One hundred years ago this month, four people were killed inside of two weeks in New Jersey — two in the surf of the Atlantic and two in inland waterways several miles from the ocean. Two more victims were bitten but survived their injuries.
Not long after, a female great white was pulled from the water by a fishermen, and contained human remains in its stomach.
The killings stopped, with all signs pointing to a loan killer, or “rogue shark.” While the remains found in the caught white shark certainly were damning evidence, what remains uncertain is if it was the same animal that also swam upstream to claim its estuary victims. Great whites, despite their fearsome jaws and monstrous reputation, keep to saltwater.
Perhaps a bull shark, which can swim in both salt and fresh water, had also been guilty.
Whatever the case, rightly or wrongly, July of 1916 forever lionized the shark as an enemy of human entries into the ocean. And the Jersey incidents were part of what inspired author Peter Benchley to pen a potboiler about an insatiable white shark that preys on a New England community over the Fourth of July — as was, he also claimed, a newspaper report of a massive white shark caught off of Montauk on Long Island.
“What would happen if one of these came in and wouldn’t go away?” Benchley related on the supplemental materials of the “Jaws” anniversary DVDs.
I absolutely love “Jaws,” but I hate what it’s done for sharks.
Admittedly, when casting about for a villain of the animal kingdom, the shark makes for a handy heavy, what with its rows of razor teeth and various aggressive species known to attack humans — never mind that it is almost always a case of mistaken identity. The notorious USS Indianapolis sinking during World War II, during which many surviving seaman were gobbled up during five terrifying days and nights in the Pacific, only backed up this mythos. Indeed, in the film of Benchley’s book, actor Robert Shaw delivers one of the great monologues in cinema, recalling in a blistering soliloquy being in the water among the Indianapolis survivors.
“I’ll never put on a lifejacket again,” Shaw closes before relating that only 316 sailors were rescued from the initial 1,100 who survived the Japanese torpedoing of their vessel.
“Jaws,” one of my absolute favorite films and one I watch every July 4, remains one of the greatest thrillers of all time. Then-young Steven Spielberg’s translation of Benchley’s tome into a movie was a legendary, slogging undertaking that took months of excruciating filming and was the very definition of “troubled production.” The mechanical shark infamously hardly ever worked on set, requiring Mr. Spielberg — and his Oscar-winning editor, Verna Fields — to use creative coverage and cinematic tricks to intimate the faux-tiburon’s presence, such as the yellow barrels and, of course, John Williams’ singular musical score and its dun-dun-dun-dun theme hammering at the eardrums to indicate the monster’s mindless, unceasing appetite.
It was a ludicrous premise, both in page and script form. That it ever worked as a movie is nothing short of a miracle. That is became a classic is righteous; the difficulty of its gestation only increased the terror of the final product. If the shark had been seen too much, especially in the first reels, the primal terror at not knowing when it’s going to come back or what it might do next would have been tranquilized. Just as in Hitchcock, less was more. In fact, so firmly established is the beast that when it finally does come fully visualized in the climax, it is perfectly within the logic of the story that the creature will of course purposely destroy the Orca and dine upon her captain if for no other reason than it is a thing of pure evil.
No shark would ever so such a thing. It is giving an animal human qualities of bloodlust and mercilessness. However, any shark’s brain is far too primordial for any such motivations. In reality it is an animal out to do what animals do: eat and reproduce.
Mr. Spielberg’s film is the gold standard, wherein the microgenre of “shark movie,” despite its many entrants since, was forever closed with one fell swoop. Three “Jaws” sequels followed, the most notorious of which had Lorraine Gary, wife of then-Universal studio head Sid Sheinberg, brought back as the Brody matriarch in “Jaws: The Revenge” to go mano-a-tooth with the shark who killed both her son and, we are told, her husband via “fear.”
The film was lambasted by critics and bombed at the box office. Miss Gary hasn’t been in a film since.
There was also “Piranha,” and Syfy has made a cute little cottage industry of increasingly preposterous hybrid-monster mashes like “Sharktopus” and, of course, the annual “Sharknado” invasion, currently in its fourth farcical year.
On another, more truth-obsessed, network, Discover Channel just concluded its yearly “Shark Week” programming — thankfully now free of the “fake-umentaries” that damaged the brand several years back, including one in 2013 that purported to proffer “evidence” that the long-extinct Megalodon was alive off of the coast of South Africa. Despite backlash, the next year saw “Megalodon: The New Evidence” and “Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine” about a mythical beast that cannot be found for the simple reason that it does not exist.
Such prestidigitation does a disservice both to science and to entertainment, and, I fear, serves only to increase public fear of the ocean’s apex predators.
Because, like it or not, the public still loves sharks. Thankfully, they are also far more educated than ever before about them, with the “Jaws” modus of them as indiscriminate eating machines long since debunked by both science and education.
Yes, danger remains. The International Shark File reported that 2015 featured more recorded shark attacks than any year since record keeping began — almost certainly because more people than ever before are both alive and swimming. The ISF reports that last year saw 164 incidents of “shark-human interaction” worldwide, with 98 being labeled as unprovoked attacks on humans. The center defines unprovoked attacks as “incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.”
I.e., this is the kind of thing that is not the result of a drunken frat boy poking Sharkie in the nose during Spring Break. Those 98 incidents happened because, well, humans were in the shark’s habitat. Curious sea animals will check out what might be food in their domain just as bears in Southern California are known to amble down from the San Gabriel Mountains to root through the smelly trash bins of Pasadena-area residents.
Most shark attacks are what are called “exploratory bites.” How do you determine what it is you like to eat or don’t? Well, you try it first, and based on that initial masticating, decide if you want to eat more or less. Sharks are not so different from us in that way. A bitten human is almost never devoured by a shark, whose method of attack is typically bite-and-release, with the shark’s brain telling it that human flesh is not on its natural diet.
Small comfort to the victim, who may bleed to death if the bite is severe enough.
It is instructive that of the four fatal Jersey attacks in 1916, only one of those was confirmed to be a feasting situation, with the others perishing due to blood loss alone rather than being consumed. If you’ve seen that footage on “Shark Week” of whites going to town on a whale carcass, it’s little doubt that the animals know what they’re hungry for — and you are not it.
And here’s the big kicker: Sharks have far more to fear from humans than bathers ever do from them. According to National Geographic, over 100 million sharks are killed each year, mostly for their fins alone. Shark fin soup is a cherished delicacy in certain Asian countries, and sharks caught for this purpose are de-finned and then tossed back into the drink still alive. With no way to swim and pass oxygen over their gills, the stricken animals then die slowly of asphyxiation, drowning either on their way down or rolling on the bottom until they expire.
I ask you, which species is worse?
I’m sure you remember those science classes about ecosystems and the food chain. As apex predators, sharks cull the oceans of the dead and dying and the excess numbers from among their prey, which thereby leads to healthier ecosystems overall. Too few predators would then allow other species they prey on to explode. Less white sharks in the seas means more seals in the ocean, who would then consume more fish to feed their expanding numbers, which means less sushi at your favorite neighborhood joint.
Talking heads on “Shark Week” often say to think of going into the ocean as a “wilderness experience.” To put it another way, when you venture into the wilds, be they on land or at sea, have a little respect for its denizens. Know there are animals out there in nature that can cause you great harm — as the sad news out of Disney’s Florida property can attest — and be cautious. If you encounter them, try to stay calm.
Also take comfort in knowing that statistics are very much on your side. U.S. News & World Report said that 50 to 100 people are killed per year by bee stings; worldwide, less than 10 per year are fatally attacked by sharks. Even peanuts — yes, peanuts — are more dangerous than sharks.
Tonight I’ll put on “Jaws” for my annual trip to Amity Island. The film only gets better with each viewing, not the least due to my increasing appreciation for the script by Benchley and co-writer Carl Gottlieb (who was initially brought in by Mr. Spielberg as an actor to help his fellow thespians improvise on-set) and its hourlong hunt at sea with Brody (Roy Scheider), Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (Robert Shaw) as three fully realized characters acting precisely as they would given how magnificently they have been set up. That Shaw infamously disliked Mr. Dreyfuss only adds to the animosity between their characters and their feud of class.
From that point on, it is man against beast in one of the most fully enjoyable films of all time. But like all fiction, reality tells a different tale. Jaws the monster was ultimately no match for humans, but if things don’t change, all of his worldly cousins may soon disappear from the seas.
Eric Althoff, a native of New Jersey, is the Entertainment and Lifestyle Editor for The Washington Times. He grew up swimming at Seaside Heights, New Jersey, where a fatal shark attack hasn’t been recorded since 1926. While Mr. Althoff has never seen a shark there, he has gone cage-diving with sharks in Hawaii, where he sang to them. Despite this, he was not bitten.