It’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) Week at Westlake Porter Public Library! Coincidentally, it’s also Shark Week, a whole week dedicated to some of the most misrepresented predators of the sea. Let’s talk about the history of these prehistoric aquatic mammals and debunk some of the biggest myths surrounding them!

Photograph of a Great White Shark

What are sharks, and why do they get a whole week dedicated to them? Sharks are fishes, with around 350 different species of sharks living and swimming across the globe. Their skeletons are made out of cartilage, the same biological material that makes up human’s noses and ears. Some sharks live for hundreds of years, with Greenland sharks found to live older than four hundred years old. Sharks as a species are often referred to as “living fossils”, since their lineage predates dinosaurs by 150 million years, with shark fossils dating all the way back to 450 million years ago. Despite living through five global extinctions, sharks have, relatively, stayed the same to their prehistoric counterparts, only shrinking in size over the past millions of years. Sharks have been and continue to be an important part of oceanic ecosystems, but, because of overhunting by humans, many species of sharks have become endangered.

Shark Week is a relatively new annual tradition, started by the Discovery Channel in 1988, as a block of educational programming themed around the diverse and misunderstood apex predator of the deep sea. This original program block consisted of various documentaries meant to educate and entertain- mainly focusing on the latter. Other channels followed suit, creating their own take on entertainment over educational shark-centric programming, followed by low budget studios producing horror B-movies like Sharknado (2013) and Ghost Shark (2013), becoming so-bad-it’s-good blockbusters and cult classics.

Let’s talk about the elephant- I mean, shark– in the room! Why are there so much horror associated with sharks? If you’re as big of a fan of these prehistoric predatory fishes as I am, you know how much anti-shark media is out there. Galeophobia, or the fear of sharks, started becoming a widespread fear after a certain instant-horror-classic summer blockbuster film hit theaters- Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). While this shark horror classic jumpstarted Spielberg’s long and extensive career in the film industry, Jaws caused a ripple effect on the way sharks- and more specifically, Great White Sharks- were and continue to be depicted in media. In real life, populations of sharks were threatened with overhunting, indirectly caused by the nationwide mania provoked by Jaws. Communities on the coastlines were afraid to visit their own beaches, tourism reached lows never seen before. Galeophobia would continue to spread with Jaws‘ sequels, rip-offs, television shows and specials, and many unrelated fictionalized documentaries that trick viewers into believing that sharks are just powerful, brainless, meat-eating machines!

Jaws (1975), Sharknado (2013), Ghost Shark (2013)

There’s no denying that sharks do have the power and capability of seriously harming humans- but cows are significantly more likely (5%) to kill someone than a Great White Shark. Reports have also found that sharks specifically avoid chowing down on humans, usually abandoning victims after the first bite. Surfers are more likely to be attacked by sharks, mistaken for tasty seals from below. Want another fun fact? Freshwater sharks do exist- but don’t cancel that trip to Huntington Beach! Sharks have never been spotted in the Great Lakes, as the lakes temperatures get too cold for sharks to thrive in. The closest and most recent spotting of a freshwater shark in the Midwest was in Alton, Illinois, in 1937, far from the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Safe to say our beaches are free from sharks, freshwater or otherwise!

Join us throughout STEAM Week both virtually and in person this week for more fun content and programming!

Check out these Shark materials at WPPL!

Sources

https://seaworld.org/animals/facts/cartilaginous-fish/sharks

https://abc17news.com/news/national-world/cnn-world/2022/07/26/sharks-are-millions-of-years-older-than-dinosaurs-and-5-other-facts-that-may-surprise-you

https://www.mkewithkids.com/post/shark-facts-for-kids

https://people.com/shark-week-history-why-shark-week-started-35-years-ago-7564239

https://www.magellantv.com/articles/if-it-can-kill-you-thats-the-best-the-origins-of-shark-week

https://mix957gr.com/sharks-in-the-great-lakes

Cat B.

Cat has been a part of the WPPL team since 2022, and writes the "Cat's Picks" and "Nostalgic Showcase Presents" series; she enjoys researching defunct and not-so-defunct studios and reading graphic novels in her spare time.