Modern history

Intense with Need

The great white shark moved free in the wide curve of the bay between New Jersey and Staten Island. Matawan Creek was miles away.

Against considerable odds, the shark had survived battles with men, withstood and escaped the brackish, shallow creek, and sought the freedom of the sea. Yet the shark was weaker than it had been when it entered the creek, and hardly satisfied by five attacks on human beings. The bays below New York City were a great melting pot for the Atlantic seaboard, where freshwater and industrial flows from the city mixed with oceanic water from the continental shelf that curled down from Georges Bank around Cape Cod and Long Island. Raritan and Sandy Hook bays formed a rich estuary that generated marine life for the entire coast from the Gulf of Maine to Chesapeake Bay, hosting more than a hundred different species as diverse as dogfish sharks and moray eels.

But this womb of the sea was a hostile place as well—subject to extremes of temperature, salinity, and chemical degradation as profound as any estuary in the world. In this degraded environment, the great white somehow failed to capture the fish that abounded, its normal prey. With human flesh in its stomach, it continued on a strange and aberrant course.

Precisely because of that course, the lower bays of New York bristled with greater threat for all manner of sharks. Armed men were on the bay that day, killing sharks in unprecedented numbers. Bloodied hooks baited with meat and fish trailed boats, steel shark hooks dangling and glinting. In Raritan Bay, some ten miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek, a nine-and-a-half-foot shark had taken one of those baits and been captured by a New York fishing party after what a newspaper called a “terrible battle.”

The large shark possessed a huge jaw and teeth, and the fishing party believed it to be the man-eater that had consumed Stilwell and Fisher. With great excitement, they towed it back to Belford, New Jersey, eight miles from Matawan. New York and Philadelphia journalists and local residents crowded the docks to witness the shark being opened, to see if the bounty had been won. The shark was indeed a man-eater—a female bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas. But the men who cut open the bull were in for a surprise—twelve dead Carcharhinus leucas pups, each eighteen inches long and perfectly formed miniature adults, spilled out. While the capture of a gestating shark was notable, it held no value for the bounty hunters.

As the great white swam in the lower New York bays among the baited hooks, it was attracted to other lures. Fishing boats and sailboats and yachts, skiffs and steamers, trawlers and liners, plied the channels to the city. The shark had probably never shared the water with so many boats, large shadows that bewitched it with sonic and scent signals. Sharks are drawn to boats, scientists believe, by electromagnetic impulses emitted by ship equipment, by the metal flashing of propellers, by the skipping of oars across the surface, the leather workings on oars. Sharks crash into boats with exploratory bumps; and they are drawn by bait fish or recently caught fish. There is a contemporary account of an eight-foot blue shark leaping entirely out of the water and landing square on the snoozing form of an astounded young charter fisherman lying on the bottom of a boat, sleeping off seasickness while his friends fished for sharks. The young man awakened, fainted straightaway, and recovered to help his friends beat the shark to death.

Yet of all shark species, the great white is most notorious for attacks on boats, given its size and aggression and unique ability to crush a large hull. Shark researcher Xavier Maniguet refers mostly to the great white when he writes, “It is clear that a shark heading, even at a slow speed, for the hull of a boat can shatter it like a walnut. No wooden or plastic hull can withstand such a ‘snoutbutt.'”

In Australia, sharks have long been known to bite gaping holes in hulls, rip off pieces of a boat, and leave large teeth embedded in the hull. In a particularly famous case from April 1946, a man and his son were fishing from a boat off the coast of New South Wales, when a twenty-foot shark took the line and then for no apparent reason charged the boat. According to the fisherman, the shark tore off the rudder, flung it high into the air, and “savaged it like a mad dog.” In a final flourish, the shark made off with the rudder between its teeth.

Many men in boats have not been so fortunate. In June 1923, four miners were fishing from a reef on the south coast of New South Wales, when a school of sharks passed under the boat. “The boat shuddered, and the next instant a gaping hole was ripped in the bottom,” the one surviving miner recalled. The boat heeled, filled with water, and wallowed, with the men struggling to cling to its side. One of the miners volunteered to swim two miles to shore for help. He had gone only about sixty feet, then he gave a cry and disappeared.

Late in the evening of July 14, a fisherman in the bay returned to shore with a battered boat and an eerie story. He had been cruising along when a big shark attacked his boat and tried to sink it. After a prolonged struggle, the fisherman prevailed in escaping from the shark, but not before he saw it close up: a great dark fish approximately eight feet long.

The great white that had escaped Matawan Creek, the big fish that had attacked five men in unprecedented frenzy, is as likely a suspect in that boat attack as the ocean could produce, yet it cannot be proven. What is known is that on that Friday the moon was nearly full, and the shark was intense with need, and as it cruised Raritan Bay there sounded a rich and confusing cocktail of scents and sonic bursts, boats and mammals.

North and east lay all the bays and harbors and beaches of New York City.

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