100 Years Ago, We Became Afraid of Sharks

Book review: Close to Shore, by Michael Capuzzo

I read this last week while hiding in bed on a gray, chilly day that exemplifies the uglier side of October in Europe, recuperating from an unexpectedly difficult, supposed-to-be-routine medical procedure. This book turned out to be the perfect distracting read. I don’t know why that’s exactly relevant, but somehow it felt like it. I’d put off reading it for awhile and it was so engrossing and good that I wish I hadn’t, but it did fit the moment.

This is a narrative nonfiction account of the infamous Jersey Shore shark attacks of the summer of 1916, which supposedly influenced Peter Benchley in writing Jaws. There are some recognizable similarities, and I actually love Jaws (yeah, I’ve only seen the movie), but honestly – I think I would’ve rather seen a movie of the events described here.

In an unprecedented incident, a juvenile great white shark went rogue, a significant feat even for this predatory loner species. We learn that although great whites give birth to live young, their hormone-addled mother gifts them only with a brief period of head start time to swim away from her, otherwise she’ll devour the thing she just spent 11 months growing inside her. From there, it’s on to a solitary, mysterious existence as one of the ocean’s top predators (orcas get the apex predator title.) Even today, 100 years after these attacks, we know incredibly little about this species, although we’re making progress. But we do know that THIS shark was a total aberration – as the book points out, it behaved unusually abnormally for its species, like a serial killer, only a shark version. UNCONTROLLABLE SCREAMING.

I’m obviously a big fan of narrative nonfiction, but it’s not every author in the genre who can write so descriptively that you feel as if you’re watching the events play out while a clear, vivid picture forms in your mind. Capuzzo writes with a novelistic flair for description and scene setting. Establishing a picture of the world and its events at the time of the attacks is a major aspect of the book. This is done thoroughly, covering spheres of industry, culture, and politics of World War I, which was hitting its midpoint at the time of the book’s events. Special villain appearance by German submarines off the East Coast, which also got blamed as potential causes for this crazy shark behavior. I thought that by the end, I’d have a better understanding of why this one shark went rogue, but I didn’t. Maybe I missed something. I devoured this book so fast, like the shark on an unsuspecting swimmer, so it’s possible. (Sorry, I had to.)

It’s also interesting to consider what was known about sharks, great whites particularly, in this era (not much.) Most doctors thought their bite was poisonous. Or that an orca was the more likely attacker. In the years preceding the attacks, some scientists and biologists insisted, often against the claims of experienced sailors, that sharks never attacked humans. Gilded Age multimillionaire businessman Hermann Oelrichs did stunts swimming with sharks, trying to prove this point. He’s a fun character who makes a few appearances in the cultural setting chapters, this gem was my favorite:

Oelrichs challenged a fisherman in a boat to reel him in as a “human fish”. For twenty minutes the fisherman struggled and failed to reel in the stout sportsman on a line fastened to his waist, providing society with what newspapers called “the most interesting incident of the Summer.”

Rich Gilded Age society people had some odd hobbies. But that’s a weird thought, isn’t it? Before 1916, only 100 years ago, we weren’t remotely afraid of sharks.

Even when it’s all over, some things remain a mystery. There’s skepticism over whether a great white would be able to survive so long in a freshwater creek. (By the way, that might be one of the scariest, most nightmarish scenarios I can imagine – jumping into a small, quiet, New Jersey creek on a hot summer’s day and being attacked by a serial killer shark you’d only expect to encounter in the ocean, and even then you wouldn’t think it would attack. I would’ve died of fear before the shark even had a chance.)

Capuzzo argues convincingly, with scientific and biological backup, that the shark in Matawan Creek was the same one attacking along the Jersey Shore. Others argue a bull shark was more likely in the creek, a species known for its ability to transition between salt and fresh water. But the likelihood of two human-attacking sharks within days and miles of each other? That would be weird. Everything about this story is weird!

The shark that was eventually caught was definitely a great white, and it had what appeared to be human remains matching the last victims in its stomach. But DNA evidence was nonexistent, so there was no conclusive analysis. To top it all off, the shark, after being stuffed and briefly displayed in a Manhattan storefront, disappeared entirely. Where is that thing?! Is it squirreled away, collecting dust in a New York basement somewhere? Can you imagine accidentally stumbling across it?

SchleisserandShark
Missing: have you seen me?
From the Bronx News, fisherman Michael Schleisser poses with the shark

This book is an aquatic equivalent of one of my all-time favorites: the eerie, enlightening The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. Although nothing will ever be better than that book, this one comes close.

Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916
by Michael Capuzzo

published May 8, 2001 by Broadway Books

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