Modern history

The Sea Monster

The great white shark swimming in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream was adapted to live anywhere in the world, in the Gulf of Alaska and the Mediterranean, off the coasts of Formosa and southern Chile. In cooler waters, its vascular system warmed the blood flowing to its eyes and brain, a genetic response enabling it to live and hunt in waters of widely varying temperature. Its migration north along the eastern seaboard of the United States was a thoughtless, instinctual action, but the shark was not the pea-brained creature it is often portrayed to be. The great white, in fact, possesses a large and complex brain. Theoretically, it could be trained, were the task not unthinkably dangerous. As it swam and grew, the shark adapted and learned by experience, but the ability to reason, suggested some experts, was beyond it. “Reasoning implies the ability to integrate experience, forethought, rationality, learning . . . into a complex decision-making process,” ichthyologist George Burgess of the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History says. “Sharks, like most animals, simply react in predetermined ways that, from an evolutionary standpoint, are clearly effective—or else they wouldn't be here any longer! That's why white sharks don't hold grudges, and don't spare women and children . . .”

Most of its brain is given over to enormous olfactory lobes, and thus it has been called a “brain of smell.” It can smell prey a quarter-mile away. Sharks have been observed, writes Thomas B. Allen in The Shark Almanac, trailing bathers in the shallows who had scratches on their legs. According to the zoologist A. D. Hasler, “We are concerned here with a sense of such refined acuity that it defies comparable attainment by the most sensitive instruments of modern chemical analysis.”

Bathers with cut fingers may have been a mild curiosity to most sharks, but the young great white faced more pressing problems now. Competition among the large predators in the Gulf Stream was intense.

After days, the great current passed on without it. The Gulf Stream plunged north, roiling past the coasts of New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, turning east at Nova Scotia to cross the Atlantic to England. Somewhere approximately seventy miles east of New Jersey, a looping wave, a fluke current, whirled the shark out of the mighty stream. Suddenly, the crowds were gone. Even surrounded by prey in the Gulf Stream, it had failed to sustain itself. And now, the crowds had gone. The small pelagic fish, the helpless prey, had disappeared.

Six hundred feet beneath the shark, the continental shelf was lush in bottom fishes—rake and cod, ling and porgies—a short dive for a great white, but this shark had grown used to hunting the surface, and passed over the bottom feeders.

The young great white was lost, pulled by a stray plume of the Gulf Stream. Of all the fish in the sea, it was the deadliest, yet, ironically, the first to suffer from damage to the ecosystem, the most likely to go extinct. It was the cost of scarcity: For the ecosystem to remain in balance, the great white must forever skirt extinction.

The great fish's environment had not just diminished, it had disappeared. Perhaps it was attacked and injured by a larger predator. What motivated it is unknown. What is known is that it became a rare “rogue” member of its species—a deranged individual apex predator, a behavior seen in man-killing lions and elephants in Africa. And in human beings. “It was the equivalent,” says George Burgess, “of a serial killer.” At the dawn of the twentieth century, this comparison was not yet available, as human serial killers were not known. In the parlance of the time, it was a sea monster.

Soon other currents and scents, like the ones that had snatched it into the giant stream, began to work on the young shark, pulling it west. Prey was still scarce, its hunger growing, but the water was getting shallower, and all its senses told it that this at least was a good thing. It was nearing shore and its more abundant prey.

It was sometime in late June when an especially powerful and new scent began to flow from the coastal streams of New Jersey into the sea. The shark picked up the scent and decided to investigate. If the scent was foreign—the shark may never have encountered human beings—it would have induced caution along with interest. In all encounters it was governed by a rule born inside it: Never start a fight you can't win. In such moments, the shark did not rise much above its customary sluggish pace, reserving all energy for the moment of attack.

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