The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws

One rogue shark. Five victims. A mysterious threat. And the era of the killer great white was born

In 1916, a great white shark attacked five people near the Jersey Shore. (Library of Congress)

(Continued from page 1)

The thinking was it couldn’t be a shark, because we don’t have sharks here. It must be a sea turtle. Someone suggested it was a school of turtles that was coming in and biting things. Of course, turtles don’t school, and they don’t bite human beings, but it sounded good. A killer whale was suggested as well. The theories abounded and were allowed to get out unchecked into the media simply because there was not a forceful scientific authority that really knew what was going on to step right in and try to level the conversation.

There were a few scientists, regarded as experts, who weighed in.

John Treadwell Nichols was a well-known ichthyologist at the American Museum of Natural History. He knew something about sharks. Then, there was the director of the New York Aquarium, Charles Haskins Townsend, who was a good ichthyologist as well. He knew his sharks and dealt with them in an aquarium. Robert Cushman Murphy, another American Museum of Natural History guy, was working with sharks in Long Island and knew something about what sharks were there and when.

What were these scientists saying?

They very accurately portrayed the suite of species that were found in the area. They knew some of the timing of when the species appeared. So, they went through the checklist the same way I did, frankly, with a bunch of media calling me about the recent Cape Cod attack.

I said, look, here are basically the four species you are likely to see in this area. These two species are basically offshore species, and they only occasionally will wander into near-shore waters. You can probably eliminate those two. This one here is a ground shark that lives on the bottom and is not known to attack humans. We can probably eliminate that one. That means that your most logical one is this species.

They were doing that same kind of thing. One of them suggested that the white shark was the most likely candidate based on his knowledge of the sharks of the area and the habits of the shark.

How would you describe scientists’ knowledge of sharks at the time?

Very poor. Back in those days, sharks were basically unknown. There was little known about what was going on in terms of their movement patterns and their ecology. There were a lot of preconceptions out there that were quite erroneous, particularly in the public sector where the only source of information was anecdotal stories, newspapers and books, which usually portrayed the sharks in a negative way.

Historically, money went to study those animals that were economically most important. There has always been money put into salmon, and there is money put into tuna and cod. Sharks, by contrast, never had a market per se and, in fact, had just the opposite. They were eating these important food fishes and were therefore not only of no concern from a management standpoint but something we really didn’t want to have around. Those darn things are eating the good fish! As a result, research on sharks lagged far behind that of other fishes all the way until the 1990s.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus