Modern history

Twins of Darkness

Toward the eastern horizon the tide flowed out, away from the sun, and the Engleside tower chased the fleeing waters with its shadow. The great wooden tower lifted lazily toward the summer clouds tinged in burnt copper, its honeycomb of open-air balconies shading wicker rockers. Men with spyglasses stood in glassed-in observation rooms on the rooftop for a last glance of three-masted schooners in the lonely distance. The hundreds of sailing craft that adorned the coast during the day had vanished. In the floors below, guests drew hot baths as the hotel windmill spun, pumping water from an artesian well. Women donned fresh corsets and hoop skirts, desperate that each dress be different from their neighbors', while the men all endeavored to dress exactly alike in white flannels, blue blazers, and neckties. Nannies and servants herded the young upstairs to be dressed for the children's dining room, from which the children would graduate, at age five or six, to dine with the adults.

Robert Engle strolled through his hotel in a crisp Oxford shirt and bow tie. The windows to the sea revealed knots of guests on the veranda, isolated strollers returning on the boardwalk over flattened dunes—all the fruits of a booked hotel, clear weather, and tranquil seas. Guests admired his photographs on a folding screen by the front desk—tennis players on the hotel courts, the wreck of the Sicilian bark Fortuna from '08, the lighthouse, claimed by the tides, toppling into the sea. Late-arriving motorists were checking in after a rugged journey across the state over the dirt roads of the Pine Barrens. Their eyes were rimmed with dust in the shape of goggles.

In the oceanfront dining room, with hunt scenes on the walls and chair backs in the shape of lyres, waitresses in crisply starched white uniforms and bobbed hair prepared for the 6:30 dinner seating. There was a small hubbub surrounding a group of sportsmen with sunburned necks and brine-smelling clothes who spoke slightly louder than necessary. The day fishermen had returned grumbling. Beach Haven fishing was legend. Robert Engle trumpeted the abundance of marine life off his beach. But now there was a scarcity that men struggled to explain.

Beach Haven's fish stories were eye-popping in those days, and supported by fact. The ocean abounded, unpolluted and primordial. Mrs. Charles W. Beck caught 258 weakfish in the bay in two and a half hours, including two on a double hook thirty-eight times. Through the inlets whipped great ocean species that were mistaken in those days for “sea monsters”: huge manta rays, eight-hundred-pound ocean sunfish. One morning in the summer of 1907, Charles E. Gerhard, a musician with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and his wife waded ankle-deep into the ocean in their bathing suits and discovered the sport of big-game surf fishing. Gerhard cast a line and landed a twenty-pound channel bass. Then came a fifty-five-pounder. Robert Engle had a new activity to promote at the Engleside, with a double benefit: The dining room became famous for fresh fish.

Unknown at the time, thirty-five miles from shore—far out of sight of the rooftop spyglasses—rose an underwater mountain range of huge sand dunes ten miles long and a mile wide: a submerged island from the last ice age. In the 1920s, charter captains would discover this remarkable “Barnegat ridge” swarming with countless squid and other small fish being fed on by bonito, tuna, and false albacore. Rich men on Zane Grey holidays, sailing motor yachts resplendent in mahogany and brass, would be astonished by the tropical species close to the Jersey shore, giant marlin and wahoo. The first blue marlin from the tropics caught on the New Jersey coast was landed at Beach Haven. A visitor to Beach Haven landed a twelve-foot, 1,150-pound mako shark—the largest fish caught, at the time, anywhere in the world.

As men experimented with the new sport of game fishing, they became aware, and wary of, an unpredictable Beach Haven current that doomed the fishermen. During otherwise fine fishing weather, coastal currents would suddenly shift in their flow from a southerly direction to a northerly one. Strange as it seemed, this immediately chilled the coastal waters, and fish refused to bite or left the coast until the current switched and flowed southward, warming the waters again. Such currents were frustrating the fishermen that day. Cool water had moved in along the coast, driving off the menhaden, a southerly species of bait fish that migrated to New Jersey in the summer, drawing game fish. Although it had yet to be discovered, the cool coastal waters were a magnet to Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark.

That evening, as dusk approached, the young shark swam west toward shore. Thrown off by a whirl of the Gulf Stream, deep water where it failed to thrive, it had passed right over the abundant prey of the continental shelf and was becoming a hungry creature, moving slowly toward its natural habitat, the coastline, where the water was rich with enticements. As it approached, there were strong offshore upwellings of cold water common to Long Beach Island in the summertime, chilled water that would attract the big fish yet chase away other species—some of whom no doubt fled, as they always did, upon the arrival of the apex predator. The large prey fishes it had fed on in the shallows or the subtropics were gone.

Seven miles from shore, the shark began to pick up a stream of information. It smelled the rich cocktail of organisms washed to the coastline from rivers and inlets swollen with heavy summer rain. This triggered a genetic message: prey. But it smelled something else, something that didn't fit the automatic profile to hunt, but required what the great white would experience as a mild curiosity . . . a strong, disconcerting lure. Human waste, the product of urban development, was being pumped off the New Jersey coast then for the first time.

Two to three miles from shore, its progress was halted by a vast net suspended perpendicular to the coast, stretching six miles straight out to sea and covering every inch of potential passage from the surface to the bottom of the ocean. This was the first of some twenty-five fish “pounds” strung like a series of labyrinths along the coast of Long Beach Island. The pound fishermen hung the net from a series of ninety-foot poles of North Carolina hickory buried in the ocean bottom and rising above the waves like the masts of a shipwreck. The pound was framed on the three sides and bottom with great nets, forming an immense boxed trap. The island's thriving pound industry, second only to tourism, landed ten million pounds of fish a year. Even if the traps were empty, given the scarcity of fish, the surrounding coastal waters were habitually flush with the by-product of industry—guts and offal from cleaned fish— a cocktail of the living and the dead that drew the shark toward shore.

Something else, people of the time believed, attracted the shark. Another “sea monster,” black and torpedo-shaped and glistening with dark water, surfaced on the East Coast later that night. It was the German U-boat Deutschland, 315 feet long, the largest submarine ever built and the first to cross the Atlantic. It inspired awe and fear, and the press described it as having “eyes like a monster sea dog”—an ancient reference to the great white shark.

The Deutschland slipped beneath the English blockade and four thousand miles of waves while the crew drank French champagne, read translations of Shakespeare and Mark Twain, and played selections from Peer Gynt on the phonograph. Although it was carrying only cargo, not weapons, as a German U-boat it alarmed Americans—the previous year a U-boat sank the passenger liner Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. For the rest of the summer of 1916, the great white shark and the German U-boat would be linked, in editorials, cartoons, and letters to the editor, as invading twins of darkness on an innocent American shore. People speculated that the submarine attracted the shark as they shared the same waters, but in fact if the shark ever spied the U-boat—thirty-five times larger than itself—it would have simply fled.

Sensing intense organic activity, the young white picked up speed, perhaps to five miles an hour, in the direction of shore.

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