On the Jersey Shore during the summer of 1916, four people were killed and one injured by what was likely a single great white shark. The attacks and panic that ensued in the seaside towns inspired Peter Benchley's novel Jaws which, of course, Steven Spielberg brought to the big screen. Since then, great whites, whose populations have been dangerously declining, have sadly become icons of oceanic evil. Smithsonian magazine's Megan Gambino conducted a fascinating interview with ichthyologist George Burgess about the Jersey Shark Attacks. Burgess is curator of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. When a shark attack occurs anywhere in the world, Burgess and his team are on the scene. From Smithsonian:
"The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws"
In newspaper accounts of the 1916 attacks, the shark is referred to as a “sea monster” and a “sea wolf.”
Exactly. It is unfortunate when we still see remnants of that today. I’ll have a little game with you. You drink a beer every time you hear the expression “shark-infested waters.” See how drunk you get. Whenever a boat goes down or an airplane goes down, we hear that kind of thing. I correct folks all the time. Sharks don’t infest waters, they live in them. Lice infest; they are parasites. There is still bias in that sort of thought process today.
What drew the shark close to shore for the attacks?
One of the most popular theories was one that we hear today. That is, there is not enough fish for the sharks to eat, so therefore they are going to eat humans. The people who are most likely to say it today are sport fishermen, who aren’t catching the same amount or the same size fish that they once did. Back in 1916, it was commercial fishermen who were saying it. It’s not a real defensible argument.
There was a guy who wrote in to the editor of the New York Times saying that these sharks were following U-boats across from the Eastern Atlantic. It was almost an implication that it was a German plot. The world was at war in Europe and the anti-German sentiment was high. All kinds of strange things.
Although it is hard to go back in time and always dangerous to make analogies like this, it could have been a shark that was either injured or had some sort of deformity. It became a deranged killer.