The tale of a 9-foot-long shark that a filmmaker suspects was consumed by a monstrous "super-predator" is now consuming a share of the Internet's spotlight, 11 years after it happened.
But if you take a closer look at the case, you'll be shocked, shocked! to find that there's more hype than horror to the story. The 2003 case is the focus of a string of online stories this week mostly because the Smithsonian Channel is airing a documentary about it, titled "Hunt for the Super Predator."
The documentary delves into the battles for survival that take place in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Australia, involving sharks as well as orcas, squids and other denizens of the deep. But the focus of the story is the disappearance of a tagged shark named Alpha. Filmmaker Dave Riggs had been looking forward to tracking Alpha, but instead, the tracking tag washed up ashore four months later.
Riggs reacted by going into Captain Ahab mode. "The mission to uncover what took out our shark has overtaken my life," he says in the documentary. "It's almost like a drug."
Data from the tag indicated that it was brought down into deeper waters, that the temperature of its environment rose to 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius), and that it spent several days meandering around the ocean at that temperature before the tag was apparently released back into the water.
Another day at the ocean
To Riggs, that meant Shark Alpha must have been gobbled up by a sea monster. To shark experts, however, it's just another day at the ocean.
"I don't know this story," R. Dean Grubbs, a shark researcher at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, told NBC News in an email, "but it doesn't take some mysterious giant shark to eat a 9-foot white shark."
Grubbs said he's had more than one 10- to 12-foot-long tagged shark eaten by other sharks.
"Two 10- to 12-foot sixgill sharks were eaten by what we believe, based on the vertical tracks, were larger tiger sharks," he wrote. "And one 10-foot tiger shark was eaten by what we are pretty certain was a larger sixgill shark. I have also caught multiple sharks that would have been over 10 feet, but only the head remained."
In Shark Alpha's case, the tag might have been chomped off and consumed, leaving a wounded shark behind. But it's certainly quite possible that Alpha ended up being food for the fishes, as all sharks eventually are.
Scary sharks on TV
Australia's ABC TV network aired a different version of Riggs' documentary last November. At the time, the show sparked critical commentary from Carlos Duarte, director of the University of Western Australia's Oceans Institute. Duarte voiced similar concerns on Wednesday.
"The documentary was done by a passionate citizen," he told NBC News in an email, "but in my opinion the scientific basis is weak, and indeed not an important element in the documentary."
"Honestly, the thrill of society and TV stations for evil marine monsters is not really contributing much to public understanding of the oceans, but they do still serve the role of scaring the public if this is the intent," Duarte wrote. "Any car on the street is far deadlier than the most evil marine predator."
We've made inquiries with the filmmakers in Australia and will update this item with any comments we get.