Modern history

Disporting in a Perfect Surf

The next morning, Sunday, July 9th, Asbury Park's summer people in the hotels and cottages sat by eastern windows, as the newspapers instructed, to catch the healthful light from the sea. Hotel guests had breakfast and headed to church, where they heard soloists sing “Eye Hath Not Seen.” Afterward, gentlemen in straw hats and matrons in silk dresses strolled down the boulevards to the sea. Trolley car 32 was swollen with passengers bound for the beaches, for “visitors and hotel guests had fully regained their confidence,” the Asbury Park Press reported.

There was talk of the jewel heist of a huge eighteen-hundred-dollar diamond, the St. Claire was advertising for “colored waitresses,” the Surf House for “two experienced white chambermaids,” and Asbury Park had regained its “normalcy,” a word in use prior to its appropriation by Harding to restore the feeling of sultry days before the disillusionments of the Great War. Days like this one.

The beaches were thronged with crowds, the water aswarm with bathers who appeared to have forgotten the deaths of Charles Vansant and Charles Bruder with the denial that attended shark attacks. For if nothing could be more horrible than being swallowed by a monster fish, what could be more rewarding to forget?

Besides, sharks were nothing to worry about now. A day after hysteria swept Asbury Park, “the shark scare . . . is practically dead,” the Press crowed, “albeit there are sharks somewhere in the ocean and whales, too, for that matter. But Asbury Park's bathing grounds are free from sharks for the very simple reason that no sharks can enter them.” The beaches were all barricaded by steel wire that formed a U shape around the bathing grounds, and “timidity had given place to the pleasure of disporting in a perfect surf unmarred by the slightest evidence of danger.”

Just south of Asbury Park, in the village of Ocean Grove, town manager Frank B. Smith announced that a contract had been awarded to erect a protective net around the beach, but it was hardly needed. Unaware that shark attacks were more likely in shallow water, Smith declared the Ocean Grove beach was not as deep near shore as those at Beach Haven and Spring Lake and this “difference in character” would “greatly lessen the danger of a visit from sharks.” Even in Spring Lake, three days after Bruder's death, beach attendance was improving. While bathers were “loath to venture very far out,” the Press reported, “it is possible early next week will again see bathing in vogue.”

Bathers were reassured by the comments that week by Hugh Smith, director of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, that they ought “not be unduly alarmed or deterred from going in bathing” as “sharks are not vicious.” Smith, fifty-one, one of the most respected fish scientists in the world, had directed the marine biological laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, at the turn of the century. From 1907 to 1910, he led the government's expedition on the steamer Albatross that collected four hundred thousand fish and aquatic animals, one of the largest and most diverse collections of marine life ever assembled. Aboard the Albatross he had befriended an international roster of renowned scientists, including Frederic Lucas. Like Dr. Lucas, Hugh Smith had studied sharks for years and shared his opinion that a shark had not killed Bruder or Vansant.

The commissioner believed the likeliest culprit in both men's deaths was the broadbill swordfish Xiphias gladius, whose tall dorsal fin would explain the fins sited during both attacks. The swordfish possesses great speed and enormous size—up to fifteen feet long and a thousand pounds—and there were reports, the commissioner said, of men run cleanly through by its long, flat sword.

“When we consider that there are hundreds of thousands of bathers on our eastern coasts every year and that for as long as anyone can remember no one has been bitten until these two recent cases, I think it is a word in favor of the sharks,” Smith said. “Our domestic animals, horses, dogs and others, have not anything like this record.”

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