Saturday, July 3, 2010

Book: Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo

"We're not just afraid of predators, we're transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters." - E.O. Wilson

"You're gonna need a bigger boat." - Chief Brody, Jaws

You guys are likely aware by now that the things that I love, I love *intensely*. I either care or I don't, there's not much of a half-way point for me, and I do tend to get obsessive. So, y'know, there ya go. That being said, I *love* sharks. In the rampant, obsessive sense of the term. Shark Week on the Discovery Channel is a VERY SPECIAL TIME for me.

It's all Jaws' fault, really. I saw the movie for the first time when I was probably 9 or 10 years old. And it officially, without a doubt, scared the living crap out of me. I was convinced that there were giant sharks lurking out there, waiting to eat people. I was *so* scared that I wouldn't go into a swimming pool if the water was not perfectly clear so I could *see* that there wasn't a shark in there. Being the obsessive little nugget that I am, even at that young age, I was determined to learn *everything* about sharks. I wanted to be Matt Hooper when I grew up.

What most people don't realize is that the book Jaws was based on a series of real life shark attacks in 1916. These attacks are considered the first 'official' attacks by a shark on man in U.S. history. At the time these attacks began, there was little debate in the scientific community and therefore the world at large that sharks had been unfairly maligned for centuries, and were, in fact, perfectly harmless. Men swam with (presumed) 'dangerous' species, and were left untouched, therefore all the ancient reports of man-eating sharks (as well as those from the primitive world and sailors) were exaggerations, misunderstandings, or mis-identifications of the fish involved.

The leading 'expert' on sharks had declared, unequivocably the year before that he did not believe sharks ever attacked anyone, that their jaws lacked the strength to do any damage and that any shark ever found with human remains in its stomach must have scavenged the body parts from a drowning victim. The year of 1916 saw the new fad of 'bathing' in the ocean reach new heights. More people travelled to the shore that summer to escape the pestilent air of their native cities than ever had before, or would again. They jumped in, believing themselves to be masters over all, confident that there was nothing in the sea that could threaten them. Many of them couldn't swim at all, in fact, but didn't let a little detail like that stop them, and while many of these unfortunates were saved by the 'surfmen' (lifeguards), many more drowned.

The first victim was a young man (25) named Charles E. Vansant. He and his family (mother, father, and two sisters) were at the shore from their native Philadelphia, having gone to the town of Beach Haven for their summer escape. Charles, being a typical young man of the time, went for a swim before dinner in a display of Victorian manliness. He went in and was followed, briefly, by a dog that had been playing on the beach. Eventually, the dog turned around and went back, but Vansant kept on, past the breakers and into deep water. He had turned around and was only three or four feet from the shore, in shallow waters, when the shark struck. Vansant screamed and struggled with the shark, and other men, bystanders and surfmen alike rushed into the water as it turned red with blood. They formed a human chain to try and wrestle him away from the shark, who followed his prey until the sharks belly scraped the sand, at which point it finally let go and thrashed its way back into the water and disappeared. As the rescuers pulled Vansant up onto the beach, it was revealed that his left leg had been ripped off.

His father (a doctor) and one of the surfmen (Alexander Ott), attempted to staunch the bleeding and tourniquet the massive wound, to little effect. Vansant was carried into the beach front hotel where his family was staying, and died lying on the hotel manager's desk a little before seven that night. Despite eyewitness testimony to the nature of the beast that had attacked him, and the fact that his cause of death was listed as 'shark attack', the 'experts' of the time denied that a shark could have been the culprit, and put forth their very learned opinions that it was far more likely that the animal that had ripped off Charles Vansant's leg was, in fact, a giant turtle.

Due to the common knowledge that sharks didn't attack people, and the fact that in 1916 communication was not as quick nor as thorough as it would later become, very few people outside of those in the immediate vicinity even knew about young Mr. Vansant's death, and those that did, who were wise to the ways of nature and the sea, thought that the reports of it being death by a shark were hysteria and exaggeration.

Five days later, on July 6th, 45 miles north of Beach Haven, in another resort town (Spring Lake), Charles Bruder (27) was attacked 130 yards from the shore. Known as a strong long distance swimmer, Mr. Bruder was a bellhop for the New Essex and Sussex Hotel, and had convinced some of the other young men who worked at the hotel to come take a swim with him before they had to start the evening service at the hotel. He was struck in the abdomen and both legs were severed. One witness thought that 'the man in the red canoe' had been upset in the water (we have to assume that she wasn't watching Mr. Bruder swim, and only caught sight after the attack had begun). Two surfmen rowed out to where Bruder was fighting with the shark and pulled him from the water. He died en route to the beach. His attack was blamed, by the experts, on a *killer whale*. These people were *very* invested in anything but a shark being the killer.

Here's where the story gets *really* interesting. The next three attacks took place on July 12th, 30 miles north of Spring Lake, and approximately 16 miles *inland*. The shark swam up Matawan Creek in New Jersey. Why's that so interesting? Well, sharks typically only live in salt water. They need high levels of saline to survive. A shark swimming from the ocean into fresh water won't last long at all. The only exception to that rule is the Bull shark, which can go from salt to fresh water. Okay, you say, so maybe the attacking shark was a Bull shark. Problem solved. And that is a possibility. However, the commonly accepted culprit for these attacks is a juvenile Great White shark. Either way, the behavior is very odd.

Around 2 pm, the local boys were let out of their jobs at various factories to go for a short swim break in the creek. This was typical behaviour of the time and place. The bosses let the boys burn off some steam, and then they returned to their jobs. Four or five boys were swimming in an area called Wyckoff dock, when they noticed an 'old, weather-beaten log'. It was only when the log submerged (and they noticed the dorsal fin) that they realized something was wrong. They were swimming to the shore and the last boy in line, Lester Stillwell (12), was suddenly yanked under. The other boys (stark naked), ran into town for help. The adults of the town didn't believe the boys when they claimed that Lester had been attacked. They thought that the boy had more likely had an epileptic seizure and drowned, and the other boys, in their panic, had imagined seeing the shark. Men went down in boats to search of Lester's body, sounding the creek with long poles.

A local man, Stanley Fisher (24) and others were diving in the creek, searching for the body. He and a close friend had been at it the longest, and were giving up, heading back to shore when Fisher decided to make one more dive. And then one more. On the second dive, he came back up, yelling "I've got him!" and began to swim back with Lester Stillwell's body. The sad relief that was felt on shore turned to fresh fear when Fisher suddenly bobbed under the water and resurfaced, screaming "He's got me!" Fisher, an incredibly strong young man, fought off the shark, keeping hold of the body, again and again, swimming to shore as fast as he could. Almost to shore Fisher was forced to let go of Stillwell's body in order to try and save himself.

He was pulled from the creek, still conscious, and able to tell the people there that he had dove down that last time and seen the shark devouring young Lester Stillwell's body. He had then wrestled the corpse away from the shark and attempted to swim to shore with it. The shark, understandably, took this interruption of his meal poorly, and attacked Fisher. Fisher was severely wounded in his right thigh, and though he survived the initial attack and the hour and a half train ride to the nearest hospital, he bled to death at about 5:30 that afternoon. Stillwell's body was eventually recovered about 150 feet upstream from where the attacks had occurred.

The last attack took place about a half a mile south (heading back out to sea) from where the Stillwell/Fisher attacks occurred. A young man named Joseph Dunn (14) was swimming in the creek when a retired sea captain came up in a boat, having taken to motoring up and down the creek to try and warn people out of the water since the attack. The boys were heeding the warning and climbing out on the dock when the shark came up and grabbed Mr. Dunn by the left leg. He was pulled from the water by his companions and received prompt medical attention (doctors had been called for the earlier attacks and while they couldn't help Lester Stillwell or Stanley Fisher, they were at least on hand for this third attack), and survived his wounds.

The people attempted to kill the monster shark by chucking dynamite into the water and shooting at any shadow they thought they saw in the water. Despite their thorough (and misguided) attempts, they missed the shark. One net that was laid across a narrow part of the creek was found to have a hole chewed through it, and it was assumed that the shark escaped that way. (It's also possible that the shark had simply already passed through and wasn't there at all after the last attack.)

On July 14 a 7 1/2 foot long Great White was caught in Raritan Bay only a few miles from the mouth of Matawan Creek. The shark weighed about 325 pounds and was found to have about 15 pounds of 'fleshy matter' and bones in its stomach. The bones, when sent to an independent scientist, were declared to be human, and thus the man-eater was dead. Of course, the shark itself (which the man who caught it had stuffed) eventually disappeared, and there was debate between scientists as to *which* bones there were in the shark, and whether or not they could have come from any of the victims, or were scavenged.

The witnesses to the attacks all reported a beast between 8 to 10 feet long, and given their unfamiliarity with sharks in general, it's possible that a 7.5 foot long Great White could be the culprit. Many of the attacks show Great White 'traits'. Sudden, explosive violence. (Many other sharks attack without the 'ruckus' that attends something the size of a Great White). The bite and retreat is typical of Great Whites (though not unique to them by any means...). They attack, inflict a massive wound, and circle, allowing the prey to bleed out so that they can then move in to feed without danger to themselves.

The size itself doesn't really say which species of shark we should blame. An 8 - 10 foot Great White is still a juvenile. Not even sexually mature. The largest Great White ever caught that is held to have been *reliably* measured topped out at about 20 feet long. There have, however, been reports of sharks up to 27 feet being caught, with larger specimens being reported having been seen, but not caught. A Bull shark is typically about 7 to 11 feet long, depending.

Both species are considered 'man-eaters', and actually rank in the top three killers, along with the Tiger shark. The size, ferocity, and coloration of the two sharks is close enough (though of course the Great White, as I said, gets *much* bigger, but it would have had to have been a juvenile to even fit up the creek without being seen and beaching itself when the tide went out). So we'll never really know which the true killer was, but these attacks are what started it all.

(Bull shark)(Great White shark)

"Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all." - Matt Hooper, Jaws


  1. Should I be mildly disturbed that this "obsessive nugget" called Amber has "glee" as one of the labels to this post about people dying from shark attacks? :-D

    First, your blog looks adorable with the new picture! And this post was incredibly fascinating! Wow! I enjoyed all the interesting facts! I'm curious why "These people were *very* invested in anything but a shark being the killer." Why believe a giant turtle or killer whale was the culprit? Did they not want to admit they were wrong? Or did they genuinely believe the shark too ... sweet to do such a thing?

    "The people attempted to kill the monster shark by chucking dynamite into the water and shooting at any shadow they thought they saw in the water."

    This was quite a humorous visual....though I know they meant well.

    Been missing you so it's great to see a shark post. Happy Independence Day!

    (I started my study in Matthew again. I'd love to read your thoughts on my thoughts. I always enjoy how you challenge me to rethink things as you bring in a more Orthodox/Catholic understanding so ... hope to see you if you feel like it.)

  2. 'Should I be mildly disturbed that this "obsessive nugget" called Amber has "glee" as one of the labels to this post about people dying from shark attacks? :-D' Maybe? Definitely not 'mildly'. ;)

    Partially I think that their need for it to *not* be a shark was because, yes, they were the closest things to experts in that field in those days, and they had officially, in books, in newspaper articles, in the news, declared that sharks were harmless and had never eaten *anyone*. Discounting, in the process, all of the anecdotal evidence to the contrary (thousands of years of it, to be sure.) But I don't think they did it *just* to cover their butts. They really did believe that they were right. But for the longest time they refused to admit that they might be wrong. Not that it would have done any good, really. This shark didn't behave in normal shark fashion, and they didn't understand enough to even know what a normal shark would do under these circumstances. After the Matawan Creek attacks, one of them actually travelled to the creek (when they thought the killer was still trapped in it), and realized that there was no way it could have been an orca. He was the first to admit that it had to be a shark, as impossible as that seemed to them.

    They did mean well. In fact, they even got the US government involved, and there was supposed to be a 'war on sharks', before it was called off for impracticality. But this *did* start the study of sharks, in earnest.


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