The Discovery Channel will, this summer, be celebrating the 30th anniversary of its legendary “Shark Week,” which has become so high-profile that it’s virtually a national festival. Shark Week has come under criticism–rightfully, I think–for being more fiction than fact. But sometimes the facts about sharks are legitimately terrifying, and the darker side of their interaction with humans is a fascinating topic in environmental history.
So picture this: it’s July 1916. The newspapers are filled with gloom and doom, especially from Europe, where the Battle of the Somme is killing thousands of people a day. The eastern U.S. is baking in a record heat wave. There’s a polio epidemic. Wealthy people have fled the steamy cities, particularly Philadelphia, for the Jersey Shore. There’s no air conditioning, so what do you do to cool off? Take a swim, of course. Cue the John Williams music.
Actually that view obscures the situation, historically and scientifically. It is true that five people were attacked by sharks along the coast of New Jersey between July 1 and 12, with three attacks occurring on the latter date in the waters around Matawan. Of the five victims–Charles Vansant, Charles Bruder, Lester Stillwell, Watson Fisher and Joseph Dunn–only Dunn survived. Captains and crew of boats plying the local waters reported an unusual number of shark sightings in July 1916. The attacks triggered a media panic, with newspaper reporters from all over the U.S. descending on the New Jersey shore. Many beaches were closed and a rash of shark fishing occurred as municipalities and private organizations offered bounties for sharks caught and killed. President Woodrow Wilson, then running for re-election, had a Cabinet meeting about the attacks.
But what caused it? Despite all the publicity that shark attacks get, unprovoked attacks by sharks on human beings are extremely rare, and rarer still in the cold waters of New Jersey. (Most shark attacks happen in warmer waters). Clearly there was something unusual happening, environmentally speaking, in 1916 to cause this to happen. I know there have been several books and TV documentaries about the attacks, and I’m sure they speculate as to what these factors might have been–as well as about which species of shark did this. (Suspicion usually falls on the Great White, though bull sharks have been mentioned as a possibility). Personally I think it’s a lot more than just heat, disease and changing patterns of recreation that brought greater numbers of humans into the waters off the East Coast in 1916. It may have to do with changes in the ocean ecosystems around New Jersey, perhaps affecting sharks’ more usual sources of food, which are various kinds of fish. I just don’t know, but I suspect the answer is there.
The “Jersey maneater,” the shark that supposedly caused the attacks.
People speculated in 1916, especially after the Matawan triple attack, that a single shark was responsible for the attacks. On July 14, 1916, a fisherman (and taxidermist) reportedly caught a 7.5-foot Great White shark which, when cut open, supposedly had 15 pounds of human flesh in its gullet. There were no further attacks after that time. But is it as simple as that? One shark being responsible for all these deaths is an irresistible story, which is why Peter Benchley took the 1916 attacks as inspiration for his 1974 novel Jaws, which of course became the movie without which our modern Shark Week would not exist. I find it hard to believe that one shark did all of this. Again, I think the answer lies in the marine environment, not in the brain of some rogue fish who spontaneously decides to start knocking off humans.
I love sharks. I think they’re wonderful, beautiful, and perfect creatures. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with them. Unfortunately the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks probably did more to demonize the shark in the eyes of human beings than any other single event. You must be cautious around sharks, certainly–ask anyone who’s surfed the North Shore of Hawaii–but their reputations as ruthless killers are highly undeserved. Sharks have far more to fear from humans than we from them. After all, how many human attacks on sharks ever make the papers?
Enjoy your Shark Week!