In the history of our planet there are few predators that ever existed that were as terrifying and powerful as Carcharodon megalodon, also simply called the Megalodon. An enormous shark measuring up to 18meters long (60 feet) and believed to have possessed the strongest bite of any predator that ever lived, enough to crush an automobile, the Megalodon was one of the most fearsome creatures our planet has ever seen, terrorizing the seas during the Cenozoic Era, approximately 23 to 2.6 million years ago. It was a potent killing machine larger than a bus, made up of muscle, mouth, and jagged teeth up to 8 inches long, with which it used to tear through pretty much anything it could catch. Indeed, one can only imagine what a horrific, awe inspiring thing the sight of a 60-foot-long shark lurching up from the depths would have been.
Or do we have to imagine? It is perhaps no surprise that with such a formidable mega-predator that there are some accounts that not only does the Megalodon still exist, but that it is still very much willing to attack with as much ferocity as ever. Among the numerous reports of alleged modern Megalodon sightings, by far the most dramatic and intriguing are those of these ancient monsters attacking other sea life or indeed human beings. These reports capture the imagination with their peek into the possibility that one of the mightiest terrors the ocean has ever known may still be quite alive and well, as well as hungry.
One such account comes from 1918, when Australian naturalist David Stead was visiting Port Stephens, Australia and came across some terrified local crayfish fishermen who refused to venture out to their regular deep water fishing grounds near Broughton Island. When pressed as to what had upset them so much, they related a rather fantastic tale. The fishermen claimed that they had been out fishing the deep waters collecting their crayfish pots when an immense shark reportedly measuring over 35 meters (115 feet) long swooped in, uprooted, and devoured numerous crayfish pots "pots, mooring lines and all,” totally destroying their equipment and eating their catch. The terrified fishermen reported that the massive shark was unlike anything the seasoned crew had ever seen before, and was a pure white in color. The giant shark apparently passed by several times in a threatening manner, causing the water to “boil” over a large swath as it passed. These experienced seamen were adamant that the creature was most certainly not a whale.
While in this particular case the alleged shark did not directly attack the fishing boat itself, it nevertheless serves to illustrate the threatening demeanor and sheer size of this mystery beast. Other reports are of a decidedly more menacing tone. In 2003, headlines were made and the Internet was set ablaze by the story of a 9-foot long great white shark that was inexplicably attacked by some mysterious super predator. In this case, the shark had been tagged with a “black box” of sorts, which had measured and recorded the entire incident. When this black box was found washed up on shore in the aftermath of the mystery attack, the data proved to be a conundrum for experts. According to the data, the shark had been suddenly and rapidly dragged down around 609 meters (2,000 feet) into the cold dark depths, yet the temperature reading actually rose to a temperature consistent with the inside of a large animal, although it was considered too low for a killer whale and too high for another shark, unless it was far larger than normal.
The story took the media by storm and captured the imagination of the public. What sort of menacing creature could have so decisively devoured a great white shark, the most feared known shark, and what did the mysterious data mean? The puzzle steadily generated headlines proclaiming that the shark had been attacked by an unknown “super predator,” a “sea monster,” or indeed the Megalodon. It is now believed by many experts that the “smaller” 9-foot long shark was taken by a larger, uncommonly huge great white shark, possibly one suffering from gigantism, which could account for the abnormally elevated body temperature. Yet speculation continues that perhaps it was the long thought to be extinct Megalodon making an appearance to snatch the great white up. The answer to what exactly killed the shark has not been conclusively answered, so it is likely the Megalodon theory will continue to be bandied about. Whatever it was, it was at least large enough to cause some alarm. Marine biologist Dave Riggs, whose team had tagged the shark, said of the speculation:
The internal temperature of the animal that ate the shark is a weird one. It appears to be too low for a killer whale and too high for another shark, unless it was massive. The big shark scenario is the theory that is most widely accepted although I’ve noticed a lot of other creatures being suggested online – I don’t think that Godzilla is a possibility though!
Another possible Megalodon attack was reported from around 50 miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, in 2013. In this case, a massive shark was seen to drag the carcass of a sperm whale underwater after apparently killing it. Witnesses claimed that they saw the enormous tail fin of a monster shark break the water’s surface, after which the whole carcass was pulled under with breathtaking force. One long time local resident explained in the Sage News:
I have lived on the coast for most of my life. I have never seen a shark's tail fin that large. It must have been the width of my fishing troller.
About an hour after the alleged attack, the carcass of the whale was said to have washed up on shore, and displayed evidence of having been ravaged by something very aggressive and very large. One marine biologist named Robert Culper, who allegedly examined the carcass, said that it appeared as if the entire lower third of the animal had been “dissected with one bite,” and that a large tooth measuring a whopping 7.5 inches long had been found embedded within the dead whale’s spine. According to the news report, it was estimated from the size of the tooth and the bite radius that whatever had attacked the whale had been far larger than any known specimen of great white, with some estimates claiming that the beast may have been up to 100 feet long and with a bite radius of 7 to 8 feet. In response to rampant speculation that the culprit was a surviving Megalodon, Culper stated:
I cannot say that the whale was attacked by a Megalodon. But whatever attacked and killed this beast should have paleontologists rather excited.
There have been numerous reports of purported Megalodons attacking and maiming whales, and there have been various photos put forth on the Internet supposedly offering proof of this. One such account is that of a whale that had its entire tail allegedly gnawed off in Hawaii in 2009. This propensity for attacking whales would actually fit in well with what is known of the behavior of Megalodon sharks, as it has been discovered in recent years that this predator often preyed on whales and other large sea creatures such as seals, sea lions, giant sea turtles, sea cows, dolphins, and porpoises. Fossilized evidence in the form of ancient whale carcasses has been found that shows the characteristic marks of very large shark teeth, and in the 1990s it was ascertained by paleontologist Dr. Bretton Kent that the Megalodon was far more aggressive in its attack style than previously thought, after examining the remains of a fossilized baleen whale that had been killed by a Megalodon. It was also found that the Megalodon was fond of targeting hard, bony areas of its prey, which it would crush with awesome power, rather than the soft targets preferred by modern great whites.
While stories of surviving giant sharks prowling the seas to wreak havoc are spooky and intriguing, and may not even be impossible, they are not done any service by modern society’s penchant for jumping on them and sensationalizing them to the point that these accounts become hard to swallow. The Internet is awash with numerous videos on sites such as YouTube that purportedly show Megalodons menacing ships or even outright attacking, such as one scary video of a group of cage divers being harassed by a shark that seems to be far larger than any normal great white. Yet as popular and widely viewed as they are, the veracity of these videos remains in question.
By far the worst offender in hyping up the existence of giant killer sharks and surviving Megalodons is the famous documentary network Discovery Channel. In recent years, the network has increasingly upped the ante on turning up the spooky factor with its annual Shark Week episodes. Each year, the Discovery Channel has become more and more brazen with putting out what have been termed “mockumentaries.” These are programs which go through great lengths to pass as genuine documentaries, presenting realistic footage, evidence, interviews with eyewitnesses, and talks with various “experts” within the field. The programs are extremely convincing in their portrayal of events, and although they are usually marked as at least partially fictional in fleeting disclaimers at the beginning and end of the programs, to the causal viewer they seem to be the real deal, and indeed they are obviously meant to be taken that way.
Mixed within the realistic depictions of various phenomena, these documentaries make heavy use of “expert testimony” which is often gained through less than reputable means. Real experts are often led along a manipulative, misleading line of questioning meant to draw out the answers producers seek, which are then edited in such a way as to seem to be endorsements for whatever mystery the show is peddling. If an expert is not available, then the interview is simply faked with actors posing as professionals, with credentials that cannot be traced, and even the eyewitness testimonies can be faked with actors. “Found footage” and photographs are spruced up with clever CGI and spliced together to complete the ruse. The end result is a program that on the surface for all intents and purposes genuinely feels like an authentic documentary portraying real events and exhibiting honest expert opinions, yet which is at its heart a farce.
During Shark Week, the Discovery Channel has released several of these mockumentaries, which have served to draw in viewers and have the unsuspecting masses buy the whole thing hook, line, and sinker. The Discovery Channel released several high profile such programs for several years running concerning the continued existence of the Megalodon, and these often involved supposed stories of aggressive attacks by the beasts. In 2013 and 2014, the network released two programs entitled Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Megalodon: The New Evidence.
The programs offered up several pieces of supposed photographic evidence for the continued existence of the Magalodon, such as one photo purportedly showing a monster shark cruising past a Nazi U-boat during World War II in what is advertised as a “declassified image.” The photo was claimed to show a shark estimated as being around 100 feet long, and at first glance seems to be genuine, but it turns out that according to many astute commenters it was very likely a complete fake or at least heavily doctored. Other photos presented showed half-eaten whales and extremely large sharks swimming off shore, all of which are of unknown and questionable authenticity. There are also presented sonar readings claimed to be of massive sharks far larger than any currently known to exist.
The same programs presented the harrowing tale of a South African vessel that was purportedly attacked by a Megalodon, killing four of its crew members. The footage is presented as a sort of “found footage” scenario from a crew aboard a charter fishing vessel on April 5, 2013 in Hout Bay, South Africa. The video purportedly shows a very large, unknown animal aggressively capsizing the boat either through ramming it or biting it, which allegedly had six people aboard. According to the show, the bodies of four of those aboard were never recovered. The video is presented as absolutely real, and the program goes through great lengths to reinforce the genuine feel of the whole incident, even showing purported news footage in the aftermath that seems to show a news conference with South African authorities speaking on the frightening incident. The problem with this whole amazing account is that follow up investigation has not been able to turn up any official reports or news items that the whole incident ever happened at all, and the South African media seems surprisingly silent on the matter, leading many to suspect the whole thing was a clever, well orchestrated fake. In an article called "Megalodon — The Monster Shark Lives! (Not),” dinosaur expert Bob Strauss criticized the whole alleged incident, saying:
What can you say about a TV documentary in which the suspiciously good-looking lead protagonist — "marine biologist" Collin Drake — comes up empty in a Google search? Or, for that matter, his equally attractive "marine biologist" pal Madelyn Joubert, who joins him halfway through the show, and whom a cursory web search easily demonstrates not to exist? And, not to belabor the point, a TV show that starts with suspiciously staged-looking video footage of a charter boat capsizing off the coast of South Africa, and no references can be found about this accident (in which three passengers were supposedly killed) from reliable online news sources? I don't know much about charter boats, but I do know that people whose ship is in the process of sinking do not take the trouble to center their subjects on frame.
Another rather dramatic incident portrayed in the program is the tale of a group of marine biologists who claimed to have tagged a terrifyingly massive shark from a shark cage. The huge shark was tagged and is then said to have lurched at them and then to dive at great speed down to a depth beyond which any known shark is capable of. Although the team claims they did not get a good look at the creature, they are fairly certain it was a monstrous shark, perhaps a living Megalodon. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to tell how real any of this account is.
Another Shark Week program aired in 2014 called Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine, outlines the tale of a colossal, 35-foot long shark, named Submarine, which is said to prowl the South African coast attacking boats and whales. The legendary shark was supposedly first spotted in 1970, after which it is said to have stalked these waters and frequently capsize fishing vessels or ravaged sea life. The program claims that Submarine is well known by locals, and provides interviews with eyewitnesses who have seen it, but it is unclear whether these witnesses are genuine or merely actors. The Discovery Channel attached to the show an easy-to-miss disclaimer noting that the material presented is "based on rumor and hearsay," but does not actually admit to faking anything. Nevertheless, Submarine is supposedly still sighted to this day. Is it a real cryptid or something totally created by the program? It is hard to say.
These sorts of programs are frustrating in that they so seamlessly blend staged dramatizations and manipulated expert testimony with potentially real evidence that they blur the lines and make it very difficult to ascertain where reality ends and pure fabrication begins. The Discovery Channel, for its part, has defended its programming. In response to the outcry and accusations of misleading the public, the executive producer of Shark Week, Michael Sorensen, stated that three disclaimers had been aired with the shows, including one which read "none of the institutions or agencies that appear in the film are affiliated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents.” Other disclaimers stated "certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized," and that "legends of giant sharks persist all over the world; there is still debate about what they may be." However, these disclaimers still manage to cleverly avoid outright admitting any blatant fakery, and it is uncertain just what “dramatized” means in relation to the programs or to what extent it is used. Sorensen was similarly evasive when he commented on the shows, saying:
With a whole week of Shark Week programming ahead of us, we wanted to explore the possibilities of Megalodon. It’s one of the most debated shark discussions of all time, 'can Megalodon exist today?' It's (the) ultimate Shark Week fantasy. The stories have been out there for years and with 95 percent of the ocean unexplored, who really knows?
These statements have done little to staunch the anger of those who feel they have been tricked. The shows clearly were meant to be taken as genuine documentaries, and those who feel that the network was dishonest and deliberately misguiding and tricking its viewers have generally been very vocal about it. Actor Will Wheaton (yes, it's exactly that Will Wheaton) immediately took to his blog to rant at the network on the matter, lamenting:
Discovery Channel betrayed that trust during its biggest viewing week of the year. Discovery Channel isn’t run by stupid people, and this was not some kind of mistake. Someone made a deliberate choice to present a work of fiction that is more suited for the SyFy channel as a truthful and factual documentary. That is disgusting, and whoever made that decision should be ashamed.
Regardless, the Magalodon shows managed to smash ratings records, becoming the most watched episodes of Shark Week ever aired, so people are obviously interested in the topic. How much of the programs was true and how much is whole cloth fabrications? Is there any merit to what was presented in these shows concerning the Megalodon or is it all just pure made-up hogwash? It is difficult to tell, and the network remains quite ambiguous and evasive about the whole thing. Until a serious documentary that is more interested in informing than in sensationalism, entertainment, and getting ratings, it is probably best to take whatever is presented in these types of programs with a healthy grain of salt. Sadly, there was a time when the Discovery Channel was a place where one could usually rely on getting such genuine, educational documentaries.
So what are we left with? Does the Megalodon still stalk the seas, just as much of a killing machine as it has ever been? Are reports of attacks by massive sharks evidence of surviving Megalodons or simply very large versions of modern great white sharks? With accounts of supposed Megalodons are we dealing with a genuine surviving population, misidentifications of size, or flat-out hoaxes? For now, we simply do not know. With the remote vastness of the world’s oceans, it is perhaps possible that these formidable mega predators could exist somewhere out there, but until we find solid evidence of this we can only look out to the waves and wonder if the Megalodon still lurks out there in the deep, cruising around for its next victim.