Our Long History of Absurd Shark Content, from Left Shark to Michael Phelps Racing One

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There's no subtle way to talk about the fact that Michael Phelps raced a shark on Sunday. (Who knew that winning 23 Olympic gold medals could end in... this?)

If you're wondering what happened, Phelps did not swim side-by-side with a shark, or face off beforehand, à la UFC matches. In the end (spoiler alert!), even with the aid of something called a "monofin," Phelps lost to both the hammerhead and great white sharks. In your face, mankind!

The Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week is, of course, a law unto itself at this point. But fewer species have suffered the sheer number of humiliations in the name of popular culture as the shark.

It can all be traced back to that infamous 1977 episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie, propelled by Richie Cunningham in a speed boat, did a waterski jump over a shark because: ratings desperation. This is where the term "jumping the shark" comes from -- a phrase that has come to signify the ultimate in pushing a TV show into a ridiculous premise, in the hopes of keeping it alive past its sell-by date.


Welcome to three of the most embarrassing minutes in all of Happy Days' -- nay television's -- history:

It was 1975's Jaws that originally put sharks on the pop culture map. Widely considered to be the world's first summer blockbuster, the movie gave swimmers everywhere -- including, inexplicably, the ones in pools -- phobias of what might be hiding beneath the water's surface. The movie is so enduringly adored that there is an annual event in Austin, Texas where people float in Lake Travis, while watching the movie. (Rumor has it, a couple of years ago, organizers went to the trouble of hiring divers to tickle the feet of audience members under the water.) Last month, Jaws also launched a series of Movies on the River in London, England.

What the adoration for the original movie so frequently forgets, however, is how completely insane this franchise eventually became. Remember: Jaws 3-D's plot starts with a shark breaking into SeaWorld to eat people, and ends with dolphins rescuing Dennis Quaid. Even worse than that, the premise of Jaws 4 is that a great white shark is stalking the one specific family that has featured in each Jaws installment, with the purpose of seeking vengeance for its previously murdered shark brethren. This revenge-hungry shark is so angry, it follows the family all the way to the Bahamas.

Thankfully, a fan went to the trouble of summing up the absurdity of the entire movie thusly:

As shark movies go, 1999's Deep Blue Sea had the good sense to alter the DNA of its sharks to turn them into actual monsters. It also won a lot of people over with one of the most joyously unexpected character death scenes in movie history. Sadly, further shark movies have not faired nearly as well.

2016's The Shallows starred a shark that decided that stalking and waiting all day for Blake Lively to fall off a rock was a much better idea than eating the massive dead whale that had brought it into shallow, probably-too-warm waters in the first place. Truly, the movie's premise made absolutely no sense, but 2010's The Reef also featured a shark that was dead set on stalking humans as well.

Of course, The Shallows looks like a BBC wildlife documentary when compared with one of the most preposterous movies in history, Sharknado, which suggests that, with the right combination of extreme weather conditions, sharks could legitimately get sucked into the sky and then rained down onto land-dwelling humans below, snapping at, killing, and getting chopped in half by chainsaw-wielding ex-Beverly Hills 90210 cast members.

Sharknado was so insane, and such a guilty pleasure for so many, that this August, we'll be facing down Sharknado 5. No, really. There's five of these suckers now -- and there's absolutely no need for at least four of them -- especially when you consider how many shark-based B-movies already exist.

Here are some relatively recent shark movies you may not know about, but are 100% real: Shark Night 3-D, Bait 3-D, Shark Attack, 2-Headed Shark Attack, Jurassic Shark, Ghost Shark, Supershark, Dinoshark, Swamp Shark, Sand Shark, Megashark Vs. Mechashark, Megashark Vs. Giant Octopus, Shark Swarm, Shark Attack, Raging Sharks, Sharktopus. Truly, the list is endless. There are a lot more out there, but that's what Google is for.

Outside of movies, one of the most insane iterations of pop culture-related shark humiliation took place during the halftime show of 2015's Superbowl XLIX.  It's impossible to know what possessed Katy Perry to stick a couple of dancers in shark costumes to do a jaunty little routine for "Teenage Dream," but all anyone could talk about the next day was Left Shark: the one that momentarily forgot its dance steps, so collapsed into flailing wildly on national television in front of 118.5 million viewers.

Left Shark first prompted a bazillion memes and gifs, then stretched out into parodiestattoos, background stories, merch, and, yes, eventually, even a trademark-related lawsuit because: America. Sure, the incriminating footage of Left Shark remains tear-inducingly funny even now, but the sheer expansion of Left Shark into so many areas of our lives was a prime example of a pop culture moment, uh, jumping the shark.


The amount of attention we give, and the scary information we perpetuate about sharks has little basis in reality (though 2003's Open Water was based on a true story). Movies that depict sharks as ruthless human-murderers are really quite unfair. The Florida Museum of Natural History puts your chances, as an American, of being killed by a shark in your lifetime at 1 in 3,748,067. Given the fact that fireworks carries a 1 in 340,733 risk, we should probably quit being so mean to these ancient creatures. Unless of course, the rumors turn out to be true... in which case, Michael Phelps should ready himself for a life of stalking by a cartilaginous fish. Stranger things have happened.