But while Shiffman remembers going through both phases, he eventually “settled on sharks,” he said, and he hasn’t looked back.
Shiffman, who grew up in Mt. Lebanon and attended Temple Emanuel, is now a Ph.D. student in shark ecology and conservation at the University of Miami. He is also one of the most outspoken critics of Shark Week, an annual weeklong block on the Discovery Channel, featuring a variety of shark-based programming. It launches this year on Sunday, July 5.
With a Twitter following of over 22,000, Shiffman tweets constantly during Shark Week at #whysharksmatter, challenging the Discovery Channel on its facts and calling it out for practices Shiffman believes are harmful to sharks.
While it was in Pittsburgh that Shiffman first developed his love of sharks, he was limited here in observing them for obvious reasons.
“Pittsburgh is far from the ocean,” he said. “But I used to go to the [Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG] Aquarium a lot, and I loved it. I also read a lot about sharks and watched Shark Week.”
By the time he was 12 years old, Shiffman was ready to obtain his SCUBA certification and to attend camp in the Florida Keys, where he swam “with all kinds of fish, including sharks,” he said.
Wasn’t he a little afraid?
“If you’re not a little scared, you’re not paying attention,” Shiffman said.
He majored in biology and marine biology at Duke University and earned a master’s degree in marine biology from the College of Charleston—where sharks are only around from May through September. He was thrilled to get to Miami, he said, where he could study sharks year-round.
Although still a grad student, he has already made a name for himself in the shark world, talking about sharks to groups at schools, science museums and aquariums. He has been interviewed by several national news outlets and has been interviewed on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”
But it is during Shark Week that Shiffman is in his glory, “tweeting live with fact-checking and snarky commentary,” he said.
Problems that Shiffman has had with Shark Week include a series of “completely made-up documentaries,” he said, such as “Megaloon: The Monster Shark Lives.”
“Megaloon became extinct two-and-a-half million years ago,” Shiffman said. “This documentary says it is still active and a threat to you and your family, and that the government is lying to you.”
While Shiffman acknowledged that the Discovery Channel did air a disclaimer saying that the show was fictional, that disclaimer was “vaguely worded and ran for three-and-a-half seconds,” he said. “People thought it was real because it aired on the Discovery Channel.”
Another gripe with Shark Week: “Zombie Sharks,” a program he said consists of nothing more than “promoting and glorifying wildlife harassment.”
The issue is the phenomenon known as “tonic immobility,” in which a shark will fall asleep if it is flipped upside down.
“This is stressful to the animal, and it should not be done,” Shiffman said, adding that the Discovery Channel has not yet advised viewers to that effect.
“The star of ‘Zombie Sharks’ whole premise was that this individual had a theory that Orca whales would flip over sharks to make them easier to eat,” Shiffman said. “But we have known for years that Orca whales do that. So it’s a basic fact.”
Other purported facts broadcast during Shark Week are “crazy wrong,” Shiffman continued.
The channel is constantly misreporting the length of the sharks, for example, which could be easily remedied by use of a fact checker, he said.
Still, Shiffman said he is “cautiously optimistic about the future” of Shark Week.
“They are getting better,” he acknowledged. “There is a new president at the Discovery Channel, and he promised they would do better.”
He has been in direct contact with representatives of the Discovery Channel and has had “lots of conversations about how to improve. This year, there will be a lot more science and a lot less fear-mongering and pseudo-science nonsense.”
While the Discovery Channel will, in fact, be concentrating more on the science this year, that decision was made by its new leadership and was not the result of the influence of Shiffman, according to Laurie Goldberg, executive vice president of public relations at the Discovery Channel.
Goldberg, though, is nonetheless well aware of Shiffman and his criticisms.
“I correspond with him all the time,” Goldberg said. “We go back and forth on Twitter.”
While she does not always agree with what he has to say, Goldberg is supportive of anyone who “talks about sharks and the conservation movement.”
She was quick to point out that the Discovery Channel is an “entertainment network” and that sometimes the objectives of entertainment can clash with pure science.
“Shark Week is our Super Bowl,” Goldberg said. “There is often a challenge between entertainment and education, and getting people to watch.”
There is also often legitimate disagreement among different scientists, she noted.
“For example, putting sharks in tonic immobility,” Goldberg said. “Many of our scientists feel it’s critical [in certain circumstances] to put the sharks that way.”
Goldberg defended the “documentaries” which Shiffman criticized as being “mocumentaries.”
“They happen to be our highest rated shows in Shark Week history,” she said. “But in entertainment, you try things, and then you self-correct.”
Goldberg said she encourages Shiffman, and is happy to interact with him.
“But he is not,” she said, “the reason why we changed things.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.