'I Love Sharks To Pieces'

Annapolis-born Expert Talks Up The Predator On Discovery's Shark Week

August 06, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

Annapolis native Andy Dehart has always had a thing for sharks, in a good way. That makes him a perfect match with the Discovery Channel, which celebrates its 22nd annual Shark Week this week with seven days of afternoon and prime-time programming dedicated to everyone's favorite ocean predator. As Discovery's official "shark expert," the Severn School graduate has been spending a lot of time lately talking up the big fish. We caught up with Dehart, whose day job is director of biological programs for the National Aquarium in Washington, as he was headed for a TV appearance in New York.

Question: : Twenty-two years into it, why does something like Shark Week still attract so many viewers? What is it about sharks that keeps people so fascinated?

Answer: : Sharks have always fascinated people. A lot of it has to do with the fact that they are large predators, they have attacked humans from time to time - although it's extremely rare, less than 100 attacks per year worldwide. People are somewhat afraid of bears and mountain lions and tigers, but sharks generate a lot more fear than those animals because they live in the ocean, out of our comfort zone, where a lot of our senses are taken away, where we oftentimes can't see what's at our feet or what's coming at us.

I think the combination of being a large predator and also living in the ocean adds to the mystique and the fear.

Question: : What is it about sharks that attracted you? Obviously, you're not scared of them.

Answer: : I love sharks to pieces. I will dive with sharks every chance I get, and every time I see a shark, it's extremely special to me.

For me, it started very young. I saw my first shark at age 5. I was snorkeling in the Florida Keys with my father, and realized then and there that I wanted to work with sharks my whole life. I've really single-mindedly chased down that dream my entire life. Working at the National Aquarium in Baltimore [in high school] kind of kick-started my life in the right direction.

Question: : What is the biggest myth, as far as sharks are concerned?

Answer: : A lot of people think that sharks are mindless eating machines. The reality is that they're neither. Sharks are fairly intelligent, as far as fish go. They have a large brain-to-body-weight [ratio], in comparison to other fish species.

Animal intelligence is very, very difficult to measure, but we do believe that sharks are comparable in intelligence to dogs or cats or horses. Within the Aquarium setting, we've been able to train sharks to come to various targets, training one shark to come to one target, one shark to come to another. They are able to learn that within a matter of weeks, and will remember that behavior for a good amount of time, even if you stop the behavior.

They're certainly not eating machines. Sharks actually have a very slow metabolism, do not eat all that much. Typically, we think that many shark species eat roughly 10 to 20 percent of their body weight a week. A large great white shark might eat a humongous elephant seal, but then won't eat for a good time after that.

Question: : Are sharks still trying to live down "Jaws"?

Answer: : We all have to understand, "Jaws" was just written to be a good horror novel. It was never meant to vilify sharks. The movie "Jaws" and the movie "Cujo," they're both about an animal that has kind of gone awry, and for some reason we don't fear the Saint Bernard like we do the sharks.

A lot of it is not just the fact that it was a good horror novel, and then obviously a great horror movie. But there's an innate fear of sharks as a species, and also because they live in the ocean. They certainly have a tough P.R. road ahead of them. They're not fuzzy and cute like the baby seals.

On TV

Shark Week continues on the Discovery Channel through Saturday. This year's final new program, "Shark After Dark," with infrared cameras tracking what sharks do after the sun goes down, premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday.

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