Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916


Rating: 3 Stars

Goodness, half this book was so SILLY.

A very academic way to start off the review, no?

Well then, let me explain. I firmly stand behind the use of the word 'silly', because half of this book is told from the imagined perspective of THE SHARK.


I will at least say that what I appreciated from those chapters was the biological information about the shark. But the supposition about what the shark might have been THINKING was weird, what path it took (how would the author even know?), and I skimmed a bit because, come on.

Still, I persevered because I LOVE sharks. Shark Week (when it was about real sharks) was once one of my favorite times of year. And I'm not even sorry that I love the Sharknado franchise and have watched the movies multiple times. Jaws is also one of my favorite movies and it makes sense that I would find this book, as Peter Benchley based his book on these attacks. I also really love reading these kinds of books the look at how a specific place was impacted by a specific thing or event. So, to read another book about the shark attacks of 1916 was certainly something I thought I would enjoy, and I did - at least, the half the book that actually was factual and from the humans' point of view...

Well, I think we will actually have to say "mostly factual". After reading this book, as well as other books and articles and information, I do not necessarily think that one shark is responsible for all the attacks. As has been pointed out I am sure by others, the Great White can not survive long, if at all, in freshwater. It would not be able to maintain its salinity for very long. On the other hand, if we were to seriously entertain the idea that it really was only one shark that attacked multiple times in the area, the bull shark would be the most likely culprit, as it is the only shark (of the apex predator variety) to my knowledge (and a Google search to verify) that can survive in both fresh and saltwater.

Whether or not the shark was a Great White, a bull, or something else, the author does give some rather interesting quotes that I found to pique my interest, as well as provide some new information I did not previously know. His bias is obviously in favor of the Great White being the single culprit, but I still found more than a few quotes worthy of sharing. Some are more factual or scientific, and some I are just quotes I found interesting.

"In the spring of 1916, the great white swam on the surface of a world that perhaps knew less about its nature than it had in several centuries. Even in the twenty-first century, the white shark remains largely a mystery. The force of its bite has never been measured. The bite of a six-foot lemon shark has been calculated at seven tons per square inch. The great white, at nearly twenty feet, three hundred pounds, will not submit to dental examinations, and will not accept confinement. The fish is too big, too violent, beyond control. Man has never been able to keep the great white in captivity. When this has been attempted, the giant shark batters its head against its prison, unable to accept boundaries, hammering at the metal stays in the concrete that it sense electromagnetically. All that is know about the jaw power of the great white is that it must be immeasurably stronger than a small lemon shark's" (10%). Quite the introduction, isn't it? Basically, great whites are the baddest and no one can control them. This reputation is exactly why when shark attacks occur, people just assume it must be a Great White.

Fun Fact: "Every two weeks or so, the entire row of fifty functional teeth simply rolled over the jaw and fell out, and a completely new set of fifty rose in its place. White and new, strong and serrated. Broken or worn teeth were not and issue for the apex predator" (18%). But how do we know, if the shark has never submitted to a dental exam?! Okay, so that is mostly a joke from the previous quite, but come on. I did find this interesting though, as I did not realize that the entire set of teeth would fall out together. I thought if a tooth broke or something, a new one would replace it. I had no idea it was a new set every two weeks, that is pretty amazing. Mother Nature truly is awe-inspiring.

Buuuuuut...the whole 'shark point of view' thing got really weird and annoying, really fast. "Along the bottom of the night sea, the shark moved in cold thirty-foot indigo depths unilluminated by the light of the moon. Careful to avoid big predators, it dipped low in the water column while hugging the shore, the home of living things. The shark had killed and failed to feed, and discipline and wariness ruled its every movement. The spoiled attack on a large mammal, the noisome counterattack by many other mammals, deepened its preternatural caution" (36%). Did it really though? Like, how do you KNOW? And maybe it did know that things were not going its way in that attack, because it did not get to feed. But the shark would not think about it that way, the way we as humans would. Applying the human thinking/reasoning process to a fellow apex predator, no matter how intelligent it might be, doesn't make sense.

Fun Fact: The word shark possibly comes from the German word shurk or schurke, which means scoundrel or villain (36%).

At 65%, the author does address the issue of the shark moving from salt water to freshwater, and discusses the bull shark as being the only large predator of that species that can do so. But this is is not explored as fully as it could have been, as the author and so many others have concluded that this could ONLY be the work of a great white. I'm not saying that it was not a great white in some of the attacks, but I don't know that I even believe it was the same shark for every single attack recorded in that period.

Fun Fact: In the past carpenters have used the abrasive skin (called shagreen) of sharks to smooth the very hardest and toughest wood. So, when that shark goes in for the first bump against its prey, it is testing to see how big and/or strong it is and to cause convenient gashes so the prey will start to bleed out (68%).

As one might expect, these pesky little shark attacks were bad for business all along the shores of Jersey. All it would have taken to prevent further attacks was to close the beaches while all the would-be hunters patrolled the waters, seeking out any shark they could find and butchering without discretion (but to be fair, sharks were kind of a mystery to people at that time and everyone thought this was the work of an orca - at the time no one really believed sharks were dangerous creatures. Um hello...). But when there is money to be made, we can't have a little blood and death getting in the way of the almighty dollar, right? So for a while the beaches stayed open, until tourists started fleeing from the water and returning home, or finding an elsewhere to be for their vacation. The author states, "During the second week of July, the grand hotels, cottages, and guest houses from Cape May north to Spring Lake reported an average of 75% vacancies on some of the best beach days of the year. The threat of the shark prowling offshore cost Jersey hoteliers a quarter of a million dollars of lost reservations in a week" (83%). To that I say, oh well, seeing as how none of them bothered to be worried about people being killed. On the other hand, humans are pretty much invading the home of wild animals, so enter at your own risk and don't be surprised if a predator can't tell the difference between you and its regular dinner.

There is something that truly bothered me throughout the book, and that was the idea of the shark possibly 'developing a taste for human flesh'. It was not a constant from page to page, but was certainly used as a kind of sensational question at times and I found that to be rather ridiculous. The shark (assuming for the moment there was just one) was out of its normal element, yes, and we don't know why or how that happened. But it is not as though the shark ate someone and decided, "Wow, that human tasted great. I'm going to find more humans." She was not hunting us, she had no way of knowing that her path would continue to take her to further populated areas. And if the general consensus is correct that scientists believe sharks attack humans when they mistake them for their normal prey, then it completely makes sense that she continued attacking, without specifically looking for humans. Seriously, come on.

Speaking of 'she', yes the Great White hauled to shore one summer day that they believed had done all the maiming and killing, still had one more surprise for the men who inspected her: she was female. The fishermen apparently realized this when the saw the shark had no claspers - an anatomical characteristic of male sharks used in mating to deliver sperm into the female. The fishermen also determined that though she was female, she was too young to be pregnant. Apparently these guys thought that only male sharks would eat people, though it seems rather obvious to anyone with half a brain not filled with misogynistic ideas that there would be nothing prohibiting either gender from eating humans. The author goes on to say that, "...females are in some respects more formidable. Equipped with extra girth to sustain and protect its eggs, the female white shark grows even larger than the male" (86%).

It would be really interesting to still have the skeleton of the shark, but alas, we are out of luck. The author tells us that any trace evidence of the shark is gone, and that the carcass disappeared not long after it was killed. At one point the jaw had been seen by a scientist "hanging in a window of a Manhattan shop at 86th and Broadway, before it disappeared forever" (90%). I do wonder how this random scientist knew it belonged to the shark from 1916, but at this point I was really rather ready to be done with the book and did not check the notes.

Okay, so I know I have been ind of negative about the book, even though I gave it three stars. But really, the whole 'shark perspective' thing was weird and completely unscientific. I realize that if the author simply told the story from the human point of view, the book would have been much shorter. That would have been okay, because at least it would have been completely factual. I do not understand the point of these, other than for dramatic effect. The actual shark information would have fit just as well within the other contextual history provided, something I feel the author did very well all-around. The author did do a decent job re-creating the feel of 1916, and how these attacks were viewed and treated, in addition to information of the period itself. We are given tidbits about what was going on in the world, both their small world of the Jersey shore, and the wider world, the rumblings in Europe as WWI raged on, and plenty of info about bathing suits that were and were not appropriate. Since all the that information was provided in a well-researched way, I think the author would have been better off staying within that human perspective because there is simply no way to know exactly when and where the shark did what. Scientists still can't even explain what would have caused a Great White to  deviate from its normal hunting grounds far from shore. Theories have suggested the shark was injured or sick but those will remain theories. Whenever the author started to provide a motivation or thought process for the shark, I found myself rolling my eyes a bit. It would have been something to easily ignore, except it happened in every other chapter as perspectives shifted back and forth. The author also gave very detailed accounts of the shark's path as she terrorized the upper East Coast. I am fairly certain there is literally no way to know the shark's exact movements unless he was following right behind her with a little water-proof video recorder, or whether or not it ate other things besides humans in the two weeks it was chomping on people.

In addition to providing a thorough context of the time period, the author did get me to care about those involved, and those lucky enough to escape an encounter. Those parts were the most suspenseful, when we would be introduced to new potential victims, only to find out that so-and-so managed to escape, or so-and-so became another victim. I thought that made for far better drama than pretending to trail this crazy shark around and detailing its route. The only issue I had with getting to know those impacted by these horrifying days is that we never found out anything else about them once their encounters were over. It would have been noteworthy to discuss those who survived, or the families of those who did not. If there was no information to be found regarding specific families or individuals, a statement about that would have sufficed. I was genuinely interested in the people, and it kind of felt like the ending wasn't complete without something of their lives after 1916.

Whether or not the female shark brought to shore that day in the summer of 1916 was the sole killer, or one of many, we will never know. It is interesting to note that the attacks did stop, but there were so many sharks slaughtered in the frenzy to stop the "man-eater", that it is almost impossible to say which one/ones were responsible. I can recommend this book with some caution, for the reason outlined above. Definitely a library borrow, not a purchase.


  1. It's...REALLY weird to think of people not regarding sharks as dangerous. Funny how we take knowledge for granted!

    1. Right? They never considered all those teeth being deadly, I guess? I mean, seriously, come on!

  2. I'm a shark fanatic! I have books about shark attacks, read tons of fictions on them and never miss When Sharks Attack. Jaws is one of my favourite ever films and I'm always watching Deep Blue Sea! But even I wonder about the sense of having a book like this with the thoughts of the shark! That is just weird. I would like to get a book about these shark attacks at some point but maybe not this one.

    1. I thought you might find this one of interest. There is another book about these attacks on my TBR called Twelve Days of Terror by Richard Fernicola. I swear I have read it, but it is still listed on Goodreads as to-read, so maybe I'm crazy. That might be worth checking out, as this one was kind of really good, and then kind of ridiculous.

  3. Viewpoint of the *shark*? [snigger] Shame it's a poor read for such an interesting subject. I do find sharks interesting but I'm more of a whale person myself - dolphins, Orca... that sort of thing. I can relate more to them being smart mammals not just essentially robotic killer fish... [grin]

    1. Right?? I found the factual biological information interesting in those chapters, but basically it felt like the author was giving the shark motivation for why it was doing as it did, not to mention that fact that the author also presumed to chart the course the shark took - as though he had followed it around 102 years ago...


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