NAT GEO SHARKFEST 2021

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BIGGEST. SHARKFEST. EVER. This summer’s dive into the captivating science and stunning visuals of the ocean’s top predator.


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION


USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

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SharkFest is back and bigger than ever

Chris Hemsworth dives into science

Paige Winter keeps focus on the future

Let’s face the fact: ‘Jaws’ was fi ction

Six weeks of programming, spread over four networks and Disney+. What’s more, it all came together in the midst of a global pandemic.

The Australian actor got scuba certifi ed to better understand how humans and sharks can coexist “safely and harmoniously.”

For teen who survived a harrowing attack just off a North Carolina beach, the road to recovery includes learning more about sharks.

Yes, sharks can be dangerous. But they aren’t the “mindless man-eaters” that the 1975 blockbuster made them out to be.

Maribel Perez Wadsworth Publisher and President, USA TODAY Network

Nicole Carroll Editor in Chief

Patty Michalski

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Executive Editor

Issue editors Lori Santos for USA TODAY; Chris Albert and Jennifer Driscoll for National Geographic

Shark numbers plummeting; here’s what you can do

Issue photo editors Sean Dougherty for USA TODAY; Lydia Thompson for National Geographic

Recent study shows just how serious the decline has been over the past 50 years: Ocean populations of sharks and rays have declined by over 70%. No one person can fi x the problem, but all of us can play a part.

Issue designer Tiffany Clemens

Design manager Jennifer Herrmann ISSN#0734-7456 A USA TODAY Publication, Gannett Co. Inc. USA TODAY, its logo and associated graphics are registered trademarks. All rights reserved. Editorial and publication headquarters are at 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, VA 22108.

32 What scares you more than sharks? Speaking from fi rsthand experience and scientifi c fact, folks involved in SharkFest share what keeps them up at night.

Scalloped hammerhead sharks. ENRIC SALA/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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Turning to tech to reduce the risks

Women of SharkFest tipping the balance

Valerie Taylor still ‘Playing with Sharks’

Message of MISS: You belong here

Contact between humans and sharks can be deadly to both. Scientists are developing more ways to head off such encounters.

From the fi lmmakers behind the camera to the experts in front of it, this season is celebrating a diversity of voices and perspectives.

No other way to put it: Ocean conservationist and renowned photographer is a legend and an inspiration, and she’s not slowing down.

Women of color working in the shark sciences band together to support one another and encourage the next generation.

BIGGEST. SHARKFEST. EVER. This summer’s dive into the captivating science and stunning visuals of the ocean’s top predator.

About the cover

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Design: Tiffany Clemens Image: A great white shark swims in waters off the Neptune Islands of South Australia. By Brian Skerry.

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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

SHARKFEST

HERE IT COMES

Shalayne Pulia

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Special to USA TODAY

ational Geographic’s ninth annual SharkFest is its biggest yet. The summer event’s programming will air for the first time across four networks as well as the Disney+ streaming service for a full six weeks. To kick off this super-size set of sharkcentric shows and documentaries, National Geographic turned to the closest thing to a superhero they could find — global superstar Chris Hemsworth, known for his role as Thor, the god of thunder, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Continued on next page

Lemon sharks swim in a shallow lagoon in the Bahamas. The species is named for the yellowish tint to its skin, which helps camouflage it in the sandy areas where it prefers to forage. ANDRE MUSGROVE/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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In “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth,” which premiered July 5 on National Geographic and began streaming on Disney+ on July 9, the actor digs into potential causes for the increase in shark attacks recorded last year almost literally in his own backyard in his native Australia. Hemsworth also talks with experts on sharks and the oceans to learn more about how we can better co-exist with these awesome apex predators. Just ahead of filming, Hemsworth, an avid surfer, got his scuba certification so he could get up close with some of these amazing animals on a dive alongside legendary ocean conservationist and photographer Valerie Taylor. Taylor, 85, is also featured in “Playing with Sharks,” a documentary about her extraordinary life. It premieres July 23 on Disney+. Viewers can also learn about harrowing shark-human encounters through the series “When Sharks Attack” and

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“Shark Attack Files” and the special documentary “Shark Attack Investigation: The Paige Winter Story.” The latter follows Paige Winter as she tries to uncover more about the shark that attacked her in 2019 while she swam in the ocean in North Carolina. Seventeen years old at the time of the attack, Winter lost a leg and part of her hand. In the film, the remarkable teen takes a powerful step in her recovery. (“When Sharks Attack” is currently streaming on Disney+; both of the others premiere July 12 on National Geographic.) Putting together the lineup in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic was no easy feat. “If I have to be proud of something, it’s my colleague Michelle Upton and her team of production managers who singlehandedly kept all these programs on-course during COVID,” says Janet Vissering, senior vice president, production and development, for National Geographic Partners. “[They] kept us safe, on schedule and cleared the path

Whitetip reef sharks swim among schools of fish in the waters of Mexico’s Revillagigedo Islands. The islands are in the Pacific south of Baja California. ENRIC SALA/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

for us to make these shows.” For this year’s SharkFest, National Geographic made a commitment to showcasing new and more diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera. To help expand this commitment for SharkFest 2022, the network has partnered with Minorities in Shark Sciences, or MISS, a group dedicated to breaking down barriers for women of color in shark sciences as well as increasing representation of such women in the media. As a television executive and a woman of color, Vissering says she feels a heightened responsibility to find and create shows that are not only entertaining and filled to the gills with groundbreaking science but also genuinely focused on amplifying more diverse voices. “As a leader in this industry, we [have a duty] to show more faces because we influence future scientists,” Vissering says. “And this is just the start for us. All I can say is we’re gonna go bigger next year, too.”


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USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

SHARKFEST

CAN WE COEXIST? Chris Hemsworth dives deep, quite literally, into the science of sharks to learn how humans can share the seas with them.

Shalayne Pulia

Special to USA TODAY

For Chris Hemsworth, understanding how we can coexist with sharks is a personal mission. The Australian actor, an avid surfer, took note of an uptick in shark attacks near his home in Byron Bay and decided he had to learn more. “It’s a scary thing,” he says. “So I wanted to get to the bottom of it and try to understand what is really happening and how we can live alongside sharks safely and harmoniously.” That’s the background for the documentary “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth,” which premiered July 5 on National Geographic and began streaming on Disney+ on July 9. In the film, the star connects with ocean scientists and shark experts who teach him more

“Shark Beach With Chris Hemsworth” follows the global superstar on a quest for knowledge. CRAIG PARRY/ NATIONAL

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Hemsworth, seen on a dive at Fish Rock off Australia’s east coast, learned to scuba dive for the documentary. PHOTOS BY CRAIG PARRY/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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Longtime ocean conservationist Valerie Taylor took Hemsworth on a dive where he got up close with the grey nurse sharks Taylor has worked hard to protect.

about these open-water animals. “I was actually quite impressed with how genuinely interested Chris seemed,” says shark ecologist Charlie Huveneers, who is seen in the documentary explaining electric-field shark bite deterrent technology he’s been researching. “He really wanted to improve how much people understood about sharks and how much people understood about what was already being done to try to reduce the risk of shark bites.” Hemsworth’s determination to get in on the action — even when that meant learning how to scuba dive so he could be in the water with sharks — also im-

pressed the film’s director, Sally Aitken. “What director doesn’t want to work with Chris Hemsworth? Get in line, Ron Howard, George Miller and Taika Waititi!” Aitken says with a laugh. “ ‘Shark Beach’ was an ambitious project. As one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors, Chris is in huge demand, and for good reason. He’s passionate, committed and always up for new challenges, especially if it creates greater environmental awareness.” Aitken also directed “Playing with Sharks,” a documentary about ocean conservationist Valerie Taylor premiering July 23 on Disney+. She was the one who mentioned to the producers that Continued on next page


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Taylor might be the perfect diving buddy for Hemsworth. “The funny story I heard later was that Chris’ mom had said to him, ‘You’re getting to work with Valerie Taylor? You’re so lucky!’ Because Valerie was on the screen [in Australia] in the 1960s and 1980s, when Chris was growing up,” Aitken says. “So Mrs. Hemsworth knew all about Valerie Taylor. But I should say that Valerie Taylor knew all about Chris Hemsworth as well.” It’s true. It didn’t take much convincing to get the 85-year-old diver on board for the production. “What a lovely man [Hemsworth] is,” Taylor says. “He’s a super guy, believe me — not just to look at, but to know.” Taylor guided Hemsworth on his first dive with sharks, which happened to be grey nurse sharks, the very species Taylor worked so hard to gain legal protection for in the ’80s. “At first, I was a little nervous, but I couldn’t have been in better hands,” Hemsworth says. “Valerie told me exactly where to sit, and then out of the darkness came six or seven big sharks, slowly drifting past me, close enough for me to reach out and touch them. Some were the biggest [grey nurse sharks] Valerie had ever seen! That was incredibly memorable.” Taylor was pretty proud of her new student, who she says stayed underwater with those sharks until he just about ran out of air. The conservationist took the time to teach Hemsworth even more about sharks, including why they are so important to ocean life. “Sharks, [as] the apex predators in the sea, ensure balance,” Hemsworth says. “Without them, the entire ecosystem collapses.” In the documentary, Hemsworth also helps handle and tag a great white shark alongside researcher Paul Butcher, who is testing a technology known as the SMART drumline, which helps scientists better understand sharks while using non-lethal means to keep them from coming too close to the Australian shoreline while people are around. Butcher says he and his team typically catch about 110 white sharks per year at the location chosen for filming. It was a stroke of luck that the team was able to successfully catch a great white in time to be filmed. “We had lines in from 7:30 a.m., and we [were just about to] call it quits for the day when alerts [that a shark was caught] came through on our phone,” Butcher says. “It was a perfect ending; we couldn’t have scripted it any better.” Once the shark was caught on the system’s hook, Butcher and his team collected several samples from it with help from

“Sharks aren’t monsters. They’re extremely vulnerable creatures. We’re the visitors on their turf. Understanding that alone is one of the keys to coexisting with them.” Chris Hemsworth

Hemsworth. “I had the honor of gathering a DNA sample from the great white’s … um … butt,” Hemsworth says. “Paul needed it to figure out their diet, which helps us understand their life even more. So that was quite interesting. Let’s just say that.” After the swab, Butcher and the team tagged the shark with a sensor that can trigger a warning if the animal comes close to shore again. That alerts officials and beachgoers in time for them to evacuate the water. In addition to his hands-on work with

shark-deterrent gadgets, Hemsworth spends time with indigenous Australian Nickolla Clark to glean some of her ancestral understanding of living in harmony with sharks. The actor thinks his fellow surfers can learn a great deal from this native knowledge. “I think for surfers, it’s more than just picking the best surf spot with the best waves. That’s great, but we also have to [ask ourselves]: What time of day is it? Are sharks feeding right now? Is this where they like to nest?” Hemsworth says. “If we understand their habits more, then I think we’re all better off.” Hemsworth learned quite a bit from starring in, and serving as an executive producer of “Shark Beach.” Above all, he hopes viewers come to understand, like he has, that sharks are not the enemies of beachgoers and surfers. Instead, they are incredible animals in dire need of our protection. “Sharks aren’t monsters. They’re extremely vulnerable creatures,” Hemsworth says. “We’re the visitors on their turf. Understanding that alone is one of the keys to coexisting with them.”

Chris Hemsworth prepares to dive at Fish Rock, off the east coast of Australia. CRAIG PARRY/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

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SHARKFEST

Two years after Paige Winter survived a harrowing shark attack, the inspiring teen strides confidently down the road to recovery.

Unstoppable Shalayne Pulia Special to USA TODAY

You could say Paige Winter is pretty fearless, but she wouldn’t be the first to agree with you. “Honestly, I wouldn’t describe myself as courageous,” says the North Carolina teen, who survived a shark attack off a local beach in June 2019. “I just do stuff I have to do.” Winter lost a leg, two fingers on one hand and some mobility in her other hand as a result of the attack. But even as she lay on the beach, waiting to be transported to a hospital on that fateful summer day, all she seemed to care about was her family’s safety and, incredibly, the safety of the shark that bit her. “Once I got on the beach, I had Ariana Grande’s song ‘Breathin’ stuck in my Continued on next page

Paige Winter was gravely wounded in a shark attack in 2019, but even in the immediate aftermath, she worried only for her family — and the shark. GABRIEL KERR/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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“I knew if I was sad, then other people would get sad around me. And I didn’t want anybody else to be upset.” Paige Winter

head because I was telling myself to keep breathing,” Winter says. She checked on her dad, Charlie Winter, who had rescued his 17-year-old daughter by punching the shark and then pulling her out of the water. The shark hadn’t bitten him. So her next thought went to the apex predator she had just encountered, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. “I was just telling everybody to not hunt down the shark. It wouldn’t really be fair to have a whole witch-hunt just for one incident. I just wanted to go to a hospital.” Winter powered through her recovery

with a positive attitude that stems primarily from love for those around her. “My main focus was to not slow down,” she says. “I knew if I was sad, then other people would get sad around me. And I didn’t want anybody else to be upset.” With determination and her signature sense of humor, Winter progressed steadily while in the hospital and beyond. The first time she tried on a prosthetic leg, she literally took the experience in stride, walking unassisted almost immediately. “I just wanted to walk, dude!” Winter Continued on next page

Winter learns about nurse sharks with researcher Laura Garcia Barcia during an excursion for “Shark Attack Investigation: The Paige Winter Story.” GABRIEL KERR/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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says with a laugh. “When everybody was trying to get me to slow down, I got irritated because I just wanted them to let me do my thing right quick. So, that’s what I did. I just took off.” That doesn’t mean every part of the recovery process has been easy. Winter says learning how to use her hands again to perform simple tasks, such as brushing her teeth or tying her shoes, proved to be more difficult than learning how to walk again. It also took her a full year to figure out how to pull her hair back and put it up, which was particularly annoying for the stylish teen who enjoys dying her hair, wearing brightcolored wigs and having fun with her beauty products. With all she has been through, it

seems like there isn’t much that can stop this remarkable teen from living her life to the absolute fullest. In the documentary “Shark Attack Investigation: The Paige Winter Story,” premiering July 12 on National Geographic, Winter gets the chance to tell her story as well as take viewers with her on a very special step forward on her road to recovery. The documentary also serves to set the teen’s and her family’s minds at ease by uncovering the truth of what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the attack, or ones like it, in the future. Today, Winter is well on her way to succeeding at following some of her biggest dreams. She recently finished her first semester of cosmetology school, which, she proudly adds, she finished on time. “There are some things that I have to do differently than other people,” she

Winter and her father, Charlie Winter — who rescued her during the 2019 attack — go on a sharktagging expedition. GABRIEL KERR/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

says. “But I still figure out a way to do it and get the exact same results, which is cool, I thought.” Beyond school, she says she also aspires to show off her singing voice (beyond the designated safe spaces of her boyfriend’s or mom’s car). Winter says she does not blame the shark for what happened to her. “They’re sharks. They’re chillin’. They’re not bothering me,” she insists. In fact, she makes a concerted effort to promote shark and ocean conservation, which had been passions of hers for years. “I get really scared that people are going to use my story as a way to demonize sharks. If I keep speaking out, that gives people less of a chance to do that. Because that’s really unfair to sharks,” Winter says. “I knew at that time, and I still know now, that shark populations are declining and that shark attacks are really [rare].”


USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION

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SHARKFEST

MISUNDERSTOOD OR MALEVOLENT? Shalayne Pulia

“Sharks are nowhere near as bad as the media would have us think.” Valerie Taylor

Special to USA TODAY

For this season of SharkFest, National Geographic goes straight to the source of many public misconceptions about sharks: the 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.” Thanks to the underwater filmmakers-turned-conservationists who helped create the movie, as well as a whole new generation of science communicators, there is hope that a new day is dawning when it comes to the public perception of sharks. Continued on next page

Great white sharks, like this one photographed in 1964 by Ron and Valerie Taylor, are fearsomelooking animals, but they aren’t the vengeful man-eaters they’re so often made out to be. RON & VALERIE TAYLOR


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Valerie Taylor, featured in “Playing with Sharks” (premiering July 23 on Disney+), and her husband, Ron Taylor, caught the attention of director Steven Spielberg after filming oceanic white tip sharks for the documentary “Blue Water, White Death” in the early ’70s. Spielberg hired the couple to shoot underwater scenes for “Jaws.” The Taylors had no idea then that the film would become a global hit that altered public perception of sharks for decades to come. “Jaws” greatly exaggerated the size and ferociousness of great white sharks. The film was fiction — a yarn about an impossibly huge and vengeful beast — but that hasn’t prevented oceangoers worldwide from fearing these animals.

Taking a shark’s measurements is no easy task: Eli Martinez, Carlee Jackson, Chelle Blais and others get a read on the length of this shark. NOVA WEST/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

This “shark mania,” as Valerie Taylor calls it, led the Taylors to spend most of their careers trying to debunk myths about their beloved sea creatures. “Sharks are nowhere near as bad as the media would have us think,” she says. “It’s a mistake.” Ron Taylor died in 2012. Shortly after “Jaws,” fishermen across the globe took to the seas to slaughter sharks essentially for sport. The Taylors were horrified. “A shark is part of the web of life on the planet,” Valerie Taylor says. “It’s definitely an important part of the web of life in the ocean.” Like many of the experts featured throughout SharkFest this year, Taylor sees science communication as key to changing the way people feel about sharks. She went on dives and captured photos and footage of herself getting

closer to these apex predators than anyone had before to show that not all sharks are quite so dangerous. “I’ve worked all my life for marine conservation,” she says. “Mainly, I’ve been able to get a good story, get the facts, get it on film and then go on television. And I’m saying that for all the conservationists in the world right now. This is how you do it.” Shark scientist and science communicator Melissa Cristina Márquez, featured in “Shark Attack Files” (premiering July 12 on National Geographic), studies how perceptions of sharks have changed over time and how those perceptions can directly influence the effectiveness of conservation initiatives. Continued on next page


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“One of the biggest [misconceptions] is that sharks are mindless man-eaters,” Márquez says. “Some people are probably like, ‘Oh no, we’ve gotten past that.’ But look at how our media portrays them. Any time there’s a shark bite, the headline is always ‘Monster Attacks.’ ” Most recently, Márquez says she came across an article that used the word “lurking” to describe a photo of a shark underwater. “It’s swimming! It’s swimming like it normally does,” she says. “Sharks need to be protected. Their numbers are dwindling, and there’s stuff that we can do. But we need people to actually care. And how do you get a person to care about a ‘monster?’” Paul Butcher, the principal research

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scientist at the New South Wales, Australia, Department of Primary Industries, also takes issue with the idea that sharks “lurk” in open waters. “Sharks don’t just hang around our local beaches,” says the researcher, who is featured in “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” (currently streaming on Disney+). He says new technology can help scientists and public officials both deter shark attacks and better understand the animals’ travel patterns. “Often, people think it’s the same shark going backward and forward along the same beach,” Butcher says. “But these sharks that we’re [tagging] are traveling thousands of kilometers each year. In fact, we’ve had one animal travel more than 40,000 kilometers over four years between the east and west coasts

“Sharks don’t just hang around ... beaches” waiting to attack, says shark scientist Paul Butcher. The oceanic whitetip, above, prefers deep seas. ANDY MANN/

of Australia.” Scientists like Butcher are still trying to better understand shark movements and what drives them. But Butcher says one thing is for certain: Sharks are not hunting humans. Shark ecologist Charlie Huveneers, who is also featured in “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth,” believes that the overgeneralization of the word “shark” plays into people’s fears. “There’s much more to sharks than the potentially dangerous species like white sharks, tiger sharks or bull sharks,” he says. “The vast majority are completely harmless to humans.” Huveneers hopes his research on electric field-based shark deterrent technology can help ease some people’s

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fears, even toward the most dangerous species. But he admits that getting people to absorb science research is not always so easy. “Changing public perception is difficult when people have very strong opinions and very strong beliefs,” he says. “It is also difficult because you don’t want to undermine the fear that people have of sharks and the risks that do exist.” Carlee Jackson, a sea turtle and shark conservationist featured in “Shark Attack Files,” believes that emphasizing the vast diversity of the shark population will help people better understand and empathize with the creatures. “Sharks are very complex,” says Jackson, who is also communications director for the group Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS). “They actually have really cool behaviors that shape their personalities. Every shark is extremely different, even within the same species.” Márquez, too, believes that teaching people more about the more than 500 species of sharks will help soften attitudes. “Knowing how many species there are and knowing how many of them actually pose a threat puts [the risk of a shark attack] into perspective,” she says. When it comes to dangers in the ocean, Márquez points out that there are many other kinds of encounters in the ocean that can cause injuries. “Yes, there’s always a risk when we go into the oceans, but not just [from] sharks,” she says. “You could get stung by a jellyfish. You could get bit by another fish. You could step on a discarded fishing hook. There’s so many different things that could go wrong, but that’s life in general.” She has a point. The Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File makes it clear that people are more likely to die from heart disease, car accidents and even lightning strikes than shark attacks. In fact, there is only a 1 in 3.7 million chance of dying as a result of an attack. Some experts say people are more likely to die while trying to take a selfie than as a result of injuries from a shark bite, based on a study conducted by The Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care in India. Some scientists are taking to social media to publicize findings like these. Marine biologist Jasmin Graham believes scientists have steered away from using social media in the past because these platforms can be too saturated with misinformation. “To that, I say the only way to counter misinformation is by providing correct information,” says Graham, who is also president and CEO of MISS. “The world

Melissa Cristina Márquez says the public perception of sharks directly affects the success of conservation efforts. COLIN THRUPP/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

is changing. The way that people get information is changing. So science should change.” Graham understands that average folks are not likely to read one of her 20page scientific reports. But they might listen to her talk about shark science in a short video or during a live session on Twitter, where they are able to ask realtime questions. “That’s why I’m really big on science communication, making sure that you say things in a way that people understand and that people relate to,” she says. “That’s another reason why diversity in science is important.” Márquez, who has presented her shark science findings in both English and Spanish so that more of her followers can understand her work, would agree. And thanks to scientists like these and networks like National Geographic, which champion entertaining television rooted in scientific fact, young people are starting to catch on. Shark attack survivor Paige Winter, 19, who is featured this year in “Shark Attack Investigation: The Paige Winter

Story” (premiering July 12 on National Geographic), says that in addition to watching summer events like SharkFest, she takes her shark study a step further, seeking out new information on her phone every night before bed. One of Winter’s favorite pop culture shark facts? Peter Benchley, the late author of the “Jaws” book that inspired Spielberg’s film, came to regret ever writing the thriller. “[He] said he would take it all back and never write that book if he could because of how awful people treated sharks afterward,” Winter says. Benchley, like the Taylors, had also spoken out in favor of ocean conservation. “I want us to at least come to a point where we can mutually respect” sharks, Márquez says. “They’ve been on this planet for a really long time. We need to properly co-exist with them.” Young people with “sparks in their eyes” like Winter give scientists like Márquez new hope for a future in which people better understand the importance and urgency of the sharks’ plight and overall ocean conservation.


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SHARKFEST

Smart buoys and electric fields: Scientists test ways to reduce the encounters that are dangerous to both humans and sharks.

TECH BITES

Shalayne Pulia

Special to USA TODAY

Fatal shark attacks have been increasing on the Australian coast. In 2020, eight people died from injuries inflicted by sharks, making it the country’s deadliest year for shark attacks in more than nine decades. Such surges make headlines, but according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, shark attacks remain decidedly rare. Even so, scientists like Paul Butcher, the principal research scientist at the New South Wales, Australia, Department of Primary Industries, are studying technologies to reduce the human-shark encounters that are

Paul Butcher, left, and Chris Hemsworth release a SMART drumline. CRAIG PARRY/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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dangerous for both humans and sharks. Over the past six years, Butcher — who is featured in the National Geographic SharkFest documentary “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” (currently streaming on Disney+) — has been working with SMART drumlines. This non-lethal technology alerts scientists to the presence of a shark so they can catch, tag, relocate and release the animal, as well as gather data to help better understand shark movements. Traditional drumlines are designed to simply catch and kill sharks. (SMART stands for “Shark Management Alert in Real Time.” “We’re now using multiple tools to protect our beaches, and we’re getting a greater understanding of the animals that we’re catching,” Butcher says. His research program targets the species primarily responsible for serious and fatal shark bites in Australia. “We’ve tagged

A grey nurse shark in waters off the coast of New South Wales, Australia. Grey nurse sharks, also called sand tiger sharks, may look ferocious, but they pose little threat to humans. CRAIG PARRY/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

over 580 white sharks, 170 tigers and 110 bull sharks over the last six years along our coastal beaches, and this is only 500 meters offshore.” SMART drumlines are anchored to the seafloor and consist of two buoys and a satellite-linked GPS communications unit attached to a baited hook. When a shark gets hooked, the unit sends a signal to researchers. A team can take a boat out to the drumline’s location and tend to the shark as soon as possible. The shark is tagged, relocated and released about 1 kilometer offshore. According to Butcher, the animal is typically 15-30 kilometers offshore by the next day. The public is alerted via the DPI’s SharkSmart mobile app and Twitter (@NSWSharkSmart) once a shark is relocated and released. Notifications are also sent automatically when a tagged shark swims back within 500 meters of special shark listening stations across New South Wales.

“The technology works really well,” Butcher says. “It’s an environmentally friendly option with almost 100% of animals released alive. And we’re catching the majority of our target animals that are responsible for bites with minimal by-catch.” (By-catch occurs when animals besides the targeted species are caught in the system.) Butcher and his team work exclusively during daylight hours so no SMART drumlines are left out overnight. “Traditional drumlines are left out for 24 hours a day to catch whatever shark is swimming along that wants to take the bait,” Butcher explains. “But for SMART drumlines, they’re put in from dawn to sunset because we only want to catch sharks when our beach users are in the water.” An essential element of the project is the research that continues after each shark is tagged. Butcher hopes that folContinued on next page


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lowing the movements of tagged sharks will help scientists better understand what drives the animals up and down the Australian coastline. Butcher and his team plan to keep their research going — ideally by expanding the program throughout New South Wales and potentially to more Australian states. “We’ll keep on doing research and refining the gear so we can maximize the catch of our target species and minimize any by-catch. [We want to] be sure all animals are released without harm, stress or any mortalities,” he says. “We’ve got a little bit of work to do. But we’ve done the bulk of it over the last six years, and the results are positive.” Butcher hopes releasing his study’s findings as part of “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” will pique more interest in trials than can extend beyond the

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seas surrounding his home country. “To be able to be part of ‘Shark Beach’ and work with Chris and the team to disseminate our results to a global audience is a huge achievement for our program,” Butcher says. “The results are not limited to Australia. These results can be used worldwide.” Scientists like Butcher aren’t the only ones trying to build new technology to reduce shark attacks. Over the past few years, several devices have been marketed with claims that they deter sharks from getting close enough to bite. Charlie Huveneers, a shark ecologist from Flinders University in South Australia, has been testing these commercially available technologies. “Most of the deterrents we tested actually didn’t affect the behavior of sharks all that much,” Huveneers says. “The only ones that had a substantial effect were electric field shark deterrents, [which] we found can reduce shark bites by 60%.”

“To be part of ‘Shark Beach’ and work with Chris and the team to disseminate our results to a global audience is a huge achievement for our program,” says Paul Butcher, at left. CRAIG PARRY/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The researcher, also featured in “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth,” explains that electric field deterrents target unique sensory organs called Ampullae of Lorenzini, which sharks use to detect electric fields and sense prey at close range. “As a shark gets closer to [an electric-field deterrent] device, the electric field becomes too strong for these Ampullae of Lorenzini,” Huveneers explains. “And that’s what will make the shark turn away.” If you’re picturing a sort of shock collar for sharks, you’re not too far off. “It feels sort of like holding or touching an electric fence,” Huveneers says. “You get a bit of a shock, and you’re unlikely to grab it again.” In “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth,” Huveneers demonstrates an effective deterrent device from Ocean Guardian called FREEDOM+ Surf, which is designed to protect surfers. “The idea is to have electrodes [attached] underneath the surfboard, with the power module incorporated within the tail pad,” Huveneers says. Electric pulses sent out from the board could deter sharks that might bite the board’s rider. Recently, Huveneers and his team released a scientific paper explaining what the successful implementation of electric field shark deterrent technology could mean for beachgoers. Taking into consideration patterns in shark bites as well as the increasing population of Australia, the team projected that if everyone in the water wore these effective deterrents regularly, more than 1,000 shark bites could be prevented by 2066. “Sharks are much more maneuverable than people might think,” Huveneers says. “They can and they will abort a predatory attack if something is not quite right.” Obviously, Huvaneers says, he does not necessarily expect every single person in Australian waters to wear a shark bite deterrent. Nonetheless, the findings are promising. “The key message for me is that shark bites are a risk. It can happen. We’re not trying to undermine that,” Huveneers says. “But the risk can also be reduced with the right tools. It’s important to get the right information about which deterrent works and which doesn’t.” Huveneers says his ultimate goal is to influence the way governments manage their shark deterrent resources as well as the way the public decides to interact with the ocean. “I like to think we’re doing science for a reason, not just for the sake of science,” he says. “Seeing the implications of the research that we’re doing is probably the most rewarding aspect of it.”


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Valerie ValerieTaylor Taylor Ocean Oceanconservationist conservationistand andphotographer photographer Valerie Valerie Taylor Taylor has has been beenworking workingtotoprotect protect marine marine animals animals for for 60 60 years, years,and andshe sheisn’t isn’tabout about totostop stopnow. now. “I’m “I’mvery veryhopeful,” hopeful,”she she says sayswhen whenasked askedwhether whether the the future future can can be be made made brighter brighter for for sharks. sharks.“We “Wejust justhave havetotogive givemore morecredit credit totothe themarine marineenvironment. environment.ItItisisnot notproprogress gresstotodestroy destroythe theplanet planetthat thatsupports supports you. you.That, That,totome, me,isisrank rankstupidity.” stupidity.” Taylor Taylordescribes describesthe theperils perilsof ofshark shark finning, finning, inin which which sharks sharks are are captured captured and andkilled killedonly onlyfor fortheir theirfins, fins,with withthe therest rest of ofthe thebody bodyjust justdumped dumpedinto intothe theocean. ocean. The Thefins finsare areused usedininspecialty specialtydishes disheslike like shark sharkfin finsoup. soup.“The “Theproblem problemis, is,all allmamarine rineanimals animalsare arefree freefor forthe thetaking,” taking,”TayTaylor lorsays. says.“A “Afisherman fishermanjust justgoes goesout outthere, there, takes, takes,and andreplaces replacesnothing.” nothing.” The Theconservationist conservationistisisaafirm firmbeliever believer

inincalling callingfor forgovernment governmentaction actiontotoprotect protect sea seacreatures. creatures.In Infact, fact,she shewas wasresponsible responsible for for getting getting the the local local Australian Australian governgovernment menttotoprotect protectgrey greynurse nursesharks sharksby bylaw law for forthe thefirst firsttime timeinin1984. 1984. “I“Ialways alwaysend endup upsaying: saying:All Allyou youmums mums out outthere therewho whohave havechildren childrenwho whowould would like liketotogo godown downand andone oneday daysee seeaagrey grey nurse nurseshark sharkininits itsenvironment, environment,write writetoto the thegovernment governmentnow nowand andtell tellthem themyou you want wantthem themprotected,” protected,”she shesays. says.“And “Anditit works. works.That’s That’show howyou youdo doit.” it.” On Onthe thesubject subjectof ofocean oceanpollution, pollution,TayTaylor lorsupports supportslimiting limitingthe theuse useof ofplastic. plastic.“I“I can can remember remember seeing seeing my my first first piece piece of of plastic. plastic. I I was was 14,” 14,” she she says. says. “It “It was was atat school, school,and andthey theysaid, said,‘This ‘Thisisisgoing goingtotorevrevolutionize olutionizethe theplanet.’ planet.’And Andititsure surehas, has,but but not notfor forthe thebetter.” better.”She Shesuggests suggestsswitching switching totopaper paperand andstring stringbags bagsas asaastart, start,adding, adding, “I“Iknow knowwe wecan canlive livewithout without[plastic] [plastic]bebecause causewe wedid.” did.”

Melissa MelissaCristina CristinaMárquez Márquez

Shark Shark populations populations have have been been devastated devastated in in the the past past half-century. half-century. SharkFest SharkFest experts experts offer offer tips tips on on what what we we can can do do to to make make aa difference. difference. Shalayne ShalaynePulia Pulia

Special SpecialtotoUSA USATODAY TODAY

Shark Sharkpopulations populationsare aredeclining decliningrapidly. rapidly.According According totoaastudy studypublished publishedininJanuary Januaryininthe theBritish Britishjournal journal Nature, Nature,the thenumber numberof ofsharks sharksand andrays raysininthe theworld’s world’s oceans oceanshas hasfallen fallen71% 71%since since1970. 1970.That Thatisislikely likelytotohave haveaa huge hugeimpact impacton onmarine marineecosystems ecosystemsthat thatrely relyon onsharks sharks to, to,among amongother otherthings, things,keep keepsmaller smalleranimal animalpopulapopulations tionsinincheck. check. Major Majorcauses causesof ofthe thedecline declinemostly mostlyhave havetotodo dowith with human humaninterference. interference.People Peopleare areresponsible responsiblefor forkilling killing an anestimated estimated11million millionsharks sharksevery everyyear. year.Sharks Sharksthemthemselves selvesare arehunted, hunted,but butmany manydie dieas asby-catch, by-catch,when whenthey they get getcaught caughtup upininfishing fishingintended intendedfor forother otherspecies. species. There Thereare areways wayspeople peoplecan canstep stepup uptotothe thechallenge challengeof of protecting protectingthese theseessential essentialmarine marinecreatures. creatures.Some Someof of the theexperts expertsfeatured featuredininSharkFest SharkFest2021 2021explain explainhow howtoto get getinvolved involvedright rightnow. now. Tiger Tigersharks sharksroam roamthe theseafloor seafloorininthe theBahamas. Bahamas. JESSALYN JESSALYNHAEFELE/NATIONAL HAEFELE/NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC GEOGRAPHIC

Shark Sharkscientist scientistand andscience science communicator communicator Encouraging Encouraging people people totoeat eatsustainable sustainableseaseafood foodwill willhave haveaabenefibeneficial cial impact impact on on ocean ocean ecosystems, ecosystems, says says MeMelissa lissaCristina CristinaMárquez. Márquez. To Tomake makesure surewhat whatyou you eat eatwas wassustainably sustainablycaught, caught,she shesugsuggests gestsdownloading downloadingaa“sustainable “sustainableseaseafood” food”app apptototell tellyou youmore moreabout aboutthe the seafood seafoodbeing beingsold soldiningrocery grocerystores stores and andrestaurants. restaurants. The The shark shark expert expert also also suggests suggests reaching reaching out out toto staff staff at at grocers grocers and and restaurants restaurants that that may may not not yet yet serve serve sustainably sustainablycaught caughtfish. fish. “If “Ifyou’re you’rebrave braveenough enoughtototalk talktoto those those people, people, be be like, like, ‘Hey, ‘Hey, do do you you know knowthat thatthis thisisisan anissue issuethat’s that’sgoing going on? on? Could Could you you possibly possibly change? change? I I think thinkyour yourconsumers consumerswould wouldbe bereally really happy happyabout aboutit.’ it.’”” Making Making conscious conscious food food choices choices does doesnot nothave havetotoalter alteryour yourdaily dailylife life drastically. drastically.Márquez Márquezsays, says,“Even “Evenififyou you do doititimperfectly, imperfectly,thousands thousandsof ofpeople people doing doingthat thatimperfectly imperfectlyare aregoing goingtotodo do ititway waybetter betterthan thanjust justone oneor ortwo twopeopeople pledoing doingititperfectly.” perfectly.”

NATIONAL NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC GEOGRAPHICPHOTOS PHOTOS

Carlee CarleeJackson Jackson Shark Sharkand andsea seaturtle turtle conservationist conservationistand andMISS MISS communications communicationsdirector director “People “People can can do do their their part part by by just just learning learningand anddoing doingtheir theirown ownresearch,” research,” Carlee CarleeJackson Jacksonsays. says.She Shewould wouldlove lovetoto inspire inspireSharkFest SharkFestviewers viewerstotogo goaastep step further, further, getting getting toto know know sharks sharks and and their theirplight plightby byseeking seekingout outnew newarticles articles and andscientific scientificfindings. findings. “There’s “There’saalot lotof ofreally reallycool coolresearch research going goingon onthat thatcan canhelp helpyou youlearn learnabout about these theseanimals animalsininaadifferent differentway,” way,”she she says. says.The Themore morepeople peopleknow, know,the themore more likely likelythey theyare aretotowant wanttotoprotect protectthese these majestic majesticcreatures. creatures. Jackson Jacksonalso alsosuggests suggestsdonating donatingtotoor or even even volunteering volunteering with with organizations organizations that that research research sharks sharks inin the the name name of of conservation. conservation. “A “Alot lotof of[organizations] [organizations]run runsolely solely off offof ofdonations,” donations,”Jackson Jacksonsays, says,adding adding that that MISS MISS (Minorities (Minorities inin Shark Shark SciSciences) ences) isis one one of of those those nonprofits. nonprofits. “It “It really reallyhelps helpsthem themtotobe beable abletotodo doreresearch searchthat thatmakes makesaadifference.” difference.”


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SHARKFEST

Sea change Shalayne Pulia

Special to USA TODAY

Women working in film and in science, especially women of color, have fought hard for opportunity. Progress has often come only in fits and starts, but several women featured in SharkFest programs this season hold out hope for a brighter, more diverse future. Continued on next page

Sally Aitken directed “Playing With Sharks,” part of SharkFest 2021. JULES O’LOUGHLIN


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“We’ve got to tip the balance,” renowned Australian natural history filmmaker Bettina Dalton of Wildbear Entertainment says about the number of women in film. “I think it’s like a willow branch. It swings that way, it swings the other way, and then hopefully it’ll arrive in the middle where it should be.” In April, Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao made history at the Oscars as the first woman of color and the first Asian woman to win an Academy Award for best director. Her film “Nomadland” also took home best picture. Many women see her triumph as a positive sign for the film industry’s future. Six years after the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag called attention to the awards’ lack of diversity, four years after #MeToo surged on the sexual abuse claims mounting against notorious film executive Harvey Weinstein, three years after Time’s Up launched to combat workplace sexual harassment and one year after Oscar nominees for best director excluded women entirely, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. Dalton certainly believes the tides are changing. “How fantastic to finally have a woman of color as best director,” she says. “You feel buoyed by that.” Earlier this year, Dalton’s documentary “Playing with Sharks,” about legendary Australian ocean cinematographer and conservationist Valerie Taylor, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It was a passion project for Dalton, the film’s producer, who says Taylor inspired her a young age to get into wildlife filmmaking. “This year at Sundance, I felt a wave of support,” Dalton says. “Sometimes it’s not one big battle; it’s a daily battle. But I think we’re enjoying a period of acknowledgment.” There is still much work to be done. After all, Zhao was still only the second woman ever to win the best director Oscar. (Kathryn Bigelow won for “The Hurt Locker” in 2008.) “I am a huge believer in supporting and nurturing female filmmakers,” says Emmy-nominated director Sally Aitken, who proudly took the reins as director for “Playing with Sharks.” “There’s still not enough of us.” Working on “Playing with Sharks,” however, did offer a unique, female-focused experience for the team. “[As women], we look at the world differentContinued on next page

A bull shark comes in for a close-up in the waters of the Bahamas. ANDRE MUSGROVE/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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ly,” Dalton says. “And I felt there was a shared vision, a shared respect, a shared appreciation [among us].” The women on the production learned as much from one another as they did from the 85-year-old subject of the documentary. “As a woman, often you do maneuver slightly differently in the world, especially if you’re in a male-dominated sphere,” Aitken says. “[Taylor] sought ways of engaging with, for example, boat crews or film crews that never denied her femininity but also never made her feel marginalized because of her gender.” Taylor was and is a powerhouse. It’s hard not to be inspired by her story, leading the way for women in every industry she entered, from winning spearfishing championships to getting face to face with great white sharks and spearheading legal protections for grey nurse sharks. Aitken, born and raised in New Zealand, says she finds this tenacity to be geographically linked. “Valerie is fearless. But Australia, and New Zealand for that matter, have that incredible history of fearless women,” she says. New Zealand “was the first country in the world to give women the vote. [There are] incredible stories of women who have, in different ways, spoken their own truth in their time.” That does not mean speaking up is easy. “I think the difficulty for women is that there’s still this challenge where you have to prove yourself 10 times sharper, better, stronger and more competent,” Aitken says. “I mean, what is that fantastic meme? ‘If only I had the confidence of a middle-aged white man.’ ” Aitken does see strength in women’s ability to break through barriers, even with the odds stacked against them. “I think that makes us incredibly adept,” she says. “It makes us flexible. It makes us compassionate and empathetic.” Empathy and respect are key traits that Taylor has always wielded with confidence. “Every individual creature that Valerie encounters, she treats with respect,” Dalton says. “I feel that that’s a philosophy for our time.” Aitken would agree, “Especially coming out of this period of the pandemic, having a film that reminds us about interconnectedness, not just with each other, but with all species, I think there’s a resonance there.” Continued on next page

Carlee Jackson sees the opportunity to inspire the next generation in science. NOVA WEST/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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While Aitken says she does not believe she has experienced overt sexism or been directly impacted by #MeToo, she acknowledges the challenges that she and other women in film face. “We’re still in a system that basically champions male genius,” she says. “We’re still in this system that is centuries in the making, but we are rightfully celebrating all alternative perspectives: people of color, different sexual orientations. The decentering, which is happening everywhere, is something to be excited about.” Aitken also says there is a level of active commitment needed at every stage to make sure this shift toward increased diversity in film and beyond continues. It will be worth the effort, she says. “In the same way that planetary diversity is the thing that sustains life, diversity in point of view is the thing that makes us a more connected and empathetic human species,” she says. Young people, in particular young people of color, seem to be leading the charge on this call for change. A similar

SharkFest 2021 offers six weeks of programming across four networks as well as Disney+. ANDY MANN/ NATIONAL GRAPHIC

story is playing out in marine sciences. Millennial shark scientist and science communicator Melissa Cristina Márquez is on a mission to make science more accessible for women and for people of color, especially in the Latinx community. Gender disparity in the sciences is nothing new. The percentage of women in STEM fields has been crawling upwards at a snail’s pace for decades. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, 27% of all STEM workers are women, even though women make up nearly half of the overall workforce. According to the Pew Research Center, Black and Brown women make up just 9% and 8% of the U.S. STEM workforce, respectively. Márquez, featured in “Shark Attack Files” (premiering July 12 on National Geographic), and other scientists like her are working hard to change that. Márquez’s main focus is on breaking down barriers to science communication. From her Instagram to her podcast, she makes a concerted effort to speak and write in both English and Spanish so that more communities can understand

her. “I divide [representation] up into two different things: One is the representation of how a person looks and how they act. And then there’s representation of language,” she explains. Márquez believes that increased multilingual science communication can lead to a population that better understands the problems that the natural world faces. Growing up, the budding scientist remembers watching shark-centric shows with wide-eyed excitement. But something was always missing. “I never saw a scientist that looked like me, a woman or a Latina,” she says. “It always made me wonder in the back of my mind, ‘Is this something I can do?’ ” Despite the lack of representation she saw on screen, the determined shark-lover (known as “The Mother of Sharks” by her peers) decided to pursue her dream career. Today, she is hopeful that women and people of color will soon be better represented across the sciences. “I’ve got a good gut feeling that we’re going to be okay if we give everybody the opportuniContinued on next page


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ty to shine, join this proverbial table and work collaboratively towards finding solutions that are diverse, inclusive and equitable,” she says. “The best way that we’re going to be able to tackle what’s happening on our planet right now is by working together.” It is still rare for Márquez to come across another Latina shark scientist in her daily life. However, she says one thing that gives her hope for a more equitable future is the number of young women of color in the sciences with whom she has been interacting with on social media. “The one thing I love about our generation and the ones that are following us is that we see a problem, and we’re not just talking the talk, we’re actually walking the walk,” she says. She cites Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS) as a prime example of social-media-led, millennialdriven efforts to make change. MISS began with a thread on Twitter in June 2020. As social unrest began to boil over across the U.S., Black female

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shark scientists online were beginning to connect with one another for the very first time. Jasmin Graham, Carlee Jackson, Amani Webber-Schultz and Jaida Elcock seized the moment to organize a group that could celebrate and uplift more Black voices in sciences. “I like to say that a lot of the ‘shark things’ are great white sharks and great white men,” says marine biologist Graham, who is the president and CEO of MISS. “That’s kind of how that rolls [in the media].” In addition to fundraising to help overcome financial barriers that hold women of color back from entering shark sciences, the organization is determined to change perceptions about what shark science is and what shark scientists look like. “I hope people learn from MISS that there’s more to sharks than ‘Jaws,’ and there’s more to scientists than white guys in lab coats,” Graham says. In its first year of operation, MISS has grown from four to more than 300 members and “Friends of MISS” who support the mission. Major organizations like the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the

Watching shark shows while growing up, “I never saw a scientist that looked like me, a woman or a Latina,” says Melissa Cristina Márquez. She’s made it a personal mission to change that. COLIN THRUPP/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Field School and the Bimini Sharklab have reached out to get involved. National Geographic has also announced a partnership with MISS for the 2022 SharkFest to try to ensure that women and people of color are better represented in front of and behind the camera. “The fact that organizations have come to us to support us, to partner with us, and that organizations are willing to acknowledge that they’re part of the problem, I think that has a lot of power,” Graham says. Jackson, a shark and sea turtle conservationist as well as the communications director for MISS, is encouraged by the support the group has received. Jackson will be featured in this season’s “Shark Attack Files.” It’s an opportunity she has sought since she was a little girl watching shark shows on TV. “Knowing that I’ll be on the screen being my authentic Black self makes me feel awesome,” Jackson says. “There are gonna be girls like I was when I was younger [now] able to look at the screen and be like, ‘Wow. I can do that too. I can actually fill up space in shark science.’”


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SHARKFEST

National Geographic’s ‘Playing with Sharks’ is an intimate look at the life of legendary marine conservationist and fierce shark protector Valerie Taylor.

Diving in Shalayne Pulia Special to USA TODAY

When she started as a champion spearfisher in the 1950s, Valerie Taylor was outnumbered by men in her field 100 to 1, a fact that never really fazed her. Taylor simply dedicated her life to doing what she loved — exploring the ocean. “I always found the men I worked with respectful. They treated me like one of the guys,” she says. “They expected me to jump off the boat with the sharks like they did. And, of course, I did.” Valerie and her husband, Ron Taylor, shot daring, first-of-its-kind footage of sharks. They were the first to film a great white shark underwater, which caught the attention of a then-little-known diContinued on next page

Valerie Taylor made her personal diaries and all her husband’s archival footage available for the documentary. CRAIG PARRY/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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rector named Steven Spielberg. He hired the Taylors to shoot the underwater scenes in his next movie, “Jaws.” It became a blockbuster, and the perception of sharks changed forever. The Taylors would then spend the rest of their lives trying to debunk the misconception of sharks as cold-blooded killers. Valerie Taylor’s work as a fearless hunter-turned-pioneering filmmaker and passionate shark protector has made her one of the most revered ocean conservationists in the world. That’s a status the 85-year-old Taylor holds proudly today, and one producer Bettina Dalton hopes will become more widely known after her documentary on Taylor, “Playing with Sharks,” premieres on Disney+ on July 23. Dalton first learned about Taylor from her parents’ copy of the May 1981 issue of National Geographic. The cover image, shot by Ron, showed Valerie under water, clad in shimmering chainmail, with an oceanic whitetip shark hanging off of her arm by its teeth. “I just saw that image and thought, ‘She’s my Marvel hero! Forget Spider-Man,’ ” Dalton says. For that image, Taylor had offered herself up as literal shark bait to prove that the awesome predators are not nearly as dangerous to humans as the media made them seem. In turn, that changed the way scientists think about sharks’ jaw power and potential danger. “They don’t eat people. They bite people. We’re not their natural prey,” Taylor says. “I guess it’s like me biting a tarantula. I wouldn’t care for it, either. I’d probably spit it out. That’s how I see it.” Inspired by Taylor, Dalton began to make a name for herself in wildlife filmmaking. She eventually became a producer and director lauded for shaping the face of natural history filmmaking in Australia. That garnered her the opportunity to work on her first series about the Taylors 22 years ago. They grew close; Valerie even taught Dalton’s youngest daughter how to dive. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when Dalton first watched the National Geographic documentary feature “Jane,” about legendary conservationist Jane Goodall, that Dalton had an epiphany. “I was sitting in the cinema, and I thought, ‘Hold on a minute … We’ve got our own Jane living in our midst! Why haven’t I done a film just on Valerie?’ ” Taylor granted Dalton and “Playing with Sharks” director Sally Aitken access to her personal diaries in addition to all of her late husband’s archival film, which was remastered for the documentary. “Some of my favorite shots are little

Valerie Taylor with her husband, Ron, framed by a shark jaw. Ron Taylor died in 2012. RON & VALERIE TAYLOR

Chainmail sleeves protect Valerie Taylor from a shark’s bite in this image from 1982. A similar photo appeared on the cover of the May 1981 issue of National Goegraphic magazine. RON & VALERIE TAYLOR

incidental moments,” says Aitken, who went through thousands of hours of the footage with her editor. “You know, [like] Ron stroking Valerie’s hair, but just before they’re about to go cageless with 200 oceanic whitetip sharks in the Indian Ocean.” She laughs at the thought. Aitken quickly fell for the legendary diver just like Dalton did back in the ’80s. “I think that what I learned from Valerie is at 85, you can be as purposeful as you were at 25. You can still command a room. And there is a deep wisdom [that comes] with experience,” Aitken says. Taylor’s unique ability to meet all living things on their level, from those oceanic Continued on next page


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whitetips to the grey nurse sharks that she fought so hard to make the first species protected by law, is precisely what Dalton and Aitken wanted to highlight on camera. “Every individual creature that Valerie encounters, she treats with respect,” Dalton says. “They’ve got a personality. They’ve got a right to be there.” Agreeing to do “Playing with Sharks” also afforded Taylor the chance to return to Fiji, the last place she dived with her husband before he passed away in 2012. Come hell or high water (read: arthritis or bad weather), Taylor’s determination never wavered. Dalton likens this experience to what Taylor must have felt back when she dove — cageless — into a sea full of oceanic whitetips: relentless drive. “There was no way she wasn’t going to get out of that cage even though she didn’t know if she’d survive it,” Dalton says. “I remember reading her diaries, and that particular morning she wrote, ‘Goodbye blue sky’ and things like, ‘I don’t know if this is my last day.’ That’s quite extraordinary.”

“Don’t go to university and learn to be a marine biologist. Go into the ocean and become a marine biologist.” Valerie Taylor

Taylor’s no-nonsense, just-do-it personality carried her through her career. “Valerie is not a person who sits in an ivory tower,” Aitken says. “She speaks from firsthand experience and prides herself on speaking her own truth.” This relentless gumption earned respect from scientific and creative communities across the globe. Taylor’s fans and friends from these fields showed up in droves to share their admiration for the woman who showed them, even more than she told them, how to go about interacting with the ocean. “If you really want to do something, I just say do it. Don’t ask permission. Don’t go to university and learn to be a marine biologist. Go into the ocean and become a marine biologist,” Taylor says. “Nobody taught me. I just did it. And anybody can. They just gotta make their mind up and do it.” Tools of her trade: camera equipment and a wetsuit. Valerie Taylor in 1975. RON & VALERIE TAYLOR


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SHARKFEST

WHAT SCARES YOU MORE THAN

SHARKS? Shalayne Pulia

Special to USA TODAY

Grounded by fi rst-hand experience and scientifi c fact, nine men and women involved in creating SharkFest 2021 tell us what they fear most, if not sharks. Continued on next page

A hammerhead shark patrols the sea floor in the Bahamas. Eyes set wide at either end of its distinctive hammershaped head give the shark excellent vision. ANDRE MUSGROVE/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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A blacktip reef shark swims in murky waters. These sharks live in tropical and subtropical areas of the Pacific and Indian oceans. ENRIC SALA/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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Carlee Jackson

Paige Winter

h WHO: Sea turtle and shark conservationist; director of communications for MISS.

h WHO: Shark attack survivor.

h WHAT: “Shark Attack Files” (July 12, National Geographic).

h WHAT “Shark Attack Investigation: The Paige Winter Story” (July 12, National Geographic).

h THE FEAR: “A crocodile and an orca. Orcas are terrifying mostly because they’re usually a lot bigger than sharks. And they’ve been seen actually beating up and eating sharks, which is crazy.”

h THE FEAR: “You know those big Halloween animatronics that talk and move? Those terrify me. I cannot be near them [laughs].”

(Want to learn more about orcas and crocodiles? Check out “Orca vs. Great White,” which premiered July 6, and “Croc that Ate Jaws,” which premiered July 8, both on National Geographic.)

Jasmin Graham h WHO: Marine biologist; president, CEO and co-founder of Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS). h THE FEAR: “Getting stabbed with a catfish spine is not a fun experience. I am always much more nervous handling catfish than when I handle sharks. They freak me out. They do this crazy thing where they stick out their spines and spin so you can’t grab them. Also, when I’m swimming or snorkeling, my big concern in the water is jellyfish. I don’t want to be stung. I could care less if there’s a giant shark nearby. If there’s a jellyfish, I’m out. I don’t want to be in the water [laughs].”

Charlie Huveneers h WHO: Shark ecologist. Bettina Dalton. BRENDON THORNE

Bettina Dalton h WHO: Producer, Wildbear Entertainment. h WHAT: “Playing with Sharks” (July 23, Disney+). h THE FEAR: “Sharks don’t scare me. What does? The future of our planet. What is it going to be like for our children and their children?”

h WHAT: “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” (currently streaming, Disney+). h THE FEAR: “I’m probably more scared of what people will think of the documentary and about the information that I’ve provided. So yeah, for me, the documentary is scarier than a shark [laughs].” Continued on next page


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Valerie Taylor. JAYNE JENKINS

Janet Vissering. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Continued from previous page

Janet Vissering

Valerie Taylor

h WHO: Senior vice president of production and development, National Geographic Partners.

h WHO: Ocean conservationist and photographer. h WHAT: “Playing with Sharks” (July 23, Disney+); “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth“ (currently streaming, Disney+). h THE FEAR: “We choose to go into the ocean, into an alien environment, and confront any marine animals that might be there, be it a school of fish, a turtle, a sea lion or a shark. [It’s] a privilege, rolling off the boat and dropping down through the water. And I’m never afraid, except if there’s a strong current.”

h THE FEAR: “I’ve been making shows in the natural world for over 20 years. And year after year, it gets harder to find animals because there are not that many around. I also live on the coast, and [over] four years, I’ve seen a difference [in the sea level] on the Chesapeake Bay. So, no animal scares me; the human impact that we are having on the planet does.”

Paul Butcher. CRAIG PARRY/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Sally Aitken. CAROLINE MCCREDIE

Sally Aitken

Paul Butcher

h WHO: Director.

h WHO: Principal research scientist, New South Wales (Australia) Department of Primary Industries.

h WHAT: “Playing with Sharks” (July 23, Disney+); “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” (currently streaming, Disney+).

h WHAT: “Shark Beach with Chris Hemsworth” (currently streaming, Disney+).

h THE FEAR: “What would frighten me more than sharks? A planet without them. A planet that is devoid of life and of diversity is not a planet [I want our] kids and their children’s children to grow up in.”

h THE FEAR: “Like Chris [Hemsworth], I’ve got a young family. I’ve got three sons aged 8, 11 and 13. Seeing the world evolve and what that brings for my family is a bigger scare for me.”


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SHARKFEST

Meet MISS Women of color working in the shark sciences band together to support one another, inspire a new generation of researchers and get their work recognized.

Carlee Jackson, a shark and sea turtle conservationist, swims with a shark in shallow water below a pier. NOVA WEST/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Shalayne Pulia

Special to USA TODAY

It all started with a tweet in June 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic had gripped the country for three months, and everyone everywhere sat at home with eyes glued to the ghostly bright lights of their phone, computer and television screens. Health care workers braved empty streets and overflowing hospitals. Supporters of Black Lives Matter marched against police brutality. The social unrest was palpable. On Twitter, the group @BlackAFInStem had just launched the first Black Birders Week with an accompanying hashtag, #BlackInNature, celebrating Black nature-lovers. Marine biologist Jasmin Graham decided to join in by posting pictures of herself on a boat tagging sharks Continued on next page


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for research. While scrolling through the #BlackInNature hashtag, Graham saw that sea turtle and shark conservationist Carlee Jackson had also posted pictures of herself tagging sharks. “Neither one of us had ever known another Black woman in shark science,” Graham says. “So we started bonding over that on Twitter.” Graham and Jackson connected on the platform with two others involved in shark science — Ph.D. students Amani Webber-Schultz and Jaida Elcock. The four researchers jokingly tweeted that they should start a club. When Catherine Macdonald, director of the Field School, a hands-on shark-science teaching institution, joined the thread to offer a place for the group to hold meetings, things started getting real. Shortly thereafter, Minorities in Shark Sciences, or MISS, was born. “Definitely during the social unrest it helped us feel a little more empowered; it helped us feel like we were doing something,” says Jackson, now director of communications for MISS. “We want to make a change, and we want to make sure other people feel safe in this field and are provided resources.” On the group’s first Zoom call, the four researchers discussed financial barriers that prevent more women of color from entering the shark sciences. “This kind of pay-to-play thing happens, where you have to pay to get [field] experiences,” says Graham, now president and CEO of MISS. “That makes it so if you don’t have enough money, you don’t have access to those resources.” MISS was not about to stand for that. The co-founders kicked things off with a fundraiser to help the group pay for women of color to travel to the Field School in Miami, where they could learn more about shark science. The response was overwhelming. “We ended up raising $25,000 in two weeks,” Graham says. “So then, as they say in ‘Spider-Man,’ with great power, comes great responsibility.” Supporters weren’t just giving money but also reaching out with words of encouragement. Parents were emailing the team, asking them to video chat with daughters who were inspired by the group. “We [also] had a lot of adults saying that at one point they were trying to do marine sciContinued on next page

Jasmin Graham, a co-founder and now president and CEO of MISS. CASSIE WEGENG PHOTOGRAPHY


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ence and they ran into sexism, racism — all sorts of things — and they ended up quitting because they didn’t have support,” Graham adds. That’s when the team knew their group had to expand to fit the demand. “We were like, ‘This needs to be something bigger than just a workshop,’ ” she says. “It needs to be a movement.” Starting an organization in the middle of a pandemic presented plenty of challenges, but Jackson says some things actually worked in their favor, such as the increased social media interaction. “Literally everyone was always online,” she says. “That’s why I feel like we gained a lot of traction in our first weekend of

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launching.” The group, like most, got used to coordinating their efforts over Zoom. It wasn’t until a workshop they held earlier this year that the whole group met in person, nine months after MISS launched. “When we finally all met, we felt like we’d known each other this whole time,” Jackson says. The founders of MISS may have been new friends, but they already had an innate understanding of one another’s struggles. “It starts way back at the beginning of childhood,” Graham says. “[People don’t tend to go into] communities that are low-income or communities that are mostly [made up of] people of color and bring science to them.” Graham saw this firsthand. While attending the College of Charleston Honors

Carlee Jackson has an oncamera encounter with a hammerhead shark. ELI MARTINEZ/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

College in South Carolina for her undergraduate studies, she remembers people in her department telling her not to go to certain areas near the campus. “I would say, ‘Why? What’s south of Spring Street?’ ” she says. “The fact of the matter is, they’re saying it’s not a good area because that’s where the Black and Brown people live.” Graham can also recall instances at conferences where people came up to her asking if she was in the right place. Other times, people assumed she was part of the custodial staff. “People think that microaggressions are small things,” Graham says. “But when they’re happening to you in every class that you’re takContinued on next page


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ing, in every scientific situation you’re going into, eventually, it just gets to be too much. It’s kind of like death by a thousand bee stings.” With MISS, Graham and the other cofounders hope to build more than just an organization. They are looking to foster a vast network of women of color and allies. “We want to build this community so that for every person that tells you you don’t belong, there’s 70 telling you that you do,” Graham says. With more than 300 members and “Friends of MISS” (people who don’t identify as women of color but want to be part of the mission), the group is well on its way to achieving that goal. MISS is also making serious strides toward another goal: increasing the representation of women of color in shark sciences in the media. In an article published last year, the fledgling group took aim at natural history giants National Geographic and Discovery, challenging them to increase the diversity of scientists featured in their respective SharkFest and “Shark Week” programming. Janet Vissering, senior vice president of development and production at National Geographic Partners, immediately reached out. “That was a real life-changing moment for me,” Vissering says. “SharkFest has such a broad appeal — it reaches the young, the old, male, female. To not be able to reflect the true world and the great work that’s done by so many different people from different backgrounds is not right.” Vissering committed to making changes in programming. “It says a lot about Janet that instead of responding with negativity or getting defensive, she said, ‘You’re right. It’s a problem. And we’ve gotta fix it,’ ” Graham says. “And I think that says a lot about Nat Geo as an organization, as an institution, because it could be really easy for them to get defensive or to downplay it, but they faced it head-on.” National Geographic made a major push to find new faces from diverse backgrounds to feature both in front of and behind the camera for SharkFest 2021. One of them is Jackson, featured in the series “Shark Attack Files,” premiering July 12 on National Geographic. Hugely encouraged by this opportunity, Jackson says she looks forward to even more doors opening for diverse scientists in the future. So does Vissering, who promises an even bigger, better and more diverse SharkFest in 2022 as a result of a continuing National Geographic/MISS partnership.

“I’m excited to see this really cool research from a lot of our members be highlighted,” Jackson says. “A lot of these people have been doing this research for a while, but they’re not highlighted because they’re not mainstream.” Graham says she is more confident than ever that this will soon change. She is encouraged by members within the MISS network already working together to lift up one another personally while also supporting each other’s research through actions like sharing samples. “I think that we’re all going to be better scientists as a result of this community that we are building,” Graham says.

Looking to get involved? Jackson says the best way to support the group right now is to donate money, so MISS can offer more opportunities for young women of color interested in shark sciences to get out in the field. “We heavily rely on donations from our supporters because those directly help fund our workshop and internship opportunities that are breaking that financial barrier for women in shark science.” She adds that professionals in shark science fields who are looking to provide resources should also contact the group. Professionals can become a Friend of MISS even if they aren’t able to join.

Carlee Jackson is communications director for MISS, in addition to her field work and research. NOVA WEST/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


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