The upcoming Discovery TV show, “Cocaine Sharks,” has captured the curiosity of many. It also attracted ridicule and evoked flashbacks of the unsavory “Cocaine Bear” film that premiered sometime in 2023.
But while the title may seem sensational, the show delves into some preliminary but thought-provoking experiments carried out by researchers in Florida’s Key West.
Tracy Fanara, a research scientist and program manager at NOAA, participated in the experiments showcased on “Cocaine Sharks.” She explains that large quantities of cocaine often wash up on the U.S. coasts, particularly in the Florida Keys, due to drug trafficking.
For instance, recently the Coast Guard intercepted over 14,000 pounds of cocaine, valued at more than $186 million, in the waters near Miami. Sometimes drug traffickers will dump all of their stash right into the ocean if they sense they are about to get busted.
The researchers hypothesized that, like fish and other marine creatures, sharks might also come into contact with these drugs if the cocaine follows the ocean current. To explore this possibility, they conducted experiments to observe the sharks’ behavior in the presence of simulated cocaine bales.
Sharks on cocaine. Yeah…it’s Shark Week
Fanara, along with marine biologist Tom “Blowfish” Hird, deployed fake bales of cocaine into the water to gauge the sharks’ reactions. They monitored whether the sharks were drawn to the fake bales or exhibited any changes in their typical behaviors, such as eating patterns.
Additionally, the researchers exposed the sharks to a stimulant similar to cocaine to observe their reactions. Cocaine is a potent and addictive stimulant known to affect users’ energy levels, mood, and physical health. Although giving sharks cocaine would have probably raked in more views for the show, Tracy stresses that giving sharks actual cocaine in the wild is not ethical, so they had to rely on simulations for the study.
The researchers wanted to understand how sharks would react to such exposure. Previous studies have shown that various drugs and contaminants, such as methamphetamine, can alter the behavior and physiology of aquatic organisms like fish.
The Florida Keys proved to be the ideal location for this research due to a convergence of ocean currents that lead to the prevalence of floating drug bales. Florida, being a staging point for large drug deliveries entering the US from South America, often experiences drug bundles lost at sea or tossed overboard by traffickers.
During these experiments, the scientists observed sharks behaving peculiarly, with a hammerhead shark even approaching divers erratically, something this species would usually avoid. Additionally, a sandbar shark was seen swimming in circles, seemingly fixated on an imaginary object.
Many sharks bit into the dummy drug bales floating in the water. Additionally, the sharks were shown bait balls made from concentrated fish powder, which is meant to simulate cocaine. They responded like felines would to catnip.
“It’s the next best thing [and] set their brains aflame. It was crazy,” Hird says on the show.
While the extent to which the sharks were ingesting cocaine remains uncertain, this preliminary research calls for further investigation. Dr. Fanara plans to collaborate with other Florida marine scientists to assess cocaine levels by taking blood samples from some of the sharks.
Drug and chemical contaminants in water bodies pose a serious environmental challenge. From pharmaceuticals to consumer chemicals like sunscreens, insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, these substances enter our waterways and become part of the ecosystem. As a result, they can harm aquatic life and, potentially, humans.
The aim of “Cocaine Sharks” is to draw attention to these issues. Who knows, maybe people come for the sharks on cocaine and stay for the science. We can only hope.
Shark Week programming begins at 8pm ET Sunday on Discovery. Cocaine Sharks is scheduled to air Wednesday 26 July at 10pm ET.