The Fourth of July is my most preferred time to rewatch my favorite movie Jaws. It is the height of summer when swimming and flocking to large bodies of water is the American way of celebrating America’s birthday; not to mention, the turning point of the film centers around attacks that occur on the Fourth of July. The previous week before this July fourth was Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week as well, making the theme of terrifying great white sharks seem all the more applicable. However, I tire of the sharp-toothed sea beast sensationalism that centers on great whites. The great white shark is my favorite animal and has been since my first viewing of Jaws in second grade (maybe not a great age to see that film), and this is really amazing considering the biodiversity of this incredible planet that I have learned about in the years since. Carcharodon carcharias still reigns supreme as my favorite despite being the poster child of anything shark-related, positive or negative. I’m not trying to be a hipster shark enthusiast who liked white sharks before it was cool, especially since Jaws and its cough cough sequels were already established in popular culture and helped spawn Discovery’s yearly sharkapalooza. Rather, I mean to say that I grew out of the need for as much great white focus and shifted my own interest in the species to a more scientific appreciation. I still love Jaws and see it as a near perfect film (yes, even with that mechanical shark), but everyone knows (or should) that what you see in the movies is not what it’s like in real life, even if it is inspired by real events – and especially if that phrase is plastered all over the previews and posters for a movie.
Jaws the film was not inspired by real events; it was inspired by a novel written by Peter Benchley. Benchley also co-wrote the screenplay for the movie and appeared in it as a reporter and gives a spot on performance as one reporting on a shark attack.
That is exactly how a reporter waxes poetic to increase the dramatic appeal of any story and is a beautifully crafted scene to mock this style of journalism that persists today. Now Benchley’s novel (which is not as good as the film), is in part inspired by some real-life things such as what knowledge of sharks we had up through the early 1970s; shark fishermen, especially the colorful Frank Mundus who directly inspired Quint; and most notably, the need for summer income for New England shore towns. Benchley claimed that that the story was not based on any particular attacks, yet many believe that the most infamous shark attacks in American history were the spark behind Jaws and many other shark-related stories and hysteria.
100 years ago, a series of shark attacks off the Jersey Shore from July 1-12, 1916 shocked and scared the nation. Benchley did not have anywhere near the wealth of research on the apex predators of the ocean we have now from the shark studies he read up on, but in the midst of World War I, we knew a whole lot less about them beyond that they were big fish with sharp teeth – neither of which are qualities specific to all sharks we now know of. This lack of understanding coupled with a still perplexing scenario that saw five attacks in 12 days led to terror along the eastern seaboard and throughout the world. Fortunately, many scientists did make a concerted effort to learn more about sharks, but the headlines of newspapers and the four people who lost their lives as a result of the Jersey Shore attacks dominated the consciousness of the country, and round one was firmly won by sensationalism.
The attacks that occurred along the shore were in Beach Haven, Spring Lake, and Matawan Creek, all in New Jersey. The graphic below (from Wikipedia) illustrates the locations relative to one another. You can see that quite a bit of distance is covered, but this is not difficult for a shark to do.
The primary suspect is not surprisingly a white shark, although, many more recent looks at the case have supposed that bull shark may be to blame as Matawan Creek’s attacks happened about 25km (15 miles) from the open ocean in at best brackish water. This territory is rare for both species to inhabit, but up a creek is much more common a place for bull sharks than white sharks. There was a young great white captured days after the final attacks that supposedly had human remains in it, and this was enough to blame a white shark for the attacks. Young white sharks often look for more manageable prey than the large or fast mammals they take down as adults. This usually means a diet of fish, but perhaps a small white shark got lost up the creek and looked to the swimmers it came across as easy, or at least available prey. It is definitely possible, considering any answer is a fluke as far as most summers are concerned. What is also possible is that the attacks may be the work of multiple sharks. Rather than a single “rogue shark” like the leviathan in Jaws, the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916 could have been done by separate sharks, perhaps even of different species (again, white and bull sharks are the main suspects), being representative of a larger number of shark-bather interactions from record crowds at the beaches that summer.
We may never know whatever actually happened, but the attacks along the Shore serve as a reminder that we are sharing these spaces with many other species who utilize the ocean and waterways not purely for pleasure but as a home. We must remember those who lost their lives in 1916, and those who have lost lives before and after, as well as those lucky enough to get away after an all too close encounter with a shark. Not everyone comes away unharmed. Shark encounters are rare, and attacks are even rarer, but we cannot forget what the oceans’ refined predators can do and remember that the more we frequent their habitat, the more we chance swimming alongside them.
Thanks for reading. Remember to be unafraid to enjoy the ocean for recreation and relaxation, yet to be respectful of it as a habitat for many more lifeforms than just humans. Direct any questions, comments, and written applause to firstname.lastname@example.org. Come on back next week for more musings, bad jokes, and occasional hit-the-mark insight.