HistoricallySpeaking: How Fear of Sharks Became an American Obsession
Since colonial times, we’ve dreaded what one explorer called ‘the most ravenous fish known in the sea’
August 27, 2020
There had never been a fatal shark incident in Maine until last month’s shocking attack on a woman swimmer by a great white near Bailey Island in Casco Bay. Scientists suspect that the recent rise in seal numbers, rather than the presence of humans, was responsible for luring the shark inland.
It’s often said that sharks aren’t the bloodthirsty killing machines portrayed in the media. In 2019 there were only 64 shark attacks world-wide, with just two fatalities. Still, they are feared for good reason.
The ancient Greeks knew well the horror that could await anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the wine-dark sea. Herodotus recorded how, in 492 B.C., a Persian invasion fleet of 300 ships was heading toward Greece when a sudden storm blew up around Mt. Athos. The ships broke apart, tossing some 20,000 men into the water. Those who didn’t drown immediately were “devoured” by sharks.
The Age of Discovery introduced European explorers not just to new landmasses but also to new shark species far more dangerous than the ones they knew at home. In a narrative of his 1593 journey to the South Seas, the explorer and pirate Richard Hawkins described the shark as “the most ravenous fishe knowne in the sea.”
It’s believed that the first deadly shark attack in the U.S. took place in 1642 at Spuyten Duyvil, an inlet on the Hudson River north of Manhattan. Antony Van Corlaer was attempting to swim across to the Bronx when a giant fish was seen to drag him under the water.
But the first confirmed American survivor of a shark attack was Brook Watson, a 14-year-old sailor from Boston. In 1749, Watson was serving on board a merchant ship when he was attacked while swimming in Cuba’s Havana Harbor. Fortunately, his crewmates were able to launch a rowboat and pull him from the water, leaving Watson’s right foot in the shark’s mouth.
Despite having a wooden leg, Watson enjoyed a successful career at sea before returning to his British roots to enter politics. He ended up serving as Lord Mayor of London and becoming Sir Brook Watson. His miraculous escape was immortalized by his friend the American painter John Singleton Copley. “Watson and the Shark” was completely fanciful, however, since Copley had never seen a shark.
The American relationship with sharks was changed irrevocably during the summer of 1916. The East Coast was gripped by both a heat wave and a polio epidemic, leaving the beach as one of the few safe places for Americans to relax. On July 1, a man was killed by a shark on Long Beach Island off the New Jersey coast. Over the next 10 days, sharks in the area killed three more people and left one severely injured. In the ensuing national uproar, President Woodrow Wilson offered federal funds to help get rid of the sharks, an understandable but impossible wish.
The Jersey Shore attacks served as an inspiration for Peter Benchley’s bestselling 1974 novel “Jaws,” which was turned into a blockbuster film the next year by Steven Spielberg. Since then the shark population in U.S. waters has dropped by 60%, in part due to an increase in shark-fishing inspired by the movie. Appalled by what he had unleashed, Benchley spent the last decades of his life campaigning for shark conservation.