The first onlookers? Locals mainly. Chatham, Massachusetts, residents who’d heard something from someone about something in the water. It was Labor Day weekend 2009, a beautiful late-summer day. They went to the sea, staking out a spot on the town’s wide, sandy beaches in hopes of catching a glimpse, maybe something better. Then the larger crowds came–eager masses of out-of-towners who claimed their own perches–twelve hundred steady regulars keeping watch at Lighthouse Beach alone. They snapped pictures, then headed into town to snap up the T-shirts and other tchotchkes that had suddenly appeared in local gift shops.
The media? They arrived in force, too, rumbling satellite trucks and roving reporters–36 news outlets in all, including the BBC–who gave this thing the whiff of Brad and Angelina. They jammed the phone lines and tracked down key officials; one enterprising journalist even showed up at the home of the town’s harbormaster at 10 one night for an impromptu interview. In this frenzied, all-too-familiar scenario–holiday weekend, prime sunny weather–everyone wanted a piece of the action.
Great white sharks can do that.
A little context. The file on unprovoked shark attacks is actually quite slim: worldwide, just 59 documented strikes in 2008. In United States waters there have been only 1,033 confirmed attacks since 1900, a scant six of them coming off the New England coast. In all, just 51 people have been killed by sharks in U.S. waters in the last 110 years, most recently a Florida kite surfer last February.
But that doesn’t diminish how much of a force of nature sharks–whites in particular–really are. The big ones are a showcase of almost mythical heft (up to 5,000 pounds) and ferociousness (a single bite can extract up to 50 pounds of meat). Written accounts of attacks go back as early as the mid-fifth century b.c., to the time of Herodotus, the Greek historian who wrote about Persian sailors who’d been eaten by sea monsters a generation earlier, in 492 b.c. It’s been 2,500 years of wonder and fear ever since.
“When I was kid growing up in Dorchester, [Massachusetts], we’d go swimming and everyone would always say, ‘Be careful–remember what happened to Troy,’” says Captain Tom King, creator of NewEnglandSharks.com, a Web site brimming with historical information about the region’s sharks and man’s interaction with them. “Troy” was Joseph C. Troy Jr., a 16-year-old Dorchester kid whose death in July 1936 is the most recent shark-related fatality in New England. He was swimming with a family friend in the late afternoon, about 150 yards off Hollywood Beach in Mattapoisett, on Buzzards Bay, when an eight-foot white shark suddenly latched on to the boy’s left leg, temporarily bringing him under. Just as quickly as it had appeared, however, the fish swam off, but not before striking a devastating blow. Troy’s leg, according to one newspaper report, had been “stripped of flesh from ankle to thigh by the razor teeth of the sea tiger.” He’d eventually made it to a hospital but had died several hours later as doctors were amputating the limb.
Before Troy, there was Joseph Blaney, a 52-year-old Swampscott, Massachusetts, fisherman who lost his life in July 1830 when a shark attacked his boat. As witnessed by nearby fishermen, Blaney’s vessel was pulled under, reappearing moments later without its captain, who was never seen again. “The sensation created at Swampscut [sic] by this melancholy event … is unprecedented,” reported the Essex Register.
Other stories endure, too: like the 12 days of terror inflicted on New Jersey beachgoers in July 1916, when a great white killed four swimmers and injured a fifth. That real-life tale later inspired Nantucket writer Peter Benchley, whose story of carnage on a small East Coast island in turn inspired film director Steven Spielberg, who then inspired a whole generation of Jaws fans. And on the small Massachusetts island of Cuttyhunk, west of Martha’s Vineyard, people still talk about the day in August 1954 when Charles Tilton and his son harpooned a great white and brought the giant dead fish to the docks for islanders to gawk at.
And on it goes: encounters and legends, awe and fear. The frontier may be gone, but sharks serve as a reminder that out at sea, an untamed wild of giants and death still looms. And so the masses descend on places like Chatham, for a glimpse of this mystery–to get a better look at something that’s not entirely understood.