Sharks: Who is the Real Monster?

Sarah Caplan

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

 

Introduction

Sharks have become one the most feared creatures of the sea, but are these fears based on false representations of them? Or are they actually cold-hearted monsters who seek the flesh of humans?

Most people have seen the movie Jaws, where a rogue shark goes on a killing spree and the country is thrown into a whirlwind of terror. However, people seem to forget that fiction and reality are two very different things. Of course, like most books and movies that were inspired by true events, there tends to be a little bit of truth hidden behind the exaggerations. But is that a valid reason to fear sharks? It has been said that this movie may have been one of the main causes for the immense decrease of shark populations. For years, sharks have been considered one of the top predators, a deadly monster, and sadly, because of this very notion, their numbers are depleting rapidly. Are these creatures really as dangerous as they seem or have people erroneously made them out to be monsters?

The 1916 Jersey Attacks

There are many horror stories told about the dangers of the shark and their bloodthirsty instincts, however this is a rather new notion. Before the early 1900s many people believed that sharks were harmless. They were nothing more than an animal living off of the basic instincts of survival. The only real issue people had with these animals was their habit of bitting fishing hooks and eating the bait off of their lines. Otherwise, sharks and humans were acquaintances of the sea. It wasn’t until 1916, when a series of five shark attacks left the world in shock, that people initially began fearing of these creatures.

The five shark attacks occurred between July 1st through the 12th, thus being dubbed the “Twelve Days of Terror” for the state of New Jersey. The first attack happened in Beach Haven, New Jersey, when a 25 year old man, Charles Vansant, had his leg bitten by a shark and later died from the blood loss. The next incident happened a few days later, on July 6th, in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Charles Bruder, a hotel employee, went for a swim with one of his friends; he was mauled by a shark. When they brought him onto shore, he was missing both of the lower portions of his legs and had died in the boat, once again from the blood loss, before even making it to shore. Although both of those attacks occurred in the ocean, the next few happened inside a creek in Matawan, New Jersey.

Matawan was a small farming town a few miles inland, where the people would swim in the creek to escape the heat of summer. It was known to many as a quiet, peaceful town where not much happened. However, on July 12th, a young boy was playing with his friends in the creek when one of them, Lester Stillwell, never came back up from the water. The children he was with began screaming about the shark they had seen drag Lester under the water, when everyone showed up at the bank. A young man named Stanley Fisher then dove into the water to try and find the boy’s body. As he was coming back up with the remains, he was then also attacked by the shark. He made it from the water alive and was transported to a hospital that day, however he died that same night due to the injuries.

The fifth attack occurred about a half a mile away from where Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher were attacked. Joseph Dunn and a few other boys were playing in the water, when Joseph felt something bite him. He began screaming, which warned his friends and brother that something wasn’t right. They tried to pull him out of the jaws of the shark, but to no prevail.  A few minutes later a local fisherman came over and successfully got him out of the water. He was the only person to survive any of these five attacks.

The World in 1916

It is, however, important to understand the state of the country and world, at the time of these attacks. In 1916, the United States was in the midst of turmoil. It was the third year of World War One, the president was working to his highest degree, and there was a serious polio epidemic threatening the lives of people. The only escape people had from the problems of the world was the shore. Some saw the ocean as curative, while others just enjoyed the idea of sitting back and relaxing next to the waves of the Atlantic. However, now their haven was being threatening by the creatures that lived in it, so panic was at an all time high.

When the first attack occurred, there was a great initial shock, however within a few days, the talk had died down and people continued with their lives. Even the newspapers and magazines were extremely hesitant to cry “shark” for the fear of making the panic even greater. They used words like “fish” or wrote that the shark was after the dog and not the person. They were doing their best to under exaggerate the incident and maintain the little calm they had left in the United States. By the second attack, people were beginning to worry a little more. Newspapers from the east coast to the west coast reported on the incident. The idea of sharks going on a killing spree were slipping into their minds, however it still didn’t stop people from going into the ocean. But by the last three attacks, where the sharks weren’t just in the ocean now, but a freshwater creek, the country was in full blown panic. These attacks began the initial scientific interest of sharks, as well as the hobby of shark hunting.

A Scientific Year

At this time, there was little known scientific information about sharks and their behavioral habits. Even after these attacks, people were quick to decide that these animals were soulless creatures. This was the first time that people were really aware of the shark’s existence, they understood that these creatures were alive but reported shark attacks were rare. Scientists also questioned whether a shark was even the culprit to these attacks, theorizing that it could have been an Orca or a group of sea turtles. Dr. Frederic Lucas, the director of The American Museum of Natural History, commented that “No shark could skin a human leg like a carrot, for the jaws are not powerful enough….” Even when people began hunting these creatures and displaying them for the world to see, some were not convinced that the animals were even sharks. Although these attacks were a terrible tragedy, they seem to have a started a new interest and fascination in the world beneath the ocean.

Great White or Bull?

To this day, there is still controversy over what kind of shark actually attacked these five people. A few days after the last incident in Matawan, a Great White Shark was “accidentally” caught off Raritan Bay, New Jersey. After cutting the creature open, what appeared to be human remains were found inside the stomach. The two men, Michael Schleisser and John Murphy, who caught the shark, were quick to assume this was the shark that attacked the five people and quickly set off to display it for the country. As years passed, however, more and more evidence began to disprove the possibility that this was the shark. There have been a few books that state the idea that a bull shark was probably the creature that attacked the three people in Matawan Creek.

Bull sharks have been seen in many lakes throughout the world because they are one of the only sharks who can swim in both freshwater and saltwater. Most sharks don’t have the ability to adapt from one environment to the other, however bull sharks use osmoregulation. This is when a creature can keep a constant concentration of water flowing through their body without their weight changing. Most sharks would end up absorbing too much water into their membranes, while losing the salt that they were consistently gaining from their environment, thus essentially killing them. However, bull sharks have somehow adapted to the changes throughout time, making them capable of living in any body of natural water. With this information, as well as their aggressive nature and tendency to eat anything in sight, scientists believe this may have been the kind of shark that was in the creek.   

To this day, many scientists are still unsure of who the real culprit was and they may never really know. There was such little scientific evidence left after these attacks, that finding out what kind of shark actually killed these people is impossible. For a long time people believed it was one rogue shark going on a killing spree, however it’s also been theorized that it was a few different sharks. It seems that in this case, the more we research, the less we actually know.  

Jaws

As stated previously, these shark attacks seemed to have started a scientific revolution. People began studying these creatures more; searching for the ultimately unexplainable answer to why these shark attacks even occurred. The rogue shark theory has never been but that, a simple theory, with no real evidence to back it up. However, it did prove useful to one of the most well-known movies and books that this country has known, Jaws. In 1974, after hearing about a shark hunter, Frank Mundus, who had caught a 4,500 pound Great White, the author, Peter Benchley, decided to write about this theory. Although, he explained in an interview that the book was not inspired by the 1916 attacks, there are many who believe it was. The book may not have been directly inspired by what happened in 1916, however it is possible that they had a lot of influence on what we think happens during real shark encounters.

For those who don’t know, Jaws is about a rogue shark who terrorizes a small resort town in New York on fourth of July weekend. Although the story of Jaws was not initially inspired by the attacks of 1916, the story may never have been told had the attacks not happened. Frank Mundus, Benchley’s inspiration for the character Quint, started going on shark expeditions to attract customers when he was younger. He called the trips “monster hunting” in order to peak more of an interest in people. This essentially helped him build his career as a well-known fisherman. After the attacks, people’s interest in sharks were at an all time high. They would stand in line for hours and pay, granted at the time it was only a few cents, just to take a look at a shark’s carcass. This would continue for years and is still remotely true today. However, now we can just go to an aquarium and watch the living thing in safety.  

Before Jaws and after the 1916 attacks, people were more curious about these animals than scared. They wanted to know more about the creatures, however at somewhat of a distance or surrounded by the comfort that the animal was no longer dangerous or alive. There was still some animosity towards sharks, but it was more the mystery that scared them. Before, sharks were almost like the bigfoot of the sea, they understood the reality of them, however not many people had seen them in real life. Once there was hard evidence, people became more and more interested in what these animals were capable of, as well as what exactly they were.

On June 20th, 1975, Steven Spielberg released the adaptation of Jaws, which has been said by many to be the movie that changed part of our culture. After this movie was released the crowds seemed to be filled with a mixture of dread, fear, and fascination. Many people were scared to go into the ocean, while some relished in the idea of swimming with danger. This movie started a fad that is still prevalent with movies today. From Sharknado and Jersey Shore Shark Attack to Pirahna and Snakes on a Plane; Jaws started a new movie concept that has stuck with the movie industry for decades now. A lot of people tend to enjoy the fear inducing rush that animal attack movies have, however they don’t really understand the consequences that also follow.

Jaws may have become one of the new movie fads, however, it has also caused a huge danger to the shark populations. After the movie was released the fear and fascination that followed became somewhat dangerous to the animals. After the 1916 attacks people began hunting sharks like crazy, the need for revenge seemed to swarm the psyches of many people. However, Jaws seemed to turn that revenge into a game. The idea of shark hunting went from a need for justice to a need to prove a person’s strength and manhood. People began to think hunting sharks was sexy, a way to rid the oceans of the “beasts” that inhabit them without seeing a real problem with the murder of thousands of innocent animals. This is not to say that shark hunting wasn’t prominent before the movie, however. Jaws just created a more justified reason for people to go out and slaughter these creatures as much as they want. We are now losing around 100 million sharks a year, mostly caused by the overfishing of these creatures due to people’s fascination, hunting, and need for their fins. At this time, there are around 465 species of sharks that have made the endangered lists, many of which were caused by over hunting. However, there is some hope for the animals, yet. Since the immense depletion of their populations, there have been a few attempts to save these animals from extinction or endangerment.

Shark Preservation  

In many countries, sharks are a huge source of income. Shark lovers from all over the world travel to specific areas, where there is a great known shark population and spend money to study, swim, and watch these creatures in their natural habitat. This has initially helped create certain regulations and laws, which specifically protect these animals. From banning shark finning to creating certain safe spaces for the animals or “shark sanctuaries”, the protection of these creatures has begun. They have also changed certain fishing gear regulations so that sharks are less likely to be caught by accident. Shark fin soup used to be a delicacy in Asian countries, it required the hunting of thousands of sharks, most of which simply have their fins cut off and then the body is thrown back into the ocean. This method of fishing has infuriated many conservationists, which eventually led to the ban on shark fin soup at many restaurants, hotels, and official government functions.

Conclusion

Edward O. Wilson, a sociobiologist, once said “We’re not just afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.” Like any creature who has the potential to kill us, we have a tendency to mark them as the enemy. Telling horror stories and causing an unnecessary hatred, one that we were not initially born with. Sharks and humans once lived together in peace, however in a series of 12 days, these creatures had become one of our greatest enemies. There may always be a sense of fear that lingers when the word shark is shouted or an ominous “duh duh duh duh” in the back of a person’s mind when they head into the water, however people must remember that we create the monsters. We fear the unknown, we fear the mystery, however is that fear really worth losing 100 million creatures every year? Should the whole population receive the consequences of the actions of one or two sharks? If that is the case, who is the real monster in this situation?  

 

References

  1. Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 May 2017, ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/shark-finning-sharks-turned-prey.
  2.  “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 28 July 2017, news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150702-shark-attack-jersey-shore-1916-great-white/.
  3. https://stanford.edu/~ferretti/assets/LenfestRSEcologyLetters.pdf
  4. “How a Century of Fear Turned Deadly for Sharks.” #FloridaMuseumScience, 22 Apr. 2017, www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/how-a-century-of-fear-turned-deadly-for-sharks/.