Note: Alfred Bester, senior editor of Holiday, encouraged Benchley to turn this article into a novel; Benchley took his advice and wrote Jaws.
ONE WARM SUMMER DAY I was standing on a beach near Tom Never’s Head on Nantucket. Children were splashing around in the gentle surf as their mothers lay gabbing by the Styrofoam ice chests and the Scotch Grills. About thirty yards from shore, a man paddled back and forth, swimming in a jerky, tiring, head-out-of-the-water fashion. I had just remarked dully that the water was unusually calm, when I noticed a black speck cruising slowly up the beach some twenty yards beyond the lone swimmer. It seemed to dip in and out of the water, staying on the surface for perhaps five seconds, then disappearing for one or two, then reappearing for five. I ran down to the water and waved my arms at the man. At first he paid no attention, and kept plodding on. Then he noticed me. I pointed out to sea, cupped my hands over my mouth, and bellowed, “Shark!” He turned and saw the short, triangular fin moving almost parallel with him. Immediately he lunged for the shore in a frantic sprint. The fish, which had taken no notice of the swimmer, became curious at the sudden disturbance in the water, and I saw the fin turn inshore. It moved lazily, but not aimlessly.
By now the man had reached chest-deep water, and while he could probably have made better time by swimming, he elected to run. Running in five feet of water is something like trying to skip rope in a vat of peanut butter, and I could see his eyes bug and his face turn bright cerise as he slogged along. He didn’t look around, which was probably just as well, for the fish was no more than fifty yards behind him. At waist depth, the terrified man assumed Messianic talents. He seemed to lift out of the water, his legs churning wildly, his arms flailing. He hit the beach at a dead run and fled as far as the dunes, where he collapsed. The shark, discovering that whatever had roiled the water had disappeared, turned back and resumed his idle cruise just beyond the small breakers.
During the man’s race for land, the children had miraculously vanished from the surf, and now they were being bundled into towels by frenzied mothers. One child was bawling, “But I want to play!” His mother snapped, “No! There’s a shark out there.” The shark was out of sight down the beach, and for a time the ladies stood around staring at the water, evidently expecting the sea to regurgitate a mass of unspeakable horrors. Then, as if on mute cue, they all at once packed their coolers, grills, rafts, inner tubes and aluminum beach chairs and marched to their cars. The afternoon was still young, and the shark had obviously found this beach unappetizing (dining is poor for sharks closer than a half a mile off the beach at that part of the south shore of Nantucket). But to the mothers, the whole area—sand as well as water—was polluted.
Irrational behavior has always been man’s reaction to the presence of sharks. Ever since man first returned to the sea, sharks have held all the terror and fascination of an ax murder. To the Greeks they were sea monsters—indeed, the sight of three or four sharks swimming in line, as they sometimes do, with their tails and dorsal fins weaving back and forth, probably started countless tales of
mammoth “sea serpents.” Linnaeus declared that Jonah was swallowed by a shark, not a whale. They are the largest fish in the world, growing to almost sixty feet and weighing up to fifteen tons. And today, along with large alligators, crocodiles and an occasional nutty lion or tiger, they are the only animals left on earth that pose a major threat to man. (Not that crocodiles and lions are a real threat; rather they have the size and appetite to be hazardous if a man chooses to stick his foot in one’s mouth.) Very simply, sharks exist in an environment that is still alien to man, and many are decidedly anthropophagous—they eat people.
Part of the mysterious intrigue about sharks unquestionably derives from ignorance. No one really knows anything about them, which, of course, has not deterred numerous experts from writing numerous definitive books. No one knows how long they live because they don’t live long in captivity. Teeth, which are normally a useful guideline for guessing the age of animals, are useless in determining the age of sharks because their four or five rows of dentures are constantly folding out to replace missing members. They have no bones (another index of age), but are structured entirely with cartilage. Their top speed has been variously estimated at more than sixty miles an hour and less than twelve. (The estimate currently accepted is that a shark usually cruises at about five miles an hour, can maintain twelve to fifteen for a goodly time, and is capable of achieving over forty in short bursts.) No one even knows the derivation of the name. One theory holds that the name was taken from the German word Schurke, meaning scoundrel. Another holds that scoundrels were named for the fish. It might be a mispronunciation of the word “shirk” implying ill temper and sloth.
It’s pretty well agreed that the first true sharks existed in the Devonian Age, some seventy million years ago, and that they’ve changed very little since. They are perhaps a little smaller today; fossilized teeth indicate that prehistoric sharks were 150 feet long. Their only living relatives are the rest of the elasmobranch family—including skates and rays—which also have no bones. And unfortunately, they have no natural enemies.
Despite countless documented shark attacks on humans, there are still people who insist that sharks are not dangerous to man, that they’re cowards, that they don’t like human flesh, and so on. For every book that warns against swimming with sharks, another will brush them off as garbage collectors. (One author, who expressed reasonable caution about them, had just finished reading the galley proofs of his book and decided to go shark fishing. His boat was found the next day with the tiller gone and one oar chewed in half. He was never found.) Sharks are cowards in the sense that all animals are cowards. They tend to shy away from strange, apparently menacing creatures of an unnatural size. But the cowardice of a twenty-five-foot shark is not to be relied on. After the initial shock of discovering a diver, a large shark may return out of curiosity, hang around for a while, and suddenly decide that the diver is appetizing after all. The safest generalization is that if a shark is hungry enough, he will attack anything that moves and most things that don’t. Three specific attacks are worth mentioning as examples of the variety of methods sharks will employ.
When a whale has been lying dead in the water for some time, schools of sharks will attack it from below, chewing away the blubber in ten-pound hunks. If a big fifteen- or twenty-foot white shark happens along and finds nothing tasty below the water line, he’ll stick his head out of the water to see what’s left above. If he likes it, he will leap out of the water, grab a piece of whale, and tear it off with violent shakes of his head. Off Long Island, a sport fisherman was playing a small marlin on a line, when the captain looked over the side and saw a monster white shark staring at him. The fish backed away, then came at the boat and rammed the stern. He grabbed the transom in his mouth and shook it, knocking the captain off his feet. The captain got up and proceeded to beat the fish on the head with an ax, which bounced off. The fish backed away and hit the boat again. The captain, who was unwilling to see his boat sunk by the ramming of a beast longer and heavier than a Cadillac limousine, started one engine and tried to flee. The fish followed, bashing the boat. Finally the captain opened up both engines and got away. He later extracted a dozen teeth over an inch long from the stern of the boat.
In another instance, forty natives were crossing between two of the Ellice Islands in Polynesia at night. One of the canoes swamped, and sharks, which had been following and nipping at the paddles, devoured all the natives. If anything turns a shark on, it’s blood, and they became so enthralled with their success that they rammed the other canoes, swamped them, and grabbed the natives. Two men survived.
Lastly, for the skeptic who believes that a shark’s equipment is large enough only to remove a hand or a foot, there is the case of two skindivers who were swimming to the surface off California. One reached the top and looked down for his friend. A twenty-foot shark had apparently approached him from behind and quietly ingested him as he was surfacing, for all the other diver could see were his friend’s head and shoulders protruding from the fish’s mouth. He was bitten in two just below the heart.
There is no way of knowing precisely how many shark attacks have occurred in any given year—or any given decade. For a shark attack to be recorded as such, there must be proof. The fish must be sighted, by the victim or by witnesses, or the bite marks must be unmistakable. A boat capsized off Florida, for instance, and its four occupants were found days later floating around in their life jackets. They had been bitten apart just below the jackets, and their corpses were bobbing like corks. But since they could, theoretically, have been devoured by barracuda (or, I suppose, trolls), sharks were not given the blame for the attacks. It’s likely that a sizable percentage of drowning victims are eaten by sharks before they have a chance to drown, and it’s certain that many of those who are lucky enough to drown first are later consumed by scavenging sharks.
There are endless arguments about what will make a shark attack, and just as many about what to do if one is attacked. Blood is the only virtual certainty as a lure. Erratic motion is said to make sharks believe the swimmer is a wounded fish. The Air Force urged downed fliers in World War Il to thrash and kick mightily if a shark approached, and the procedure probably scared away a
few sharks, but stirring the water so violently doubtless cost many a limb. Color apparently has no meaning, but brightness does. A gold ring or a brass buckle may be all that a shark, with his terrible eyesight, can see, and it may look like a small fish. If a man is attacked by a shark, there is little he can do beyond the obvious. He can try to stop the bleeding and try to beat the shark away with his fists. If there is no blood in the water, a smooth, even swimming stroke will at least not antagonize the animal. One sage suggests that a swimmer should beat the fish on the snout with a heavy club, hammer or other object, but I’ve always preferred to take my chances and haven’t yet carried a ballpeen hammer tucked in my bathing suit.
No shark repellent has ever been found to be absolutely reliable. Scientists have tried sound, bubbles, dyes, chlorine, fish poisons and copper acetate, none of which conclusively discourages a famished shark. One device that might someday be developed into an effective repellent is a mixture of lye crystals and aluminum shreds, which could give an attacking shark a fatal bellyache.
Of the 250 to 300 species of shark, less than thirty are considered dangerous to man, but those few have been enough to spawn a whole shark mythology. In the South Pacific, shark gods have almost as much stature as sun gods. In Hawaii, the wiliwili season is a bad time of year, because pau ka wiliwili nahu ka mano—“When the wiliwili tree is in bloom, the shark will bite.” Each Hawaiian island used to have its own shark king, to whom all paid homage. The greatest shark king of all, Kamo-hoa-lii, lived off Honolulu Harbor. He could foresee all the dangers that were about to occur on the sea, and he would dispatch a group of minions to guide home a canoe if a storm was brewing.
The Hawaiians indulged in one pastime that is usually attributed solely to the Romans—gladiatorial contests. But lacking both Christians and lions, they used sharks. Long before the first white man settled in Hawaii, a four-acre rock enclosure was created in the bay that is now Pearl Harbor. A gate was left open, and raw flesh was periodically tossed into the pen. When enough sharks had been lured inside, the gate was shut. The lucky gladiator jumped into the water armed with a dagger made from a shark tooth embedded in a piece of wood. The contests were conducted, it was said, with the permission of the Queen of the Sharks, who would hump her back and destroy large parts of the island if she didn’t receive ample pre-game offerings.
The International Game Fish Association lists six types of shark as game fish: blue, mako, white (also called man-eater), thresher, porbeagle and tiger, and with occasional exceptions they are exciting sport. (A medium-sized blue shark on a line feels like 150 pounds of laundry.) There is also the small dividend of danger. A thrashing mako, recognized as the hardest fighter in sharkdom, has a penchant for “tail-walking”—leaping out of the water and charging across the surface on its tail—and they have jumped into the open cockpits of boats and shattered equipment, woodwork and nerves. On one calm fishing day, a mako leaped into a boat and landed squarely on top of a seasick passenger who had been groaning in the bilge.
Given the chance, some sharks will eat anything and everything within sight or smell. A fourteen-foot tiger shark caught of Durban, South Africa, was discovered to have recently dined on the head and forelegs of a crocodile, a cigarette tin, two cans of peas, three seagulls, and the hind legs of a sheep. Another, disemboweled off Florida, was in the process of digesting a roll of tarpaper and a human forearm and hand. I’ve spent hours waiting for a shark to take a succulent bait, only to have one of the ninnies rise to the surface and nosh on a beer can I’d just thrown overboard.
If sharks are indiscriminate eaters of tin cans and people, people are more selective in the eating of sharks. Freshly caught mako, white or porbeagle, can be quite tasty, and the flesh is eaten regularly in the Pacific. In the United States, shark is sold under such disguises as “steakfish,” “grayfish” and even “sole,” and some gourmets on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are mad for it. Otherwise, American diners seldom encounter shark meat except when it is passed off in some inexpensive restaurants as swordfish.
There used to be a good market for shark livers, which are large and full of nutritious oil. But after the synthesis of vitamin A in the 1950’s, the market fell off. For a time, shark hides were popular as leather, and they make bovine leather feel like Kleenex. Sharks are without ribs, and thus the muscles attach directly to the skin, which must also act as a supporting skeleton for the body. It is as tough as some modern plastics, and is covered with countless tiny, toothlike denticles. If you happen to have a shark handy, rub your hand down its back. It feels smooth as cream one way, but try reversing your direction. If you do it fast enough and hard enough, you may be able to tear all the skin off your hand. The only other useful commodity that sharks provide today is their fins, which are relished in Oriental soups.
For all the tales of shark attack, these masses of evil ganglia still cause no more concern to most Americans than anopheles mosquitoes. If you chance to be in the neighborhood when one is on the prowl, you might conceivably get hurt. However, as the Gulf Stream moves further inshore on the East Coast (as I’m told it’s doing), as more and more people take to the sea for recreation, and as commercial fishermen clean out deep-water feeding grounds, sharks will move closer to the beaches looking for food, and bathers will have an opportunity to study them more often. Eventually, I’m sure, someone will be attacked off Cape Cod or Jones Beach or Westhampton Beach on Long Island, and there will be a great hue and cry to rid the world of sharks. For despite the fact that a bather is more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by sharks, there will always be something primevally horrid about the sight of the black triangular fin slipping through the waves, and something viscerally terrifying about the choked cry “Shark !” ◊