If you were fooled into thinking you’d be watching Michael Phelps race side-by-side with an actual great white shark, well, I’m sorry to say it but shame on you. For years now, the Discovery Channel’s annual week of shark-oriented programming has peddled some tall tales alongside docs that are ostensibly invested in honesty. The Shark Weeks of 2013 and 2014 both featured what were essentially mockumentaries—Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine, respectively—about the possibility of giant dinosaur sharks swimming among us with minimal messaging that what was being presented was, in fact, fictitious in nature.
Sunday night’s Phelps vs. Shark: Great Gold vs. Great White wasn’t quite as loose with the truth, but it was slippery. It was hyped as a race between Phelps and a great white shark and it was, ultimately, in the figurative sense, as the speed of a great white was measured and then compared to Phelps’s time swimming in cold ocean waters. This was promoted, via Discovery, as a show in which “the great white shark meets the greatest of all time.” On the Today show last month, Carson Daly enthused, “The most decorated Olympian ever is going to race a great white shark as a part of Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week. Details on exactly how the race is going to work are still under wraps.” He pointed to an Instagram post in which Phelps reported about his recent up-close encounter with sharks.
The devil, as shark enthusiasts know, is not in the water but, of course, in the details. Phelps vs. Shark found Phelps accompanying a team to measure great white speeds and led to a showdown between him and a CGI great white based on the measured speeds. Spoiler: Phelps lost, but on the upside, it wasn’t because he was bitten and bled to death. He’s just not as fast as a great white.
So technically, no lies were told. The Washington Post points out that viewers weren’t happy that they watched a whole show only to have ecologist Tristan Gutteridge announce 57 minutes in, “Clearly, we can’t put Michael in one lane and a white shark on the far lane. We’re gonna have to do a simulation.” That said, in the show’s opening minutes, Gutteridge did note that, “Michael will test his speed versus a white shark. Of course we don’t have a white shark next to him in a lane, so we need to measure their speeds in the wild.”
Right. Of course. Of course Michael Phelps didn’t swim side by side with a great white, and of course Discovery kinda-sorta made viewers think that he was going to. You can trust Shark Week less than you can an actual shark. In either case, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you end up getting bit.