An Interview with Baltimore’s Nat’l Aquarium Shark Week Consultant

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When Discovery Channel’s Shark Week debuted in 1987 it was little more than straightforward educational cable TV, designed to increase understanding about sharks.  Now it draws 30 million viewers and has become a pop cultural phenomenon, inspiring nail art, shoes and cupcakes! There’s even talk of getting our own Michael Phelps on Shark Week 2013. (“We’d love to get the two most powerful water superstars together,” Eileen O’Neill, group president of Discovery and TLC, told Entertainment Weekly.) But the city already has a connection to Shark Week: Andy Dehart of Baltimore’s National Aquarium has served for years as a consultant on the popular week-long series. Last year, Sr. Editor B. Boyd caught up with Dehart. We’re re-running the interview below, in honor of the “second holiest national holiday next to the week after Christmas,” as Stephen Colbert calls it. – The Eds.

Discovery Channel Shark Advisor Andy Dehart met his first shark up close at age five, while snorkeling in the Florida Keys with his father.

“Having it swim by without being aggressive changed my life,” Dehart says.

He knew from that moment he wanted to learn everything he could about sharks, and set his sights early on a job at the National Aquarium, where he began selling tickets at age 15. Today, Dehart serves as consultant for the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week–he has worked full-time for the National Aquarium for  nearly two decades, currently as director of fishes and aquatic invertebrates.

As we continue to dive into the 24th annual Shark Week on Discovery–by the way, Discovery Communications is headquartered in Silver Spring–we talked to Dehart about his various fishy jobs and asked him which fact we ought first and foremost to let sink in about sharks.

So, what’s the biggest misconception people have about sharks?

Well, many are destined for extinction–73 million a year are killed. Compared to five or six humans who die every year from shark attacks, they have more to fear from us. A fatal shark attack is extremely rare–there are about 100 attacks annually worldwide, roughly only five are fatal. And that’s generally because a single bite has caused excessive bleeding. Sharks attack due to mistaken identity factoring. For example, turbulent waves might stir things up and they might get confused. They sense cues that suggest food, and bite to explore what it is. Might be a hand waving. [Once they determine they’ve made an error], they scoot out and swim off.

How smart are sharks?

Sharks are more intelligent than people give them credit for. Like a dog or cat. [At the National Aquarium right now,] we have 10 sand tiger sharks, each with a very unique personality and temperament. We get to know these animals much like you would your pet at home–it is possible to have that bond with a shark.

Which types of sharks live at the National Aquarium?

Three species: sand tiger, sandbar, and nurse sharks; they are part of the Open Ocean exhibit.

Do you think they’re happy living in captivity?

They eat better than I do. The freshest fish available every week. They live a very jaded life compared to their counterparts [in the wild]–they’ve got everything they’d ever need. These sharks go to the doctor every year. We take blood. For females, we do an ultra-sound…

What type of support do you provide for Discovery’s Shark Week?

I look at content and quality control for the programming that’s been green-lit by Discovery and commissioned from external production companies. And I assist with the media tour and news channels. It’s a great side job!

Which Shark Week programming should we take special note of?

“Great White Invasion” uses aerial surveillance and satellite tagging, and features recent findings of how often great whites swim close to shore. “Jaws Comes Home” was made by Baltimore-born filmmaker Nick Caloyianis. “Shark City” showcases comedian Andy Samberg’s in-water encounter with sharks. There’s something for everybody: “Rogue sharks,” “Summer of the Sharks,” “How Sharks Hunt.” Some people are interested in shark attacks, others natural history pieces…

Are people becoming less alarmist about sharks, thanks to mega-popular Shark Week?

Yes, I think there’s been a real change in perception about sharks since Shark Week started.



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