In the Jaws of an Obsession

Michael Capuzzo, author of a best-seller that details a series of 1916 shark attacks, explains why these fearsome predators inspire fascination

Why do people have such a deep-seated fear of sharks? Just look at this summer. The number of shark attacks worldwide has actually been below the norm of between 50 to 60 a year. But it has been a harrowing season for beach lovers, nonetheless, as shark attacks have fueled a different kind of feeding frenzy -- a media blitz -- from Florida to the Bahamas.

Michael Capuzzo, author of Close to Shore, has written about one of the most horrifying episodes in the history of shark attacks: When a great white shark attacked five swimmers off the shore of New Jersey in 1916. Capuzzo's account, a New York Times best-seller, captures the era beautifully while keeping the reader on edge with accounts of the rogue shark attacks. Recently, Capuzzo spoke with BusinessWeek Contributing Editor Karin Pekarchik. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: Your book, Close to Shore, is a work of nonfiction. How did you go about reconstructing what occurred?

A:

A shark can't kill 4 people in 12 days without attracting notice, and this greatest series of shark attacks in history by one shark was extensively documented by newspapers in 1916. To reconstruct the journey of this deranged shark, I relied on George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. George came to New Jersey, and with his knowledge of sharks and shark attack and mine of the history of this case, we investigated the attack sites together. Based on this and other wide-ranging reporting and research on sharks, I was able to reconstruct the shark's journey 85 summers later. Of course, getting in the head of a shark is an impossible task, and mysteries remain in this famous case.

Q: The year was 1916: New Jersey was rising as a resort area, men and women were just starting to swim in the ocean. It was still an "age of innocence." Can you give us a feel for the times?

A:

It was the last summer before America entered the Great War.... The seeds of the Roaring Twenties F. Scott Fitzgerald would describe in a few years were already blooming on the beach, where the 19th-century Victorian world and modern world collided in some ways for the first time.

In the sensual, disinhibiting atmosphere of the beach, women were exploring new freedoms to smoke, drive automobiles, wear makeup (tube lipstick was new that year) and don the first modern, practical, form-fitting swimsuits. Women were arrested by tape-wielding "beach police" in 1916 for baring [unacceptable] lengths of leg. We are always wistful for [the] past, a simpler age, and it's hard not to feel nostalgic for a time before television, when crossword puzzles were the new rage.

Q: Were newspaper accounts and magazine coverage sensationalized?

A:

More than a dozen New York and Philadelphia newspapers, including The New York Times and Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, covered the shark attacks as major, front-page news rivaling the Battle of the Somme. So, too, did The Washington Post and Washington Star, The Asbury Park Press, newspapers from Chicago to Los Angeles to London. The reporting was remarkably "modern" in the best sense of accuracy. The only blatant "yellow journalism" I discovered was The New York Herald clearly inventing a long, colorful conversation with Charles Bruder, the second victim, after his legs were bit off by a great white shark.

Q: What was the level of expertise of ichthyologists at the time?

A:

Frederic Augustus Lucas, the scientific director of the American Museum of Natural History and the paramount shark expert of the day, declared the attacking sea creature could not possibly have been a shark. Sharks were known to lack the jaw power to harm human beings, so it was more likely a sea turtle or mackerel. Dr. Lucas was one of the last great Victorian "museum men," yet The New York Times erred in identifying him as a great shark expert. Fortunately for science and society in 1916, his young assistant, John Treadwell Nichols, was able to track and identify the rogue great white shark. Nichols left a reliable record of the first time the great white emerged in modern American consciousness as a "sea monster." Nichols went on to be one of the foremost ichthyologists of the 20th century.

Q: There is some disagreement among experts about the term "rogue" shark, despite historical accounts that these attacks happened. Is it accurate?

A:

It's the prevailing scientific view that sharks rarely, if ever, deliberately pursue human flesh as the movie monster did in Jaws -- a fictional shark, by the way, whose role model was the real-life 1916 man-eater. No doubt science is correct or attacks would be alarmingly frequent, not the extreme rarity they are now and always have been. Some scientists are so troubled, however, by the popular misconception of the great white as man-eater fostered by Jaws that they go too far, asserting, against substantial historical evidence, that the 1916 attacks couldn't have possibly happened. But of course they did, and the real lives lost to shark attack -- and the family members, who I have interviewed, who still mourn their lost loved ones -- is the most eloquent testimony to the tragedy of the 1916 "rogue."

However, it is exceptionally rare. The rogue attacks on the scale of 1916 appear to have happened only twice in the 20th century: once in 1916, in fact, and once, in [the movies]. It's unfortunate when modern scientists sound like the Victorian Lucas, but understandable -- shark attack comes from the realm of the exceptional, the unpredictable, not something easily categorized by scientific law.

Q: Can you put the probability of a shark attack in perspective: How likely is it to happen? Is there anything that can or should be done to reduce the chance of a shark incident?

A:

It's 30 times more likely you'll be hit by lightning than bit by a shark. Don't wear jewelry, never swim with a dog, avoiding swimming at dusk. These are practices that will reduce your risk. But not reading any shark attack stories is your best way of reducing your chance of being unreasonably, irrationally, afraid!

People who are attacked by sharks are exceptionally, almost absurdly unlucky. The infinitesimal nature of the risk is inevitably distorted by all the media attention on dramatic attacks like the bull shark attack on Jessie Arbogast this summer on the west coast of Florida. If local authorities, or local residents in exotic areas, are warning against sharks in the water, listen to them. Otherwise, keep in mind: We kill 100 million sharks a year and they kill about 10 of us.

Q: Did you spend a lot of time either at sea or with sharks to get a real feel for them?

A:

I went on a shark-fishing trip and caught...seasickness.

Q: Why are we so fascinated and intrigued by the words "shark attack"? Do you think it's curiosity, thrill seeking, or something more complex? it?

A:

Let's hope we never lose our capacity for curiosity and thrill seeking. As I've traveled the country doing book readings and talking about sharks, I've met many young people [between 9 and 12] who are drawn to sharks.... What adults decry as sensational coverage is making the next generation of ichthyologists. To be devoured by a sea creature, to emerge from the "belly of the beast," is one of our oldest myths, our oldest fears, and should be honored as such. We all need to find our own midpoint between understanding the scientific truth about sharks, that they are endangered and that attacks are exceptionally rare, and allowing ourselves to be fascinated with shark attack.

Q: Do you still swim at the beach?

A:

I still love to swim, and look forward to doing so when the shark-attack hysteria calms down. I need a vacation and can't imagine a better place to take it than the beach.

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht