Great White Sharks: From Terror of the Seas to Admired Creatures

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Great White Sharks From Terror of the Seas to Beloved Creatures

How did the great white shark transform from the terror of the seas to admired creatures, and tourist attractions in many towns and cities? It happened mostly via education. Shark habits have not changed much in the last 400 million years. On the other hand, people have spent much more time paddling about in the ocean over the past century. The inevitable rare conflict of two unknowns meeting caused a panic in humans that was detrimental to white shark populations; but today, visitors to the coasts are more likely to be awed by this fierce fish than to be out for its blood.

America’s fascination and fear of great white sharks began in the summer of 1916. What was then termed a “rogue” shark attacked five people in New Jersey: two men swimming off the coast in the shallow ocean and then three more victims 16 miles inland up the Matawan Creek. Although doubts exist among shark researchers today about the identity of the shark, a great white was captured a few days later and dubbed the killer. The spree of attacks inspired people to take to their boats and hunt as many sharks at they could. Sharks were seen not only as a threat to humans, but, as the ocean’s top predator, a perceived threat to the fish that humans relied on as food such as tuna, cod and salmon. Just as people eradicated wolves, mountain lions and other top land predators, they believed the oceans would be safer and more productive without sharks. Very little money was put into shark research and understanding the shark’s role in the marine ecosystem. People were driven by fear and misunderstanding.

Then came the sinking of the USS Indianapolis 69 years ago on July 30, 1945 near the end of WWII. Traveling from Guam to the Philippines after delivering the atomic bomb, the carrier was struck by a Japanese torpedo and sank within 12 minutes. Of the 1,196 men on board, 900 were able to abandon ship into the South Pacific. Once in the water they suffered from dehydration, hunger, exposure and shark attacks. The men were left in the open ocean for days. Rescue only came when a U.S. plane scouting for enemy subs noticed the men in the water. The first supply plane on site landed when the pilot noticed men being attacked and tried to pull as many as possible out of the sea. On the fifth day a Navy ship arrived and the men from the Indianapolis crew were finally rescued. Of the original 900, only 317 survived. Once again the shark was a villain in a national tragedy. Their story was immortalized by the 1991 made-for-TV movie Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the USS Indianapolis. Even before that, though, the story made an important cameo in the best-known shark film of all time.

Jaws was the first ever summer blockbuster. The 1975 movie raked in $7,000,000 its opening weekend and quickly became the highest grossing film in U.S. history up to that point. It is still a popular film and an entrenched part of American culture. The unlikeable shark hunter Quint was a survivor of the USS Indianapolis and his moving monologue describing the experience is a highlight of the film. Quint’s speech was not part of the original book written by Peter Benchley in 1974. Benchley filled his novel with intricate subplots between characters in the fictional coastal town of Amity Island, NY. He wanted to explore the complex emotions and reactions of people under a relentless threat. Benchley had spent his childhood summers on Nantucket and was always captivated by the ocean. His imagination was provoked by the capture of a 4,500 pound, 17 foot long great white shark off Montauk Point, NY by a fisherman in 1964. The story simmered in his mind for a decade before becoming a best-selling thriller and motion picture. Benchley was focused on the effect the shark had on the townspeople. Steven Spielberg, who re-imagined and directed the movie, was more focused on the hunt. He seared the image of people as heroes and sharks as monsters into Americans’ collective brains.

Both the novel and the film were extremely popular and immediately took root in the American consciousness. They became part of popular culture with some unexpected consequences. First, just as in 1916, people became terrified of sharks and convinced great whites were lurking in the murky waters, waiting to eat unwary swimmers. The attendance at beaches and resorts declined during the summer of 1975. Beaches built fences to protect visitors and more people reported seeing sharks off the coasts. More significantly, the fear sparked fisherman to once more take to the ocean and catch as many of these “killers” as they could. Shark fishing tournaments became common sport. Peter Benchley was distraught at this reaction to sharks and has said that he regrets making the shark the villain in Jaws. He has since used the proceeds from the book and movie to help fund his work with conservation initiatives such as the Environmental Defense Fund and WildAid. He traveled and lectured extensively to educate people about sharks before his death in 2006.

Benchley’s dedication exemplifies the flip side of the attention focused on great white sharks. People’s fascination became an avenue for more research and funding. Scientists had not spent much time studying the apex predator of the oceans because it was not seen as helpful to humans. When the public demanded more information about great white shark ichthyologists, oceanographers and marine biologists were eager to answer the call. Sharks remain a mysterious animal and each new piece of information gathered often blows previous assumptions out of the water. The shark terror of 1975 might have set the stage for saving the sharks today. They are starting to become creatures admired by many.

Although the days of shark tournaments are not over and people may still kill sharks for fun or out of fear, many governments have passed laws to protect the sharks. Shark numbers dropped precipitously through the 1970s and 1980s. Understanding that predators help keep fish populations healthy, strong and diverse, people have become invested in protecting sharks. It is illegal to catch some species, including great whites, and marine reserves have been created. However, shark numbers are still low and many species are endangered. Demand for shark fin soup and medicines in the newly affluent eastern Asia is a leading cause of shark decimation today along with by-catch from commercial fisheries and habitat degradation. However, when people see pictures of hundreds of dead sharks laid out on a dock their reaction is one of horror at the waste rather than glee that the oceans are safer. It seems that people no longer view sharks as an infestation to be cleared out of the oceans.

As a result of education and protection programs, shark populations along the coasts of the United States and elsewhere in the world are beginning to rebound. Two new studies show that even as some other species in the same areas continue to decline, the great white sharks are doing better than expected. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration compiled a combination of data from scientific surveys, commercial fishery programs, recreational tournaments, commercial and recreational fishers, and newspaper articles published between 1800 and 2010. Although it is impossible to accurately gauge numbers of the elusive predator, evidence is clear that great white shark sightings are on the rise in the Atlantic. The news is even better for the Pacific where scientists believe there are more than 2,400 adult great white sharks off the west coast of the U.S. The report is good for the sharks, but also for the towns up and down the coasts that rely on tourism. These days sharks do not keep people out of the oceans, but they do keep them buying shark-themed paraphernalia. The great white shark, once seen as the terror of the seas, is now a tourist attraction.

The shark news of this summer began on July 6 when long distance swimmer Steve Robles was bitten during a training session near Manhattan Beach, CA. This time the public’s reaction changed quickly from shock to anger at a local fisherman who had hooked the juvenile great white on his line, antagonizing the shark. Rather than organize a shark hunt, people advocated following U.S. and California fishing restrictions of these animals. The idea is emerging that great whites live in the water but do not pose a routine danger to people. Steve Robles himself said he was aware of shark sightings in the area but did not think they were a threat. The public is moving away from the idea of shark-infested waters and towards a safari approach where they are spectators observing sharks in their natural environment.

People are clamoring for a chance to spot great white sharks. Especially in Cape Cod, where great whites hang out to feed on seals off the coast, activities such as shark-spotting safaris and shark tagging are drawing in the shark fans. Chatham entrepreneur Shareen Davis says the sales of shark merchandise have gone up 500 percent in her store. The white sharks have come back to Cape Cod in response to a rejuvenated seal population. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibited the killing of seals and now their numbers are recuperating. It seems to be working for tourism; the sharks eat the seals and the people try to spot the sharks.

Much of the hype is promoted by and benefits the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy which in turn supports the research of biologists Dr. Greg Skomal and Mark Chisholm of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Skomal has attached high tech tags to four white sharks: Genie and Mary Lee in 2012, and Betsy and Katharine in 2013. The tracking allows scientists to study local and long-range movement, behavior, biology, reproduction and populations of the sharks. It also allows people to monitor the movements of the sharks from their computers at home at The SPOT (satellite positioning or temperature transmitting) tags are bolted onto the sharks’ dorsal fins. When the shark surfaces the transmitter signals a satellite. With enough information the location of the sharks can be accurately pinpointed. The researchers have been surprised by the results. One shark, Lydia, tagged in Florida, swam over 10,000 miles to the northern Mid-Atlantic Ridge and back. Since tagged in March 2013 Lydia has swum over 25,500 miles. All the sharks tagged in Cape Cod headed in different directions, ending theories about typical migration patterns. One reason sharks are hard to count is that they cover immense areas of ocean. Katharine made news this July when she showed up off the coast of Florida, first in Sarasota and then off Key Largo. Expected to summer in the Gulf of Mexico, Katharine is currently at the edge of the continental shelf off of South Carolina and seems to be heading north, but predicting the exact movements of sharks is proving to be nearly impossible. Mary Lee is thought to have birthed pups this June and deposited them in the nutrient rich protected waters of the Port Royal Sound. Instead of heading back north as expected she is still swimming in the southern coastal waters.

Andy Murch, shark photographer, tries to encourage people to see the beauty in sharks. He swims with the sharks without a cage and uses squid and fish to get breathtaking photos. Many of his pictures show sharks seeming to smile big toothy grins. As do ichthyologists, Murch insists that sharks are interested in fish and seals much more than they are interested in people. He says his only near death experience was caused by malfunctioning equipment. In fact, he states, “Unfortunately, sharks are still portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters by Hollywood, but, in reality, sharks are the ones that are under threat from us.” Humans kill approximately 100 million sharks per year while about 100 hundred shark attacks cause a dozen or so fatalities for humans. Although the idea of being bitten by a shark while swimming is terrifying, most people are starting to wrap their heads around the data. Deer in the U.S. cause more fatalities per year than sharks. George Burgess, curator of the International Shark Attack File, kept at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, says great white sharks are responsible for only a small proportion of shark attacks. On average, there is only one great white attack per year in the U.S.

Murch’s photographs help people expunge the image of the killer shark and notice their brilliance instead. Great white sharks are ancient animals with cunning minds, and their ability to learn has stunned scientists. They became the apex predator of the ocean through the evolution of finely-tuned senses and physiology perfectly adapted to their underwater kingdom. They can smell a single drop of blood in the water, hear the tiniest vibrations, see in bright light or near darkness, sense an electrical field, and, most important to humans, have a marvelous sense of taste. Sharks will taste food before swallowing which is why the majority of shark attacks consist of bites and not consumption. They also have lateral lines down both sides of their body which allow them to sense the smallest movement in any direction. They are a perfect predator, but not vicious indiscriminate killers. They are absolutely unique and amazing creatures.

People are beginning to see great white sharks as innocent and noble. Of course, they are a little scary too, and swimmers, surfers and divers should take care, but drownings at the beach are more common than shark attacks. Ironically, the same book and movie franchise that frightened Americans out of the water has also stirred up interest and spurred research. People’s balanced attitude toward sharks today is partly caused by education programs inspired by Jaws. As the summer headlines and Discover Channel’s popular Shark Week show, people cannot get enough of the great white sharks, which have become beloved and admired creatures. Fear is being replaced with fascination – and a booming coastal economy. The terror of the seas has become a tourist attraction, which is wonderful for both sharks and humans.

Opinion By: Rebecca Savastio


New York Times

Huffington Post

New York Daily News



USS Indianapolis

National Geographic

USA Today

Tech Times


New Yorker

Charlotte Observer


Photo Credit: Hermanus Backpackers via Creative Commons.






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