The internet has always been filled with hoaxes, fakes, liars, and cheats, long before the term “fake news” became a household phrase. But no matter how many times a fake image of a shark swimming on a flooded highway shows up, the internet continues to fall for it.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma had major impacts on the U.S. in the last few weeks, which means social media was ripe with incredible stories, videos, and pictures of the storms and their aftermaths. Among the real stories, there were of course fakes. On Aug. 27, Twitter user Jason Michael shared an infamous photo of a shark swimming on a flooded highway.
“Believe it or not, this is a shark on the freeway in Houston, Texas,” he wrote.
Turns out the Dublin-based journalist was apparently just trying to make a point. The tweet received over 88,000 retweets, and Michael later responded that he was concerned how easy it was to fool so many people with fake news.
As Hurricane Irene was battering Florida on Sunday, the same image was shared by Twitter user @mopage19. He claimed the photo was taken on I-75 outside of Naples.
“This is insane,” he wrote.
Later, someone asked if he knew where the photo actually originated. Mopage19 made it clear that he was just trolling.
The shark in this photograph is indeed real, but the shark swimming through a flooded highway is fake. The shark was initially captured by renowned National Geographic photographer Thomas P. Peschak off the coast of South Africa over 10 years ago.
On his website, Peschak explains that he was working with the White Shark Trust for more than 10 months to capture images of white sharks in South Africa that would help depict the current scientific research.
The story of this particular photograph began on a perfectly calm and glassy sea. I tied myself to the tower of the White Shark Trust research boat and leaned into the void, precariously hanging over the ocean while waiting patiently. The first shark came across our sea kayak, dove to the seabed, and inspected it from below. I trained my camera on the nebulous shadow as it slowly transformed into the sleek silhouette of a large great white. When the shark’s dorsal fin emerged, I thought I had the shot but hesitated a fraction of a second. In that moment, the research assistant in the kayak, Trey Snow, turned to look behind him, and I took the shot. Throughout the day I shot many more similar images, but all lacked the connection of first image.
The image of the shark stalking a small kayak went viral when Peschak first published it on his website. He claims the photo attracted “more than 100,000 visitors” in 24 hours. Given the stunning nature of the image, the photographer says that it garnered its fair share of skeptics claiming the image was altered in some manner. The original image even has its own debunking on Snopes.
Peschak maintains the image was not altered in any way, in fact, he told AOL Travel in 2014 that the photo was captured “on slide film Fuji Provia 100 using a Nikon F5 Camera and 17-35 mm lens.” On his site, he writes, “all magazines and prints were taken from a high-resolution scan of the slide with no post-production work.” This means the original photo never even touched Photoshop, until someone decided to take that shark and put it on a flooded highway.
It appears as if the first hoax surrounding the image occurred in April 2006, when the French magazine Le Magazine des Voyages de Peche published a joke article about a fisherman in Australia that accidentally caught a shark in one of its nets. After freeing the shark, affectionately named Cindy, it followed the fisherman around years, scaring away his catch in the process. Two years later, someone turned the April Fools’ Day joke into a YouTube slideshow, racking up over 1.6 million views.
Here’s a another clip with over a half million views that was uploaded in 2013, pushing a similar narrative. We were unable to track down the original YouTube upload.
The shark gets moving
The first known record of the viral image of the shark on a flooded highway that we know today occurred in 2011 when Hurricane Irene hit Puerto Rico, causing flooding across the island. The image of the shark on the highway was picked up by WSVN 7 News out of Miami and credited to a man named Ramon Garganta.
The image was quickly debunked, and the sharks origin was even linked to Peschak’s shark, but it didn’t matter. The damage was done, people fell for the shark swimming on a highway, and have been falling for it ever since.
The shark showed up again in 2012, this time it was swimming next to another shark at the bottom of an escalator at the Scientific Center or a mall in Kuwait. The hoaxers claimed that a shark tank collapsed, but it didn’t. The photo of the escalators in actually from Union subway station in Toronto, which flooded in June of 2012. Essentially, it was originally a meme that was repurposed by someone into a hoax.
The photo of the shark on the highway surfaced again when Hurricane Sandy wreacked havoc on the northeast. Mashable debunked it back then, along with a slew of other fake photographs.
While this hoax and others like it will not be going away anytime soon, there is some hope following the photo’s most recent appearances. The media widely debunked the story of the shark on the highway quickly after it went viral on social media, and it was pointed out by many that it was fake.
In the age of fake news, always be a little skeptical of things you see, even if there is photographical evidence. And when in doubt, use Google image search.
Peschak did not respond to Mashable’s request for an interview. He admits on his site that he had no idea when he started documenting sharks that this image would be his “most well-known image to date.”
“I always look forward to receiving e-mails from friends and family who have spotted the same white shark in a different context,” Peschak writes. “While I will probably never become a legend in my own right, at least my white shark is well on her way.”