MythBusters: Shark Special

Adam and Jamie in the water
Adam and Jamie in the water – Copyright Discovery Channel

It’s that time of year again. The time when a young man’s fancy turns to sun, sand, and surf. And though I try to honor Tracy Jordan‘s challenge to “live every week like it’s Shark Week,” even I need a gentle reminder once in awhile. Fortunately, Discovery Channel is happy to oblige.

This year, Shark Week kicks off with the two-hour MythBusters: Shark Special on Sunday, July 27 from 9-11pm ET/PT. The MythBusters test seven myths about the great predators using their standard formula of scientific whimsy mixed with insane experimentation. There’s madness to their method and that’s what makes the show fun for us. Sometimes scary for them, but fun on the safety of our La-Z-Boys.

Myth #1: Eye Gouge

Is it even possible, under the thrashing and duress of an attack, to find a shark’s eyes to ward it off?

To test the myth, they decide *not* to climb into the gaping maw of a real man eater. Instead, Master Busters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage build a 17-foot, robotic Great White. Using a replica fiberglass shark made from a life cast and cutting it into segments that can be articulated, the guys make a robot suitable for the test. The robot includes real chomping and thrashing action, too.

Starting off with a mouthful of custom cut steel teeth, sharpened and serrated just like nature’s own, the guys test out bite strength on a surfboard and pig’s carcass. But that’s not the reason they’re in SF Bay. Adam swaps out the steel choppers for some rubber ones and he and Jamie rope Grant Imahara into taking Bruce on his maiden voyage. Not to worry. Adam’s turn will come soon enough.

Myth #2: Is Playing Dead a Good Strategy in Shark-infested Waters?

Based on the experience of one of the survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis (CA-35), the Junior Busters will determine whether playing dead in the water is a viable strategy, at least when other survivors are thrashing nearby.

Down in the clear blue waters of the Bahamas, Grant and Tory Belleci gear up with chain mail and scuba tanks and hop in the water while Kari Byron chums it. Cute Redhead + Dead Fish = Crazy Hot. It also equals plain crazy. I have to say, I now believe there is something a pretty girl could ask me to do to which I’d say no: jumping in chummed water and thrashing about while sharks swim by. But these guys are game. Scared, but game.

She keeps them in the water for 10 minutes and they’re clearly thrilled to get out. Then she shows her sadistic side. I mean, they can’t be sure the experiment was definitive unless the boys get back in and switch roles, right?

Myth #3: Do Magnets Repel Sharks?

Sharks have a network of jelly-filled canals in their bodies called Ampullae of Lorenzini. With these, sharks and rays are able to detect electromagnetic fields and temperature gradients. The theory is that magnets may be able to repel sharks by interfering with their electomagnetic sense in some way, so Adam and Jamie test it out.

They first test with small sharks, but decide they need to run a full-size test with Lemon and Tiger sharks. Chum boxes are studded with magnets and Adam climbs into a shark cage. I’m not sure how he and Jamie decided who’d be the water monkey for this – a coin toss, short straw, roshambo – but I guess you could say Adam won? The Hyper Host gets to see the sharks up close while his colleague, Ol’ Calm Sideburns, only gets to hear about it over the radio. Then again, Jamie’s safe on deck and not feet away from swarming, hungry sharks.

Grant and Kari with RoboDog - Copyright Discovery Channel
Grant and Kari with RoboDog – Copyright Discovery Channel

Myth #4: Do Dogs Attract Sharks?

First a robot shark, and now a “barking, urinating, swimming, canine robot.” The Junior Busters start off by building a tank and filming Kari’s dog swimming so they can duplicate its movements. For science. After all, they want a doggie robot that does a proper doggie’s doggy paddle. Nobody wants a Daggett that drowns.

Grant eschews an electic motor for the ‘bot so as not to interfere with those Ampullae of Lorenzini, opting to power the guts of the mechanism with air. He includes a remote system for deploying syringes of dog blood, dog urine, and… well… alright, I’ll tell ya. Kari took her pups to the vet to have their anal glands “expressed”.

Ever wonder why dogs sniff each other’s butts? It’s for the incredible stench emanating from those glands. A stench that might just attract sharks as well as Shar Peis.

Myth #5: Do Flashlights Attract Sharks?

On night dives, you really need a flashlight. But sharks hunt at night and might be attracted to the light, or possibly the EM fields given off by the lights. So Kari, Tory, and Grant dive on two successive nights, once without flashlights and once with.

On both nights, their dive location – a wrecked ship – is lit by low-level lights to simulate moonlight. On the second, the three slice through the inky depths with flashlights. For 20 minutes they stay down, counting sharks. I can imagine few sensations as claustrophobic and horrifying as standing underwater in near darkness, counting sharks as they suddenly appear. That’s the price of doing science, though. And entertainment.

Myth #6: Do Hot Chilies Repel Sharks?

The Cuna Indians of Panama trail strings of habanero chilies behind their canoes to deter shark attacks. So Adam and Jamie decide to test chilies out as a deterrent. Pureed habanero is loaded into biodegradable balloons attached to the top of chum boxes.

Mmm! I think it’s time for sushi. I could go for some spicy tuna.

Myth #7: Do Flapping Fish Attract Sharks?

Adam and Jamie tested this once before, but too scientifically for Jamie’s tastes. Pumping out a 40Hz tone isn’t quite the same as a fish flapping. Unfortunately no one builds a robot for this test. But Adam does get to freak out on the ocean floor while Jamie splashes dangling fish from a rubber dingy.

Tory and RoboShark - Copyright Discovery Channel
Tory and RoboShark – Copyright Discovery Channel

Final Thoughts

I’m not a regular viewer of MythBusters, but I’ll occasionally find myself on a lazy Saturday catching a marathon. When I do, I usually spend two, or three, or four hours enthralled by the crazy lengths the guys go to in order to bust or prove myths. I appreciate not just the goofiness they bring to bear – using a pig carcass to test Bruce the Great White’s bite pressure and building a Robot Dog with real anal extract being just two examples – but their commitment to the scientific method. They make science approachable and entertaining which is something we desperately need as fewer and fewer kids care to pursue careers in the sciences.

Not to get all preachy, but I’d love if even one child watched this just to see the cool sharks and decided to study them himself. Or saw the articulated shark and thought she’d like to study robotics. It doesn’t hurt to remind adults that learning about the world through play is worthwhile, either.

Plus? Kari in a bikini, y’all.

R.A. Porter is an aspiring television writer who currently toils away in the software mines. He can be found at his personal blog and stalked on Twitter.