Viewers were recently left disappointed after a highly touted race between Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and a Great White shark turned out to be nothing more than a computer-generated simulation.
Given the name of the show, “Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White”, it’s understandable that some people were expecting one of the world’s greatest swimmers to hop into the ocean and compete for glory against a giant, terrifying shark. Even the promotional material was a bit ambiguous, with one press release saying: “The world’s most decorated athlete takes on the ocean’s most efficient predator: Phelps V Shark ― the race is on!”
The one-hour special played it up, putting Phelps face-to-face with real sharks while cage diving in the build-up to the race. However, when the time came to start the clock on the 100-meter race, some viewers felt like they had been deceived when the 28-year-old swam next to a computer-generated Great White shark rather than the real thing.
The team from the Discovery Channel had previously recorded a real shark swimming the same 100-meter stretch of water in Moseel Bay, South Africa, and created the simulation based on its actual speed as it swam in pursuit of bait that scientists trailed using a high-tech water vehicle prototype.
Donning a special Phantom wetsuit inspired by the skin of a shark that was created to increase his buoyancy while reducing his drag and a shark-like monofin flipper, he managed to keep pace with the animated shark until around halfway through the race. The “shark” eventually beat him by two seconds.
Before the main event, Phelps was shown swimming 50-meter races against virtual hammerhead and reef sharks. Phelps beat the reef shark by 0.2 seconds but lost to the hammerhead.
Were viewers deceived or were their expectations unrealistic?
When you think about it, it makes sense that the race was set up this way. Why would the 23-time Olympic gold medalist risk facing one of the ocean’s greatest predators on live TV? How would the show’s producers be able to convince a wild shark to swim side-by-side against him and stay on course?
In fact, in an interview leading up to the big event, Phelps told Good Morning America: “We’re not in the water at the same exact time. I think that’s the one thing we all — we want everyone to know — I was safe, which was No. 1.”
Nevertheless, Twitter was abuzz with Tweets from people who were surprised by the way the show went down. Reactions ranged from humorous to downright nasty. Many people said they felt like they had been tricked and would even stop watching the Discovery Channel. While one can say that the advertising was perhaps slightly misleading at times, it’s hard to be too angry when Phelps himself said he wouldn’t be in the water with the sharks in interviews ahead of the event.
Not everyone was unhappy with the show. Scripps Institution of Oceanography Marine Biologist and Shark Scientist Andrew Nosal was pleasantly surprised by the program, applauding it for being “good, clean fun” and showcasing shark science rather than perpetuation misinformation and fearmongering like many shark specials tend to do. He said that “any show not about shark attacks” was welcome.
Nosal is right, of course. While some sharks – like Great Whites – can indeed be quite dangerous, there is also a lot of misinformation floating around about these animals. Sharks help keep the ocean’s ecosystem in balance, and shark die-offs like those that have been seen in recent years can be a sign of deeper problems in the ecosystem. Moreover, it’s likely that truly pitting a shark against Phelps would have brought it outside of its natural environment in some way, and then the Discovery Channel would have been dealing with a different type of negative publicity.
For his part, Phelps told USA Today that he gained a new appreciation for how quickly these animals move through the water given their size. He also challenged the “shark” to a rematch, claiming the 55-degree water put him at a disadvantage.