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Shark Week: 'Sharkman'

August 6, 2007 |  9:29 am

I've said it once, I'll say it again -- sharks are not our friends.

I don't know what kind of Stockholm syndrome sets in with certain shark scientists, but as this year's edition of Shark Week has shown, some start to feel tas if the public's impression of the creatures as mindless killing machines somehow has to be remedied.

The "Sharkman," Michael Rutzen, is one of these. He believes there is another side to sharks that hasn't been fully explored -- and he heads out to hypnotize them to unveil the docile facets of their personalities. He thinks that showing the mellow side of sharks will inspire people to become more active in conservation efforts. The notion being, I guess, that fangy fiends aren't as sympathetic as cuddly sea guppies?

Rutzen hypnotizes sharks by inducing their state of tonic immobility, a trance that females enter into after mating in order to assist in fertilization. (There was way too much shark gynecology in this show, actually, for my taste.) By petting the sharks around their snouts, they do enter something of a REM sleep cycle in which they lay motionless with their bellies exposed.

I'll give it to Rutzen, he earnestly believes in his task. Much like my sharks, however, I don't know if I like my science warm and fuzzy. It seemed that Rutzen was out to prove something about the human condition -- namely, that less threatening animals will incite more compassion -- than about sharks. Tonic immobility was discussed in other Shark Week shows (see, I learned something!) but Rutzen's experiments stemmed from the human interaction to the shark's state.

And as this Shark Week came to a close, what had I taken from it? Sharks have adapted perfectly to their environment, and when it comes to the survival, nothing really stands in their way -- except for man, who persists in killing them for stupid reasons. (Shark fin soup? Really? The most depressing thing I saw all week was a finless shark floating to the bottom of the ocean unable to move. And why isn't there as much outrage about sharks being caught in fishing nets as there is about dolphins? Maybe there is something to Rutzen's notion of survival of the cutest.)  Sharks, even with all their diversity, generally operate under predictible constraints of kill or, well, kill each other.  It's the humans that you gotta make sure don't go off the deep end.

--Ann Donahue

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