be alive.”
I had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Huveneers about his research and the efficacy of the electric deterrent technology. He stressed that there are no silver bullet solutions. “Some of these deterrents can certainly reduce the risks, but they’re not foolproof and nobody so far has developed a deterrent that can completely stop the risk of a shark bite.”
We discussed the possibility of cranking up the power in the electric deterrent device—essentially creating a larger electric field and perhaps improving efficacy that way. Dr. Huveneers said research continues, but there has to be a balance. The electric field actually dissipates relatively quickly in seawater, and you have to be aware of the fact that the human wearing the device can also feel the pulse to some extent. Increasing the output would also increase the discomfort for the human, or possibly even pose a risk itself.
Another challenge is the fact that there are many species of shark—often within the same area of the ocean—and they do not all respond the same way to the deterrent. Different sharks have different sensitivity to electric fields, so a device that works at deterring a great white shark may not be effective against a tiger shark.
We discussed the fact that the deterrent device is helpful, but it can buy some crucial time. It is not foolproof, but the existence of the electric field makes the sharks wary and less likely to bite. Hopefully, that can be enough of a delay for someone to recognize that sharks are in the area and leave or get out of the water before a violent encounter can occur.
Tune In for SharkFest 2021
The SharkFest 2021 content will air across National Geographic, Net Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo, and Disney XD. Disney+ is also making the best programming from past SharkFest seasons available and will stream new content from the other channels every Friday, beginning July 9.