Modern history

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Part Three - To Destroy No More

Toward the World of Men

As the sun slid into the sea along the darkening coast, the shark descended with it, plunging thirty, forty feet to the bottom, where it righted and cruised on the pebbly landscape of the ocean floor. The night sea floor was scattered with fish seeking shelter, making themselves less of a target to predators. The shark blended imperceptibly with the ocean floor as its huge tail propelled it in the gloom.

The black eyes of the shark absorbed light, and out of the dusk swam the huge rusted boilers and engines of the steamer wrecks. Schools of big blackfish and hordes of cunners moved in and out of the wrecks maddeningly, somehow beyond reach. Through an eerie world of dead forms the shark swam past shipwrecks scattered like a behemoth's graveyard—such as the bones of the Western World, a clipper ship that sank sixty years earlier with three hundred passengers, and the Malta, a 244-foot steamer that went down in 1885. The shark surveyed the bottom for the living and the dead, for things that couldn't flee. Deadeyes and bolts and deck lights, blue glass bottles and mustard jars, riding spurs and whiskey flasks, inkwells and school bells from the last century, were all there on the coastal bottom as the shark moved north. Pewter cups of a last supper, ginger ale bottles still full, gentlemen's pipes and ladies' perfumes from the 1870s, a load of Civil War rifles moldering in their cases.

And so the young shark darted falteringly toward great clouds of weakfish and black bass, red hake, monkfish, and menhaden. It was hapless to feed as it was accustomed. The fish of the mid-Atlantic were well organized in classes of predator and prey, a natural structure from which the shark had somehow removed itself or been removed through illness or failure. In the brute and unsparing choreography of nature, it no longer held a proper part. The waters of the deep were murkier than those it knew in the tropics, dulled by pale northern light and cloudy with masses of fish more numerous, if less diverse, than in southern waters, fleeing clouds of life that were mute witness to his enfeebled efforts to survive.

On the coast of southern and central New Jersey, old time fishermen were now speculating that the man-eater, whatever it was, would drift north in coastal currents—and this conclusion, among the many confounding puzzles of its behavior, would prove to be right. The pounding blows of an oar off Asbury Park, the gunshots splitting the waves of Spring Lake, were like larger predators frightening it north with the currents into a world that no longer sustained it. Its hunger or its madness were reaching an urgent point.

Yet the shark was adapted to handle the crisis of hunger in ways human beings did not know in 1916, and struggled decades later to understand. As the shark swam, there is evidence the legs and bones of Charles Bruder cut off below the knee and pieces of the bell captain's torso remained preserved in the fish's stomach for later consumption, in the manner of a camel. Gleaming specimens of dolphins and mackerel, fresh as if iced in the fishmonger's window, have been pulled from the stomachs of sharks, as well as still-legible paper documents. But the most compelling proof of the shark's camel-like ability in crisis occurred on April 17, 1935, when Albert Hobston caught a thirteen-foot tiger shark off a Sydney, Australia, beach and towed it alive to the Coogee Aquarium. Eight days later, dying in captivity, the shark regurgitated a bird, a rat, and, eerily visible in a cloud of muck, a human arm—a thick, muscular arm, so well preserved that the forearm was clearly marked with a tattoo of two boxers. On the basis of a photograph of the tattoo, published in a Sydney newspaper, a man identified his brother, James Smith, forty-five. The arm was preserved so well, it was accepted as evidence that led to the arrest of a man for murdering, dismembering, and dumping Smith at sea.

While myths have arisen to explain a mysterious “storage” capacity in the shark, in July 1916 there was no mystery. In the cooler coastal waters that week, the great white's body temperature lowered and its rate of digestion slowed. Gradually, the shark digested the flesh from a pair of human legs, gaining nutrition. The bones were indigestible, and the shark would later expel them with turtle shells and porpoise bones—like a dog retching up chicken bones.

But Charles Bruder's remains wouldn't sustain the shark for long. It may be difficult to understand that a young great white shark could falter in its native environment, that in the ocean wild animals make mistakes unprovoked by man, get themselves into situations they cannot get out of. The great white, in particular, has an image of perfection—invincible, unconquerable, free. Man is faulty, but evolution worked overtime at something and got it right.

At dawn the shark rose from the deep, quickly leaving the vulnerable middle depths to cruise on the surface, where its white underbelly glittered alongside the camouflage of the sun. As the fish swam, the day's sunlight penetrated the sea and was refracted and scattered, breaking and muting the spectrum to better conceal it. Twenty-five feet down, the long rays of red light were absorbed by the sea, disappeared, and the shark swam in an ether of dull brown little more apparent than the outline of a current. The fish was superbly concealed from its prey in the ocean and perfectly equipped to thrive. Lost, hungry, the ocean's foremost predator was still formidable. Yet, out of its habitat, it was an alien creature, headed toward the world of men.

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