The bad news is that there’s no good news. Good news would reassure us that, in this part of the world, no way a shark could ever take a nip of someone’s toes. Thing is, a shark could very well do that any time, any day, provided the water temp is over 39-degrees which it generally is by the time August rolls around.
Good news would be that we only have the mellow sharks in these waters such as the basking and the nursing – the kind that, compared to the tiger, great whites and bull sharks, if they approach you at all, sort of cuddle up to you, comparatively speaking. But no, sharks spotted off shore of us are, you guessed it, great whites, the kind with the big old rictus of teeth that could swallow up a Rolls Royce, hood ornament and all.
And the thing is, compared to the Jaws days of the 1970s, these waters are now rife with more sharks than you could shake a Steven Spielberg at. The reason for this is that the seal population has exploded. In the old days in Boston Harbor, the municipality used to pay a bounty for dead seals. This was based on an erroneous supposition that seals were munching up disappearing schools of striped bass. Brace yourselves for the ick factor, but fishermen were paid x number of dollars per seal nose. Bye-bye roly-poly marine mammals.
In the meantime, with a shortage of seals, sharks were eating any fish they could suck into their Angelina Jolie-sized mouths. But once seals bounced back, their predators went “oh yum!” and returned to their favorite meal: big, plump, and juicy. More of the bad news is that we remind sharks of seals as we float, round and care-free (some of us rounder than others) in shallow waters. Apparently once they taste us, we’re not as delicious as seals which, when you come to think of it, is a fairly insulting piece of information, but nonetheless sharks are known to spit out a bite of human like a bad hors d’oeuvre.
The black dorsal fins of great whites are routinely spotted in our waters. In July of 2008, a great white sighting off South Beach in Edgartown and another off State Beach, led to the police chief shutting down the beaches for a couple of days. And a few years before that, in 2004, another of these beasties was trapped in a salt pond not far from the island.
So the question arises, could it happen here like it did in the movie? Let’s take the opening scene in Jaws: a moonlit night, a naked young woman splashing in the water, calling for some young guy whose name she doesn’t know, to come on in, the water’s fine. We hear the doo-dermpt doo-derpmt of the movie music and, below her in the dark depths, we see the girl’s limbs from the shark’s wide-angel POV.
A valid scenario?
Some of the good news: We’re not anywhere on the list of the top ten most shark-infested beaches in the world, the first being Volusia County, Florida, the second the coast of South Africa where people descend in cages to mingle with the sharks, the third the beaches of New South Wales in Australia where drum-lines (baited hooks) and nets protect bathers from nasty-nosed sharks, and the fourth the islands of Oahu and Maui in Hawaii.
But that still doesn’t mean a person rowing off State Beach can’t suddenly feel a vise of shark’s teeth clamp around his wrist. For example, in July of 1936. a 16 year-old boy named Joseph Troy swam with his uncle in Buzzard’s Bay. A great white shark grabbed him by the leg and pulled him under. His uncle rescued him, but Joseph died shortly thereafter in the hospital.
And then there was that rogue shark that slipped out of the Gulf Stream in the summer of 1916 and picked off eleven people – four killed and seven mauled – from resort spots along the Jersey Shore. The last two attacks occurred in a salt water tidal creek in Mattawan; who’d have expected el monstro at the end of a pier sixteen miles inland?
Officials called in a massive relief effort, far grander than Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfus and Roy Scheider in a small boat. President Woodrow Wilson rolled out the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard. They and a hoard of fishermen rousted and killed hundreds of scaly, dorsally bastards, but no one ever knew for sure if anyone caught THE scaly dorsally bastard.
Ichthyologists (what a rush to use that word!) warn us, don’t go swimming with a pod of seals, cute as they are. And even though seals apparently taste better than we do (I still find that fact slightly off-putting), as Robert Bentley described it in Jaws, a shark will blindly, indiscriminately open its mouth and inhale whatever floats between it and the water’s surface. If it’s a cast-off sofa or a case of beer, the big guy will consider for a moment, then give it the old heave-ho, but do you have any desire to be gulped, nibbled, then spit out? Didn’t think so.
So let the seals paddle around on their own, and stick to swimming with your buds.