Shark Films: A Filmmaker’s Responsibility to Conservation

Filed Under (Sharks, Special Events, Summer Sharktakular 2010, conservation) by Alexa & Cindy on 23-07-2010

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Sharks on film – it’s an almost irresistible combination that can all but ensure the filmmaker a big hit, with wide viewership – but only if done in an all-to-familiar and irresponsible manner. We’ve been down that road, and it doesn’t work for sharks – and it shouldn’t work for us.

We’re very lucky to have nature and underwater filmmaker Richard Theiss, of RTSea Productions, on O4E, guest-posting on just this sentiment. Richard dives with and films sharks for a living; he should know.

Settle in for Richard’s take on how a filmmaker should stand by sharks – then check out RTSea’s blog – Keeping an Eye on Nature – for the latest exciting chronicles of his adventures.

photo by RTSea

RT: From the earliest days of filmmaking to today’s complex world of digital video, films have presented images of nature that have inspired, enlightened, and even frightened people around the world.

As we enter an era where critical conservation and environmental issues are being brought to the forefront more and more, nature documentary filmmakers have an increasing responsibility to be factually accurate while entertaining the viewer so that the audience will be motivated to protect our natural resources.

However, for filmmakers who work with sharks, as I do, this can be a particularly challenging proposition because of the near-primordial reaction that people have with sharks – a fascination, but one that is laced with fear and apprehension.

The temptation – perhaps the easy way out – is to play to that fear. Jaws, of course, would be a classic example and there have been many films and television programs since that seminal film that have done just that. But that simply reinforces the myths and misconceptions surrounding sharks. In fact, if a film does make a point of presenting factual information,  just one reference to a shark attack – particularly if it’s a visual reference – can nullify all the information meant to set the record straight regarding man’s true relationship with the shark.

In speaking engagements, I have often said that shark conservation is a tough sell. To be sure, there are dedicated shark advocates who understand both the important role that sharks play in a healthy marine ecosystem and the many threats these animals now face – but that represents a small number compared to the general viewing audience. Sharks are not afforded the “warm and fuzzy” factor that many terrestrial animals enjoy – the cuddly bear, the cute fur seal, or the seemingly wise and sociable whale. Sharks can seem cold and, as predators, lie just below the surface – waiting for us. That’s a tough image to work around.

Some shark advocates choose to swing the pendulum of perception from one extreme (“the only good shark is a dead shark”) to the other extreme (“sharks are gentle, just like a bunch of puppy dogs”), which I believe goes beyond what the typical viewer is willing to accept.

I prefer to play it right down the middle – the truth, and nothing but the truth.

And the truth is that sharks are predators and scavengers – extremely important predators and scavengers that help maintain the proper balance and health of the marine ecology.

 The oceans cannot survive without them.

Richard Theiss filming lemon sharks, photo by Christie Fisher

The message I try to convey to my audience is: you may not love them, but you must appreciate them. You can’t enjoy the jackrabbit or the deer without appreciating the coyote or the wolf. And you can’t enjoy the colorful reef fish or the comical seals without appreciating the shark.

I have been fortunate to dive with and film many different species of sharks – from great white sharks to tiger sharks to tiny bamboo sharks. As a professional who is being paid to gather the best images possible of these animals, that sometimes can put me at a degree of calculated and accepted risk.

These are wild animals whose behaviors can be studied and anticipated but never fully guaranteed predictable. And that is how it should be; we have entered the oceanic domain as strangers and we must play by the ocean’s rules. But throughout all my experience with sharks, I have never lost my understanding that these magnificent animals belong here – every last one of them.

So a pro-shark conservation approach does not limit the filmmaker in any way. Falling back on exaggeration or over-sensationalism is not necessary; the truth is that sharks are incredibly fascinating animals all on their own.

Richard Theiss filming a great white shark, photo by Gabriel Beyrent

If we are to change the strong economic and social attitudes that fuel today’s markets for commercial shark products – from shark fins to cartilage, liver oil, and more – then shark filmmakers must dedicate themselves to changing minds of people with solid, convincing arguments.

This is even more important when it comes to establishing perceptions in the minds of young people, the next generation that will have to live with the legacy of our thoughts and actions.

Shark films can be exciting, they can be entertaining, but they must be on-target. We owe it to the sharks; we owe it to ourselves – for our futures are intertwined.

~Richard Theiss

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