Discovery Channel’s Shark Week kicked off with a *fake* documentary about sharks, and under normal circumstances this would sink me into a big blue pit of bummer. But not now. Now I have Austin Gallagher. A shark researcher and filmmaker, Gallagher films with waterlust and is also director of Beneath the Waves Film Festival, a “science communication event aimed at engaging the public in ocean awareness and stewardship”. In other words, no fake sharks. No made up scientists. Real science documentaries made by scientists and ocean advocates, aimed to share what it is they care about most.
For Gallagher, that’s sharks, and especially oceanic whitetips. I caught up with Gallagher after watching his latest film (at the end of this post) to find out what inspires an already-busy scientist to turn film maker, and what the recent controversy over Discovery Channel’s fake megalodon documentary means for increasing shark awareness. Understandably, Gallagher wasn’t too thrilled about the fake documentary, saying, “I definitely had a bunch of friends and family calling me at around midnight after the fake documentary aired, asking me my thoughts…The fact that a poll taken after the show suggesting that 70% of viewers believe the megalodon to be real is really shocking.”
This is especially true in light of the perils facing many actually living shark species, including Gallagher’s oceanic whitetip sharks. This species is listed as Critically Endangered in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and “this is likely due to overfishing via direct removals for their fins”, Gallagher tells me. The shark populations in these regions have plummeted in recent years by over 90%, and increasing awareness may be one way to help save them. “Since they are open ocean wanderers” Gallagher says, “This isn’t one nation’s problem – the conservation of this species is a global issue.” In light of this, I expected Gallagher to be even more upset over the wasted time Discovery spent convincing viewers an extinct shark still lives, rather than saving a living shark in danger of extinction. But Gallagher remains hopeful: “I think Shark Week is a good thing” he says, “It has the potential to be an incredible platform for communication.”
Maybe this positive attitude is a reflection of his love for filming, something he first picked up as a hobby: “I grabbed an old underwater camera from the lab and just started taping my dives for fun” he says. This eventually turned into a small documentary, which raised awareness about marine protected areas in southern California. “After I saw the potential for marrying film with my science” Gallagher writes, “I was hooked.”
And how about filming one of his favorite species– the oceanic whitetip? He says “It was like meeting the lead singer of one of your favorite bands you grew up listening to. I wanted to share that story, told through a scientific lens but in a language we can all understand.”
And thank goodness he did. Thank you Austin Gallagher for saving my shark week: