Andy DeHart, Shark Week expert: The TV Squad Interview
Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy DeHart, a shark expert who currently works at the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C. Dehart talked to me about his first experience with sharks (when he was five!), about his interest in conservation of the species, and about Shark Week, Discovery's annual documentary series (in its 21st year this summer). Other than Big Brother, Shark Week is the only reason I turn on the TV in the summer. I was pretty excited to talk to him about this year's event.
KS: I noticed that you were on The Today Show a while back talking about shark myths. What surprises you most when you talk to people about sharks? What surprises you about what they believe about sharks?
AD: Well, I think that Shark Week and a number of different shows have gone a long way in changing people's perceptions about sharks over the last twenty years. I still do get a little bit of the "all sharks are mindless eating machines and they'll eat anything in sight." That's not the case. All you have to do is take a look at any shark's mouth to realize that each shark species is specifically designed for a special purpose. There are teeth for crushing clams. And then there are Great Whites with triangular teeth for cutting meat and flesh.
KS: How do you think documentaries like Shark Week have changed perceptions and dispelled some of the rumors about sharks?
AD: I think Shark Week over the last twenty years has changed the perception. It's always great for us working in aquariums to hear little kids tell their dads about what that shark is or what it does. That's always really fun to see cause the kids are watching the Shark Week and telling their parents (who should be doing the educating) about all these things.
KS: It seems like this Shark Week will focus on conservation of the species. Can you tell me a bit about that?
AD: Certainly sharks are tragically in need of conservation. In 2007, there were 71 shark attacks worldwide and only one of those was fatal. But there's 250,000 sharks killed every day. A lot of it is finning but a lot of it is bycatch.
(Bycatch is the species caught in a fishing net that is intended to catch another species. DeHart explained that sharks caught in bycatch are simply thrown back overboard -- but most of the time they have already died in the process.)
KS: So it's not just finning then.
AD: Finning has been illegal in the United States. But it's still legal in certain parts of the world. So it's certainly something we need to encourage different governments to enact a finning ban. Finning is a process where the fins of a shark are a lot more valuable than the other parts of the shark. Fisherman will bring the sharks on board, cut off the valuable fins, and throw the shark back overboard. The sharks are quite alive at this point and are left to bleed out or are left to starve to death and hop along the bottom. They'll take the top fin which is the dorsal fin, the tip of the tail, and the pectoral fins.
KS: I was just at the TCA cable press tour last week and I attended the Discovery panel. One of their new shows focuses on the Sea Shepherd, a ship that tries to stop whale poaching. Is there a similar organization to stop shark finning?
AD: I'm trying to remember but I think the Sea Shepherd actually will do that. I believe that they were filmed in the Shark Water film. And they were helping with the shark finning problem. Certainly all the organizations are trying to help out with the process. The Ocean Conservancy is a great partner with the Discovery Channel, trying to get the word out there. Certainly GreenPeace. Whether they're as extreme as Sea Shepherd, I don't really know.
KS: Do you think at all that, because it's sharks rather than whales, people aren't as motivated to help?
AD: Certainly. People are going to love what they know about. That's why we exist as an aquarium. Our animals are ambassadors to the public. If people didn't see elephants in the zoo, they probably wouldn't care about what was happening to them. Sharks are a similar story. They're definitely not as cute and cuddly as a whale is. But there's many people who love sharks, that go on shark dives around the Caribbean and around the world. But a lot of people are fearful of sharks and the teeth that they have. Plus they're at the top of their eco-system and they've spent a lot of time there.
KS: What show are you most looking forward to on this summer's Shark Week?
AD: Well, last year I got to film with Les [Stroud]. We did Shark Feeding Frenzy together so it's really great to see the continuation of that. I always love seeing Mike Rowe too. I'm looking forward to a show called Day of the Shark.
KS: I was going to ask about Day of the Shark. Can you tell me a bit about that?
AD: We taking about six unique shark attacks, probably within the last five years. And we're going to go through the day, and going through the different hours of the day and tracking what would happen during each part of that day. They're all very different stories, most of them are a case of mistaken identity. Greatly enough, most of these cases involve a survivor that did walk away from a shark attack and is in good shape. The great thing is that none of them had any anger for the sharks.
KS: So is it safer to go swimming at night or during the day?
AD: Definitely during the day. If you looked at the statistics though, it's a little bit skewed because the number of attacks by time of day -- right around 11 AM to 1 PM period -- that's probably the highest. But you also have to look at when people are using the beaches. The number of shark attacks is directly correlated to population growth. But generally speaking, shark's biggest feeding times are at dawn and dusk.
KS: I read that this year's Shark Week will focus on some lesser-known types of shark. Which ones will you focus on?
Mike Rowe will be working with the Greenland shark which is a lesser-known species and they're going to its natural waters. Luckily Mike decided to go do that one 'cause that's too cold for me. We're tracing the stories of some of the typical ones that are involved in some of the attack cases. I believe Les has been working with the Lemon sharks. There's also the Tigers and the Great Whites. So we have everybody's favorites and some that people might not know about.
Shark Week will air July 27 to August 2nd. Sunday through Friday programming will run from 7 PM till midnight ET/PT. And on Saturday programming will run from 9 AM to 3 PM ET/PT. Click here for Discovery's schedule.