Modern history

Fears Only Thinly Veiled

Along the bottom of the night sea, the shark moved in cold thirty-foot indigo depths unilluminated by the light of the moon. Careful to avoid big predators, it dipped low in the water column while hugging the shore, the home of living things. The shark had killed and failed to feed, and discipline and wariness ruled its every movement. The spoiled attack on a large mammal, the noisome counterattack by many other mammals, deepened its preternatural caution.

As the shark swam, tiny organs, distributed all along its body, constantly “tasted” the chemical composition and salinity of the ocean water. These sensors possessed cells analogous to the taste cells on a human tongue and sensed, now, lower salinity in the coastal waters. The shark was reading the dilution of coastal waters caused by the rains of June 1916, so torrential the Ledger lamented, “There cannot be much more rain left in Heaven.” Water had coursed from the mountains in the state's northwest, through central and southern farmlands, into lakes and underground streams and finally to the sea. With the swollen freshwater runs came masses of organic matter, myriad fish flowing into the channels and bays. For eons, lower salinity had pointed the shark and its ancestors toward new hunting grounds, and so the big fish moved now without thought toward prey. Fish sat at the head of the inlets, snaring other smaller fish that came from the creeks and bays. Just north of Little Egg Inlet, the great white had found prey fish from Great Bay and Little Bay. And it had also stumbled upon Charles Vansant.

Along with the shark's gifts of detection and concealment was the quality of anonymity, the gift of being unknown to man. By 1916, hundreds of men in the deep ocean and on the wastes and fringes of continents and in the prehistoric backwater of time had been devoured by sharks. But sharks attacked far from cities and civilization. Shark attack was an otherworldly story swapped by sailors and fishermen, a tale seldom reaching beyond cabin or dock or the range of a man's last desperate cries. It was a story, when filtered to a city, that was scarcely believed.

The Edwardians believed God had given them dominion over the fish of the sea and science had given them evolutionary supremacy over the earth. “In the course of evolution man became supreme and mastered all the other animals,” said a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer early in the summer of 1916. “Those he could not use he exterminated.”

But there had always been a fish that man could not master, that at will exterminated him. After the long silence of prehistory, a story of anonymous human prey, Herodotus, the first great historian of the Greeks, wrote of a “marine monster” seizing a helpless man at sea in 492 B.C. Documentation is scattered over centuries. Seven hundred years before Christ, a potter working on the Italian island of Ischia, at the entrance to the future Bay of Naples, carved a vase with a representation of a man being seized by a giant fish—the first evidence, in art, of a shark attack. The word for the fish didn't enter the English language until 1569, when Captain John Hawkins towed to London a ferocious specimen his crew exhibited as a “shark,” the term evidently derived from the German schurk or schurke, meaning scoundrel or villain. But with the first use of the word in English came denial of the creature's existence. Thus in 1778, the citizens of London were horrified anew to learn there was such a thing as a man-eating shark, this one in a painting by John Singleton Copley, “Watson and the Shark.” Watson was the lord mayor of London, and he had hired Copley, considered the finest artist in colonial America, to portray the moment in 1749 when he had lost his leg as a boy, when he fell overboard from a ship in Havana harbor and was attacked by a shark. The painting caused a sensation at the Royal Academy, “exposing a previously ignorant segment of the population to the terrors of sharks.”

Denial was a sensible response to the emergence of the shark, according to H. David Baldridge, the U.S. Navy officer-scientist who helped the navy research shark attacks after the death and dismemberment of navy personnel during World War II, and “a significant morale problem among fliers and survivors of ship sinkings.” Baldridge continued:

What could possibly equal being eaten alive by a monster fish? With very few exceptions, man has emerged the master in his relatively short period of competition with the beasts of this earth. Yet, the tidelands of the sea clearly mark the boundary of his supremacy. Beyond that lies an unknown that still conjures up in most of us emotions and fears only thinly veiled by the gossamer of civilization . . . There is no conflict more fundamental in nature, more one-sided in conduct, or more predetermined in outcome than the attack upon a live human being by a shark. In an instant of time, the sophistication of modern man is stripped away and he becomes again what he must have been many times in the beginning—the relatively helpless prey of a wild animal.

Following the inlets, the shark moved along the thin sandy coast of Long Beach Island, keeping to open ocean along the narrow wastes of Island Beach for many miles. In several days the shark swept north past the whole of Barnegat Bay, the sedge islands, Metedeconk Neck, the river past the Mantolokings, and Bay Head to the Manasquan Inlet, where the barrier islands ended. There it began to hug the mainland for the first time.

Little is known about the migratory habits of great whites. A rare scientific measurement of a great white's travels occurred in 1979 off the east end of Long Island, when a Woods Hole biologist used a harpoon to implant a transmitter in a great white while it was feeding on a whale. In the next three and a half days, the shark averaged only two miles an hour but showed incredible endurance, swimming 168 miles, from Montauk to the Hudson River submarine canyon off New York City, until the boat trailing the shark broke down.

So in July 1916, the juvenile great white covered a third of the Jersey coast, approximately forty-five miles, in five days. The shark followed huge offshore sand ridges. The shadows of the ridges and the inlets on the coast sang with life, with normal prey. But the juvenile great white was not behaving normally. Day and night, the water thrummed with mammals, a new and different quarry in unusual abundance. Along the beaches of the Jersey shore that summer was perhaps the largest number in the world, perhaps in any era to date, of human beings in the water. Where a normal great white shark goes, and when or why or what it hunts would remain, for much of the century to follow, a puzzle, a mystery to which the shark of 1916 would add little but enigmas and riddles.

Ahead past Sea Girt, just south of Long Branch and Woodrow Wilson's summer White House, lay the wealthy Victorian seaside resort of Spring Lake, named for a lovely oblong spring-fed lake, three blocks from the ocean, whose banks had recently contributed fresh spring water to the edge of the sea.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!