Modern history

Red in Tooth and Claw

Charles stood knee-deep in the shallow surf, feet planted on the soft golden sand, the outgoing tide gently swirling about his calves. His feet were pale from indoor work and fully visible in the cool, clear water. The breeze was mild, the sun pale and forgiving in the late hour, the ocean bottom free of seaweed. This was why people from the great West, as far as St. Louis, rode the Pennsylvania Railroad to the bather's paradise of the Jersey shore. It was a place of legendary beauty, a place to feel alive. Even with calm weather and high blue skies, Charles could feel the whisper of an undertow, the faint rocking motion of distant waves, the immense tug of the sea. He looked out at the flat surface of the ocean, which concealed the softly sloping coast for which South Jersey was famous. Ahead bobbed the diving platform Robert Engle had installed in front of his hotel for the new season; in the distance floated a line of salmon clouds. The water was chilly, but in a few moments Charles would be used to it. Behind him he could hear the dog splashing and paddling toward him. It was a red Chesapeake Bay retriever, the only American breed in the American Kennel Club, a rugged, tireless seventy-five-pound bird dog. Charles recognized the breed on sight, for any man who handled a rifle—and Charles had been a member of the gun team at the university—admired the beautiful water hunter of the vast Maryland bay. The Chessie had the steadiest of retriever personalities, sound of judgment, biddable but not silly, a stout worker bred to partner with man. He and Charles bonded instantly. There really was no way, once the dog bowed deep into its front paws to signal play, that the dog could be prevented from following him into the water. Or that Charles could resist the charms of the Chessie. He had grown up with dogs and longed to have one again.

The dog was paddling hard now, approaching fast. Charles could hear the splashing and knew without looking—an instinct all mammals share—that something was bearing close, and he reacted instinctively and dove to stay ahead of the dog: two species playing, communing across the waves. With a rush of coolness along his torso, the man swam, joining the blissful tumble of the deep, falling into the master stroke of the nineteenth century, which he was taught was the most natural form in the water, an imitation of the frog: the breaststroke. It was fashionable in Charles's time to celebrate the effortless, instinctive nature of being in the water, the first human home. It was said that the ocean flowed in the veins, that blood was nearly the consistency of seawater. In the ocean a man escaped the Industrial Revolution and rediscovered his eternal self, was fully human again. After a few strokes, as he adjusted to the water, Charles stretched into a crawl, the master stroke of the new century, recently popularized for its speed and power. The dog followed.

As man and dog swam out in a line, they joined the sweeping canvas the ocean offers the shore, the portrait of white-tipped sea that stirs feelings the Romantics believed only artists and poets could experience. The ocean swelled to meet them, waves lifted them up and rolled on toward the coast, where they broke on the sands and withdrew with a prolonged hiss. Charles closed his eyes as his face turned rhythmically into the sharp, cold brine, feeling the rush of coolness along his torso, eyes stung with saltwater as he stroked in measure with the cadence of the swells. The dog kicked with all four legs beneath the surface, a force that lifted its head above the waves and left its shaggy tail floating in a trail of froth. At the same time, unseen beneath the surface, other waves traversed the shallows and the deep, waves of differing lengths and speeds but all of the same flawless contour and pattern of the breakers—underwater waves shooting across the spectrum in multichannel cacophony.

Far out at sea, swimming steadily, the young shark received a faint signal. Currents were washing against the thin steel cable that rooted the diving platform of the Engleside Hotel to the bottom, causing it to vibrate and issue infinitesimal waves of sound from its anchorage one hundred feet from the beach. These waves exploded seven miles out to sea in less than eight seconds, moving at more than three thousand miles an hour, rhythmic, constant, reaching a sensitive line of nerves embedded in the head of the fish, the head that turned slowly side to side to improve the chances of favorable reception. The faint sound waves grew stronger, more regular, and the shark made a tiny adjustment in direction. The great fish swam directly into the wave of sound, which broke and scattered over its huge pyramidal head, as it began, ever so slightly, to move faster.

Emerging from the deep, in perhaps fifty feet of water, the shark sensed something different. Long, powerful, irregular noises began to batter its conical head, a wild mixed signal. A suprahuman detective, it cruised at fifteen miles an hour while instantly processing information across the spectrum. An image appeared in its brain, an electronic projection, a pulsing outline of two objects moving near the surface. The shark could detect microscopic urine particles in the water: Mammals. Each movement broadcast sounds and scent and an electronic trail, an aura of impulses.

Charles was the strongest swimmer in the water now, his arms and legs indicating one thing to the shark: Large prey. Then there was the dog. It is now known that a man who swims in shark-infested waters with a dog greatly enhances his odds of being attacked by a shark nearby, according to ichthyologist George Burgess, who directs the International Shark Attack File, a compilation of well-known shark attacks. “The irregular swimming actions of animals are extremely attractive to sharks. The front paws doggy-paddling, creating a maximum splash, the rear legs bicycle-pedaling, four rapidly moving legs making a blending motion at the surface couldn't be a whole lot more attractive.” In 1987, off Panama City, Florida, a man jumped from his boat to go swimming. His girlfriend lowered his poodle into the water, and within moments a large bull shark removed much of the man's leg, killing him instantly. The Shark Attack File is filled with accounts of sharks drawn to human victims by the erratic thrashing of a paddling dog. That afternoon in 1916, sound waves from the seventy-five-pound dog drummed on the great fish's head with feral intensity, a jagged, broken signal of distress.

The shark swam nearer, preparing to launch its signature attack—sudden, surprising, relentless. Charles stroked smoothly and happily, unaware he was being profiled. The great white was closing in.

A small crowd on the beach watched as Vansant, a strong swimmer, stroked out beyond the breakers. They were as a group in that moment, standing on the edge of time in 1916, wise in ways moderns are not, educated in the classics and myths, more in touch with the sea. Sperm whales were the oil fields of their time, the ocean the highway. But these people lived before modern oceanography, before radio and television, and were no more prepared to witness the first man-eating shark in American history rise from the waves than to see Captain Nemo's Nautilus surface from the abyss. Who could blame them if they saw a “sea monster”?

There were other ghosts of antiquity the Edwardians saw along the beach that evening, visions that enchanted them in the pleasing form of a young man and dog at play in the simple theater of the sea. The virile young athlete was an Edwardian icon. Dorian Gray, The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, and the Boy Scouts revealed the cultural worship of Pan, who “is not dead,” Robert Louis Stevenson declared. In reaction to industrialism and Victorian repression, the young man who never grows old led “the whole earth in choral harmony.” Charles was eager to prove his vitality, and there was no finer place to do so than at the beach, his form and vigor on display in society as they were nowhere else. “The surf,” according to beach historians Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker, “emerged as an area in which the strong were separated from the weak, where young males played out the drama of natural selection before the eyes of discriminating females.”

In the late afternoon of July the first, Charles was swimming the Atlantic to see how far he could go. Long-distance swimming was an adventure that enthralled the public. Charles did not slow his stroke when he and the Chesapeake retriever had passed all the swimmers in the water. This earned a small cheer from shore. Unknown to Charles, he had entered a wilderness, and his desire to set himself apart led him to violate a fundamental rule of nature: Stay with the group. A lone mammal, exposed and vulnerable, invites a predator. In a study of great white shark behavior by George Burgess and Matthew Callahan using data from the International Shark Attack File, no other humans were within ten feet of the victim in 85 percent of the attacks. As Charles was being feted and admired from the beach and boardwalk, he was being observed, as well, underwater.

Fifty feet away, in deeper water, the great white was mulling whether to attack. Far from our image of a mindless killer that overwhelms its victims, the great white takes no chances when challenging prey. Once a great white decides the odds favor it, the decision is beyond appeal, the attack relentless.

As the crowd on the beach studied the tableau of man and dog, suddenly, with no apparent reason, the retriever turned back toward shore. Witnesses thought the dog tired out, simply swam too far. Charles was the victor in the amusing play.

Charles turned around, too, treading water, and called out to the dog, enticing it to return. But the retriever, climbing onto the beach, shook itself off and remained on the sand, looking out at the man in the water. On the boardwalk and beach, people waited for a resolution to the drama. The Vansant girls saw Charles give up the game. He was coming in.

But as Charles swam toward shore, a bystander on the beach noticed something odd. A dark fin appeared in the water behind the young man. At first it was mistaken for a porpoise, a sight people were accustomed to then. But porpoises were known to roll in schools parallel to the coast; this fin was alone and moving swiftly toward shore in the direction of the young man. Someone on the beach cried across the waves, “Watch out!” As the fin approached, the chorus grew: “Watch out! Watch out!”

But Charles could not hear the warnings. He was turning his head in and out of the water in a rhythmic crawl. The great white could see his prey now moving underwater with startling clarity, making what followed even more unusual. For in the great majority of shark attacks on humans, sharks are hurtling through roiling, cloudy water in which they must strike quickly to seize their prey. The flash of a pale foot resembles the darting of a snapper, a belt buckle winks in the sun like a fish scale, and the shark bites. But the great white saw Charles Vansant clearly and kept coming. In the last instant, some researchers have suggested, it detected the final confirmation of mammal: the blood pounding through Charles's veins. The thumping of his heart.

In that moment, an awful feeling swept over Vansant as the continued cries, louder now, “Watch out!” rang from the beach. Seconds before the attack, a shiver traveled down his spine—humans are gifted, as are all large mammals, with the instinctive ability to detect that they are being hunted. As the creature's shadow merged with his on the bright, sandy floor of the sea, Charles experienced an adrenal explosion, the overpowering natural urge to live. He was in only three and a half feet of water, close to shore. Safety was at hand. But it was too late.

The great jaws rose from the water, a white protective membrane rolled over the eyes, fifty triangular teeth closed with more than six tons of pressure per square inch, and man and fish splashed in a spreading pool of blood. One bite. One massive, incapacitating bite tearing into the left leg below the knee. Charles screamed in mortal agony, a scream that resonated to the beach and tennis courts and veranda. The attack had taken less than a second, but now time began to slow down. His parents and sisters and the crowd of onlookers stood transfixed in horror and disbelief.

Charles still screamed, numb with terror, trying to free himself from the vise of fifty large serrated teeth, but he, too, had little idea what was happening to him. He went into shock, and even as shock subsided, despite the gruesome wound, he felt, incredibly, a minimum of pain. As strange as it seems, it is common for shark attack victims to experience “painless torture”—to greatly underestimate the severity of their wounds. Some experts suggest the first bite produces massive nerve damage or somehow numbs the victims of pain. One neurophysiologist calls this phenomenon “non-opiate stress-induced analgesia.” A body of anecdotal evidence compiled over many years suggests that under great stress, soldiers, athletes, and other people don't seem to “feel” pain—perhaps, experts say, because pain in the most life-threatening situations is not advantageous for the survival of the species.

People onshore had no frame of reference for what was happening. “The young man was bathing in only three and a half feet of water,” remembered W. K. Barklie, a Philadelphia businessman on the beach that day. “We thought he was joking until we saw the blood redden the water.”

Charles fought valiantly, but his struggle to free himself only tightened the shark's grip on his femoral artery: the great teeth ground down to the bone. Witnessing their son being devoured by a predator, Dr. and Mrs. Vansant were numb with shock and pain that would shadow them for the rest of their lives. But Louise, the middle sister, kept her wits about her as she witnessed a sight she would never forget: “Everyone was horrified to see my brother thrashing about in the water as if he were struggling with some monster under the surface,” Louise recalled. “He fought desperately, and as we rushed toward him we could see great quantities of blood.”

Then, as if a spell were broken, men entered the water to rescue the young man as shouts arose from the beach.

What followed baffled shark researchers for decades: The great white backed off in the red-tinged surf, pieces of Charles Vansant's calf and femoral artery in its mouth, and appeared to be waiting. Twenty years later, in the summer of 1936 in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, a great white provided a clue to the shark's behavior in Beach Haven in the summer of 1916. That summer, a fourteen-year-old boy swimming in shallow water was savagely bitten by a great white. As the boy screamed and floundered in a balloon of blood, the shark was observed “standing off in the blood-reddened water but a few yards away, seemingly ready to make another attack—and why it did not is inexplicable.”

The reason is brutally simple, according to John E. McCosker, director of San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium. The great white employs a classic predatory technique once practiced by the saber-toothed tiger. The extinct tiger hunted the woolly mammoth by biting it once and standing back. So, too, soldiers are trained to make an easy shot for the stomach instead of the trickier shot to heart or head. The sure, deadly shot echoes the primitive logic of the massive first bite and retreat. Avoid needless confrontation. Expend no more energy than necessary. Take no chances.

The great white was waiting for Vansant to bleed to death.

First to reach the surf line was Alexander Ott, an exceptional swimmer, who later became a champion and a swimming showman with Johnny Weismuller in the 1920s. His decision to enter bloodied water where a shark was taking its prey took extraordinary courage. Ott swam swiftly, but by the time he reached Vansant in waist-deep water, the fight was over. The young man was struggling not to drown in a cloud of his own blood. The shark had vanished. Quickly Ott hoisted Vansant under the arms and began to tow him to shore. It was then that Ott felt a powerful tug in the opposite direction, and realized with horror that the shark had hit Vansant again and fastened to his thigh. The shark and Ott were in a tug-of-war with Vansant's body. The shark appeared to Ott to be black, ten feet long, and five hundred pounds. It was unimaginably strong, he thought. He cried for help.

More men rushed into the water and formed a human chain with Ott, frantically trying to free Vansant from the jaws of the shark. Vansant was still conscious, struggling to escape, but the great teeth held fast; the creature was an eating machine of inconceivable power. The human chain had succeeded in pulling Charles nearly to the beach—but the great white followed, its massive conical body scraping the sands. The monster was coming onto the beach. Then, suddenly, it was gone, a whirl of foam trailing the dark fin as it submerged. “The shark held on until it scraped bottom,” Barklie recalled, “then it let go and swam away.” Profound shock had momentarily seized the people on the sands. They had no context for what had happened; there was no way for them to know that sharks, in other times and other lands, followed their human victims right up onto land. It was unthinkable, alien, awful confirmation of a Darwinian truth the Victorians had long denied: Nature was “red in tooth and claw.” There was no way for them to know that the popular new sport of recreational swimming, fueled by expanding wealth, industry, and human population, had brought the nightmare of centuries of sailors to shore.

Charles lay crumpled on the beach, bleeding profusely. Men and women rushed to his side, some out of love, others out of morbid curiosity; still others, unable to look, turned away.

Louise Vansant, who had kept composure during the attack, almost fainted when she approached her brother. “The terrible story was revealed,” she said. “His left leg had been nearly torn off.”

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