Jersey Shore shark attacks that inspired Jaws

 Images Shark-Attack-1916-Jersey-2

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:

 Images Shark-Attack-1916-Jersey-1 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.

"The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws"


  1. Actually, since several of the attacks happened in a river close to the sea, it’s been suggested that the actual attacking animal was a bull shark not a great white. Bull sharks are one of the few sharks that can live in both marine and fresh water, and are known to be aggressive.

    1. Yes, that’s possible. But did you actually read the interview I linked to? According to the ichthyologist, based on the limited evidence available, “All we can do is believe what was said in the press at the time. The press identified it as a white shark.”

    2. I came to say the same thing. Almost certainly a bull shark. (And not criticizing BoingBoing, just commenting on the original press coverage, and how insanely little they seemed to know about sharks).

      There’s a great youtube vid of a shark filmed in a river that was making the rounds a couple of weeks ago:

    1. I think that’s the point.  The definition is biased because dudes wrote it, not sharks.  Quick thought experiment:  1.  Who spends more time in the ocean, people or sharks?  (b.)  From what types of environments do humans choose to shop for food?  3.  From what types of environments do sharks shop for food?  To say the waters are “shark infested” implies there are more sharks there than there oughta be.  I think it’s fair to say that the waters were infested with people, and this noble shark was just balancing things out a little.

      Also!  It’s shark week in Martha’s Vineyard, where some of Jaws was shot.  Friend of mine just related that they showed the film at the bandstand green on Oak Bluffs.  No one went night swimming at State Beach last night.

      Well timed, BoingBoing, well timed.

      1. I think the use of the word could be both biased and correct. For example, I might say that “the suburbs are infested with soccer moms”, while knowing full well that the suburbs are the natural habitat for the dreaded soccer mom. In other words, in the non-scientific sense, “infested” simply implies an undesirable state (from the perspective of the speaker), and not necessarily an unnatural one.

      2. To play out your thought experiment: 1. Sharks, even individual ones, spend far more time in the ocean than I do. (b.) Human shop for food in all sorts of environments; oceans are just one. 3. Oceans, of course. But so what? Your thought experiment seems to be just a random collection of largely unrelated thoughts.

        The average shark probably has seen very few humans and likely doesn’t consider those it has seen to be a nuisance, so if sharks could verbalize their thoughts about humans I doubt they ‘d consider us to be an infestation.

        To say the waters are “shark infested” does not imply there are more sharks than there “ought” to be. It simply means that there are a sufficient number to be a nuisance. Now, if it’s a perceived bias about the number of sharks that’s one thing, but if it’s a bias about the actual threat sharks (whether individual or collectively) pose to humans then that’s another thing.

    1. One did encounter her… the medical staff at Sea World is still hopeful that the antibiotics might work and save that majestic animal after it’s encounter with her.

  2. I like the part about blaming the Germans.  Do you think we could find a way to blame al-Qaeda (but not all Muslims?)

  3. In newspaper accounts of the 1916 attacks, the shark is referred to as a “sea monster” and a “sea wolf.”

    Somehow I read that entire Jack London novel without ever realizing that “Sea Wolf” was a period colloquialism for “shark.”

  4. If only there would still be sharks at the Jersey shore…
    Then again, they sure would get sick soon from eating all the spray tan and plastic. Poor sharks…

  5. This guy: 

    Was the other major inspiration for Jaws. Guy caught a record breaking great white off Montauk point in the 60’s. And Amity was based on the many East End towns near where I grew up. That shark is actually still mounted over the bar in Salavar’s, where Mundus hung out. Can’t confirm if the place is still open though, sold late last year. 

    I never met the guy, despite the fact that plenty of my family members seemed to know him. Apparently he was not a nice or particularly stable guy.

    1.  I met him in the 70’s. Salty old coot. Had just brought a HUGE mako to the dock. Did tell me to stay the #*$& away from its jaws, as they’ll sometimes snap shut hours after death.

  6. I’ve gone hunting for shark teeth in Monmouth County (the county where the attacks happened) streams. Fortunately they are fossilized teeth.

    Also, check out the album Jersey Shores by the band Akimbo. It is a concept album about the attacks.

  7. “Close to Shore” by Michael Carpuzzo is a meticulously researched account of the attacks and provides great historical context.  I don’t read many of my non-fiction books twice but enjoyed this one so much I had to!

    1.  I read that too…didn’t really come to a conclusion, though, did it? I still think it was a bull shark. Those things can be just plain mean.

  8. Interesting that neither of the sharks in the accompanying pictures appears to be a great white. The first looks like a tiger shark with that blunt snout. I don’t know about the second – maybe a blue shark? – but great whites don’t have that asymmetrical tail.

    1. It makes sense if you read the article. These attacks set of the shark hunting craze in the north east, and there’s no picture of the actual shark that was finally blamed. 

  9. When I was a kid and Jaws first came out, the Matawan Creek attacks were well-publicized as the inspiration. My friends and I used to jump off a bridge (Little Street?) into Matawan Lake, and even though I don’t think that it is connected with the creek, we were still all terrified that a shark would pop up. Terrified of that, plus the shopping carts that were not so far submerged underwater that you definitely didn’t want to hit when you jumped…

    Also, from our point of view the creek (although I’m not sure exactly at what point in it the attacks occurred) was far from the shore, which we considered as starting at Sandy Hook (anything before that was Raritan Bay, in our minds). So we were totally freaked out at this fish coming all the way up the creek.

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