Dr. David Shiffman is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Conservation Biology at Simon Fraser University, where he studies shark conservation and management policy. Follow him on Twitter @WhySharksMatter, where he’s always happy to answer any questions that anyone has about sharks.
In 2013, the Discovery Channel’s long-running documentary series “Shark Week” aired a show called “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.” (Check out my review of the 30-year history and legacy of Shark Week in the Washington Post, here.) The premise of this show is that Carcharocles megalodon, the largest predatory shark that ever lived, is actually not extinct—and that scientists and the government know that and are lying to you. It was completely fictional, featuring CGI video, photoshopped images, and actors claiming to be scientists, government officials, and family members of victims.
Many viewers believed it to be real, which was not surprising because it aired on non-fictional educational television and included only a brief, vaguely worded disclaimer at the end of the credits. As a result, real scientists (including myself) and government officials received threats and harassment from viewers. Five years later, I’m still asked about whether or not megalodon is really extinct almost every time I speak to a school group. With this in mind, I went to go see “The Meg,” which claims that the megalodon is not extinct — it’s just hiding.
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“The Meg,” based on the 1997 book “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” by Steve Alten, is the latest movie from a genre that I have a love/hate relationship with— I love these stupid shark monster movies, and I hate myself for loving them.
While “Jaws” changed the way the world felt about sharks in a way that’s harmful for the conservation of threatened shark species, movies like “Shark Avalanche” (tagline: “Snow is just frozen water”), “Three-Headed Shark Attack,” and “Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus” are so obviously preposterous that few people are likely to hate and fear sharks because of them. “Sharknado 2: The Second One” is thanked in my Ph.D. dissertation, and there’s even a character based on me in the fourth book in Steve Alten’s “Meg” series, “Hell’s Aquarium.” If “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” had aired on the Sci-Fi channel instead of the Discovery Channel, I probably would have loved it instead of having to restart a CNN interview about it seven times because I could not stop swearing about how angry it made me.
In short, while I am a scientist and educator who dreads the public misunderstanding that arises from situations like this, I love these movies. I’m not always a buzzkill, I don’t think that fictional stories always need to be science class (though how hard would it have been to give the shark in “the Meg” the correct number of gill slits?) and screw you, jerks on Twitter, I am a lot of fun at parties.
Before I get into the movie itself, let’s review some relevant scientific facts. First and foremost, megalodon is definitely extinct. Super-duper extinct. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It is an ex-shark. How can I say that, given that I haven’t personally explored every cubic inch of ocean? Simple. If there was a 50-foot-long, whale-eating shark that lived in shallow coastal waters swimming in the oceans today, there would be tons of evidence, from teeth that aren’t millions of years old to bite marks on dead whales and there is no evidence at all. And no, the shark could not have magically adapted to a totally different environment while leaving no trace of this. Megalodon was a shallow coastal predator, not a deep sea animal. In the later books, you learn that deep sea megaladons survived all this time by eating deep-sea mammals and reptiles that have all evolved gills so they don’t need to surface to breathe… you know, science!
“Scientists don’t know everything” does not mean that any random bit of nonsense can be correct. Megalodon was a super cool animal, but they’ve been gone for about two and a half million years. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a fictional movie about them, but don’t pretend that a premise from a sci-fi horror film is the same thing as scientific fact.
Secondly, sharks biting people is actually a really rare occurrence. Hundreds of millions of people go swimming in the ocean every year, and there are about 70 bites a year of which only a handful are serious or fatal. If you go in the ocean, there is a shark near you, they know you’re there, and they don’t bother you. More people are killed by toasters, vending machines, and flower pots each year than are killed by sharks. More people die falling off cliffs while taking selfies than are killed by sharks. If you watched every episode of “24” as I did, you saw Jack Bauer kill more people than have been confirmed as killed by sharks in the whole world ever. More people are bitten by other people on the NYC subway every year than are bitten by sharks in the whole world. Sharks are just not a threat to you and your family. It’s totally fine to enjoy a horror movie from time to time, but social science research shows that when you’re shown scary shark images and videos, you’re less likely to support shark conservation, and that’s a problem.
Finally, as I’ve now alluded to twice, shark conservation is a major problem. Sharks are ecologically important animals that are facing serious conservation threats. Humans are better off with sharks than we are without sharks due to the ecosystem services they provide, and we’re in danger of losing many species forever due to overfishing. While I appreciated the brief shoutout to the threat of shark finning in “the Meg,” there was a longer and better done version of this exact same scene in “SharkNado,” so let’s not give them too much credit here. If you want to help, eat sustainable seafood and don’t eat unsustainable seafood, donate time or money to reputable environmental non-profits (NOT the eco-terrorist organization that Lori Taylor worked for in the movie) and/or to scientific research, and write to decision-makers. If you follow me on Twitter @WhySharksMatter or at Facebook.com/WhySharksMatter, you’ll find that I regularly share ways for folks to help sharks.
It occurs to me that in this film review I should probably review the film. It was…fine, I guess? Tons of action, some funny lines, and one of my favorite action movie heroes playing someone who has the same job as me led to a movie that greatly exceeded my very low expectations. (In the books, Jonas Taylor is a navy submersible pilot and marine biologist, and while they only mention his submersible background the film, also being a marine biologist is canon.) This movie probably would have been better as an R-rated Eli Roth film, which was the original plan, but honestly, I’ve seen a lot of worse shark movies. A lot of them. If you saw the preview and thought, “I’d probably like this movie,” you will probably like it.
Just remember that once you leave the theater, megalodon is extinct.
Actual picture of the me getting ready for the movie to start, taken by my PostDoc supervisor Dr. Nicholas Dulvy: