Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)


The sharks were around before almost everything … It was probably pretty lonely for them when they were king.

—Stephen R. Palumbi, Stanford University marine biologist

If you ask anyone to imagine the world’s most ancient creatures, the image of dinosaurs automatically leaps to mind. In fact, sharks predate dinosaurs by roughly 200 million years. Their fossils are buried as far north as Montana, where a tropical sea once stretched for more than ten thousand square miles. And unlike dinosaurs, this species has managed to survive despite the massive changes that have occurred to the ocean over hundreds of millions of years: only a handful of creatures on the earth today are as old as sharks.

The chimpanzee and prehuman line diverged just 6 million years ago, according to genetic and anthropological evidence. The Australopithecus afarensis skeleton known as Lucy, which many think of as one of our most ancient ancestors, walked on the ground of what is now Ethiopia 3.18 million years ago. The first toolmakers appeared 2.5 million years ago in Gona, Ethiopia, but even these human ancestors don’t classify as Homo erectus. The humans that can be classified as “anatomically modern” only emerged 200,000 years ago, judging by skulls found near Kibish, Ethiopia, in the 1960s. Homo sapiens may have coexisted with Neanderthals until 20,000 or 30,000 years ago.1

By contrast, sharks emerged nearly 400 million years ago in the Devonian period, when they diverged from bony fish, evolving without swim bladders and lungs. They enjoyed a prolific burst in the Carboniferous period, between 360 and 286 million years ago, when an array of different shark species evolved. While several decades after the end of this age intense volcanic activity wiped out many of them along with most other marine life, two groups of sharks came out of this period. Between 200 and 145 million years ago the first modern sharks emerged, at the same time that dinosaurs began roaming the earth.2

From a historical perspective, we’re the new arrivals, not them.

In our current era, when sharks are viewed as “the other,” it’s important to recognize that during earlier periods of human civilization, they were seen as more intimately connected to us. While some communities simply viewed them as a part of the natural world to be observed, several coastal societies saw them as either playing a critical role in their creation or serving as ongoing arbiters of human activities and disputes. One of the remarkable aspects of shark calling in Papua New Guinea is that it has preserved this sort of worldview to this day, where other traditions have collapsed. But in the overall context of human history, Karasimbe and his cohorts are not unique.

From the earliest moments in which humans developed language, art, and other forms of communication, they began to chronicle the presence of sharks in their surroundings. Phoenician pottery dating back to 3000 B.C. displays images of sharks,3 while a vase from 725 B.C., discovered at Ischia, Italy, shows a fish resembling a shark attacking a man.4 The ancient Greeks wrote and painted images of Ketea, sharklike creatures that the Greek poet Oppian described as a species that “rave for food with unceasing frenzy, being always hungered and never abating the gluttony of their terrible maw, for what food shall be sufficient to fill the void of their belly or enough to satisfy and give a respite to their insatiable jaws?”5 A few hundred years later, the Roman writer Pliny the Elder made his own lasting contribution to the popular scientific conception of sharks when he described their attacks on pearl divers and named them, as a group, “dogfish.” This term—a classic example of how humans defined sharks in relation to themselves—started as a generic label for sharks and persisted that way in Europe and America for hundreds of years. For centuries fishermen have cursed dogfish, seeing them as worthless: the July 26, 1864, log entry from the ship Rozella, sailing in Broken Ground on Frenchman Bay in the Gulf of Maine, reports, “Dogfish plags us much.”6 Now, however, dogfish refers to a specific set of species.

While most ancient thinkers provided anthropocentric accounts of sharks, Greeks such as Aristotle also studied the animals, and their close relations, for themselves. Aristotle dubbed them, collectively, selache, a name that still defines these animals more than two thousand years later. In one of his most vivid accounts of shark behavior, Aristotle described their mating rites: the cartilaginous fishes in copulation “hang together after the fashion of dogs, … the long-tailed ones mounting the others, unless the latter have a thick tail preventing this, when they come together belly to belly.”7

The Islamic world offered its seminal account of sharks in 1270, when the Iraqi judge Zakariya Qazwini compiled an illustrated compendium titled The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence. The book, which was popular reading for hundreds of years, described how some residents lived in fear of the freshwater sharks that swam in the Tigris River. Matthew McDavitt, who practices law for a living in Charlottesville, Virginia, but spends much of his free time documenting how ancient cultures viewed sharks and other elasmobranchs, commissioned a translation of the book’s folio 71v, its section on the Persian Sea:

This is a great evil in the sea. It is like the crocodiles in the Nile River. Also it comes at a specific time mainly into the Tigris River. Some [other fish that ascend the Tigris River] are well-known: Al-Arabian, Al-Dahi, Al-Adaq, Al-Barak, and Al-Kubrij, all different species of fish. Each type comes at certain times, known to the people of Basra. One of them is known as Al-Tin [literally, “the dragon”; also known as Tinin]. It is worse than Al-Kusaj [shark]. It has teeth like spearheads. It is as long as a palm-tree. Its eyes are like fires of blood. It has an ugly shape; all other species run away from it.

While these early scientific accounts by Greeks, Romans, and Iraqis detail the real-world interactions between sharks and other species, many ancient island and coastal cultures elsewhere focused on sharks’ more mythical aspects. They constructed elaborate and abstract belief systems in which the animals represented different core values: sharks and rays symbolized law and justice to tribes and clans in Australia, Papua New Guinea, and central Africa, while they embodied aquatic fertility and warfare in the Yucatán. These stories portrayed sharks with greater complexity and helped explain the world in which these people lived. While aboriginal Australians developed very different beliefs about sharks compared with the Mayans, native Hawaiians, and men and women living on the Niger Delta, all of these societies saw their lives as intimately connected to sharks and their close relatives rays.

McDavitt became interested in ancient societies’ perceptions when he was an undergraduate anthropology major at the University of Virginia in the early 1990s and he saw sawfish snouts depicted repeatedly in Aztec art. “No one could explain what they were,” he recalls. He decided to learn the Aztec language in order to delve into the question, but it took years of research to unravel the puzzle.

McDavitt focused on a little-known figure in Aztec mythology called Cipactli, a sea monster who wrestled with four gods who were busy creating the world. The gods ripped the monster in half, according to Aztec lore, making the heavens from her upper body and the earth from her lower half, leaving Cipactli in a paralyzed state where she took on the identity of Tlaltecuhtli, or Earth-Lord. Cipactli is depicted in a number of ways in Aztec art: while the monster’s body resembles a crocodile, it boasts a sharklike tail, and at times what McDavitt calls “a strange, toothy appendage” that conjures up a sawfish’s rostrum. The sawfish rostrum frequently represents a sword in Aztec iconography, and in the case of Cipactli it was known as the monster’s “sword” or “striker.”

In the late 1970s archaeologists discovered the ruins of the Aztec Great Temple underneath Mexico City’s central plaza, unearthing the remains of sharks, swordfish, and crocodiles among their finds. Piecing together the images he had seen as an undergraduate, McDavitt hypothesizes these remains represent “the personified earth, at once fertile and destructive.” The sharp objects could have belonged to ritual implements that were used in human sacrifice, he notes, or could have been offerings to the gods in themselves. Either way, he writes, they show that Cipactli—part shark, part sawfish—clearly played a central role in Aztec cosmology by providing a transition between sea and land. “By cyclically defeating Cipactli and entombing her beneath the Great Temple, perhaps the Aztecs hoped to ensure that their living, hostile earth never again found the strength to submerge.”8

Sharks and rays also played a key role in the way Australian aboriginals living along the coast viewed the creation of their world and their own ancestors. The Yolngu peoples—who live in northeastern Arnhem Land—are divided into some clans, but many of these clans claim to have descended from a whaler shark known as Mäna. (“Whaler shark” is an Australian colloquialism for sharks they believed attacked whales; in this case the Yolngu are referring to freshwater bull sharks.) Mäna plays the role of an avenger: attacked by the ancestor of another clan, he left the sea and invaded the land, carving up rivers with his sharp teeth and leaving the teeth behind to take the form of pandanus trees that line these rivers’ banks. The leaves of these trees have serrated edges. According to McDavitt, “These trees represent both na’s anger at being speared and the stingray-spine tipped spear that na carried to avenge his death.”9

A consistent theme of intimate connection emerges across several shark-worshipping cultures: the shark gods take a tribal approach to picking winners and losers, rather than bestowing their largesse over a broad population. In this sense they operate as an extension of family, just more powerful. It’s a parochial vision of a deity, where a supernatural shark is akin to a Mafia godfather, to whom individuals can appeal for favors as long as they have paid regular dues to the don over time. Loyalty and familial ties matter above all; it is not a question of the gods making an impartial judgment about what is right.

Native Hawaiians took this practice to the extreme, creating a series of traditions based on the belief in supernatural helpers who are half-human, half-god, and use another medium to communicate their advice. Known as ‘aumãkua, these spirits had a single human keeper (kahu) who tended to them, and they would pass on their service from one generation to the next. Not all these ‘aumãkua were sharks: some were birds or even plants. But many Hawaiians were proud to claim a shark ‘aumãkua as part of their familial heritage, and these supernatural beings had a clear, practical purpose: they were supposed to help fishermen haul in significant catches and protect them from drowning.

In an essay, Martha Warren Beckwith recounts how she visited a village where two brothers from a family named Puhi, or Eel, inspired fear among their neighbors because they had an ‘aumãkua at their command. A native clergyman named Kawai from a nearby village explained to Beckwith how the Puhi brothers benefited from this arrangement: “When the Puhi go fishing, the shark appears. The ‘aumãkua obeys the voice of the man; name the kind of fish you want and it will bring it. The men give it some of the first catch, then it disappears, and they always come back with full nets.” The villagers, including the Puhi brothers, were confident that their ability to haul in fish was solely due to their having a divine shark on their side.10 And the ‘aumãkua not only delivered financial rewards to the Puhi brothers, the clergyman told Beckwith, but also kept them alive despite their dangerous profession. “Besides this, the Puhi family can never be drowned. If there is a storm and the boat capsizes, the shark appears and the man rides on its back.”11 A similar tradition lives on in Vietnam, where some fishermen still build altars on beaches to the whale shark, which they call Ca Ong, or Mister Fish, to stay safe while on the water.

In some cases, these ‘aumãkua represented a reincarnation of a dead relative, whether it was an aborted fetus or an elderly family member whose bones were wrapped in a cloth and cast out into the sea. One account dating from 1870 describes how a few days after relatives performed such a ceremony, they could “see with their own eyes that the deceased had become a shark, with all the signs by which they could not fail to recognize the loved one in a deep ocean.”12 This intensely personal connection to sharks not only provided comfort at a time of grief but also gave an entire family confidence that they now had someone defending them when they went out to sea.

At the same time many Hawaiians relied on these familiar, ancestral gods for everyday guidance, they also worshipped the akua, much more powerful shark deities that influenced the weather and other forces of nature. The shark Kalahiki, one of the more powerful gods, could predict when the wind and currents would be rough and could marshal a company of sharks to bring seafarers safely in to shore.13 In fact Beckwith describes the ‘aumãkua as “ranked as kauwa, or of the servant class, because bound to obey those whom he serves.”14 Even the most powerful shark deities were viewed as having regional allegiances, however. When a dry dock built by American forces collapsed in 1914, many Hawaiians attributed the disaster to the female shark god Ka’ahupãhau, who reportedly protected local residents from the man-eating sharks that lurked offshore. In this case Ka’ahupãhau was defending locals from the Americans, rather than from threatening ocean predators.

According to legend, Ka’ahupãhau was willing to fight off her own kind as well in defense of the humans who had treated her well over the years. At one point, the tale goes, sharks from another area came upon Oahu and started eyeing what they referred to as “delicious looking crabs.” Knowing that that amounts to a code name in the shark language for humans, Ka’ahupãhau and her brother Kahi’ukã (the Smiting Tail) devise a particularly clever way to dispatch these hostile visitors: through fishing. Ka’ahupãhau turns herself into a net and, with the aid of her brother, catches the sharks so they can be hauled in by fishermen and left to die in the heat.15

The sharks that populate Hawaiian lore frequently mete out justice, protecting some humans while consuming others. In many cases these beings blur the line between human and animal: Ka’ehikimanõ-o-pu’uloa is the child of humans who is born a shark, nursed on his mother’s milk and ‘awa, the alcoholic drink humans often offered the sharks they worshipped. Ka’ehikimanõ-o-pu’uloa embarks on a sightseeing trip in which he pays homage to the shark gods of several islands; while they initially suspect him because of his human origins, Ka’ehikimanõ-o-pu’uloa manages to lead them and conspires to kill a man-eating shark. In the end the young shark returns to his human parents, where he “conveyed the greetings of the various distinguished sharks, and told of his victories and honors.”16 Ka’ehikimanõ-o-pu’uloa serves as a bridge between the world of humans and that of sharks, demonstrating that the two species can coexist if each one acknowledges the distinct role of the other.

Unsurprisingly, several stories about these supernatural sharks provide explanations for why humans fall prey to sharks at sea. Kauhi, a suspicious lover who wrongly concludes his betrothed has betrayed him, is executed after repeatedly trying to murder his fiancée. But one of his relatives, a shark god, saves him by wiping him away in a tidal wave and transforming him into a shark. When his former fiancée, Kahalaopuna, can’t resist surfing with her friends, “he bit her in two and held the upper half of the body up out of the water, so that all the surf-bathers would see and know that he had at last obtained his revenge.”17

The fact that the best-known Hawaiian shark tale, “Nanaue the Shark Man,” has so many variations highlights how ancient Hawaiians were fixated on the danger they faced in the water. The basic outline of the story is as follows: The king-shark god of Hawaii and Maui, Kamohiali’i—who is popularly credited by Hawaiians with inventing surfing—seduces a beautiful human called Kalei. Together they produce a child named Nanaue, who looks normal aside from the fact that he has a shark’s mouth between his shoulder blades, which he is forced to cover with a cloak. Kamohiali’i warns Kalei she should never feed their son animal meat, lest he develop a taste for human flesh. But Nanaue’s human grandfather ignores this admonition, and over time the boy grows ravenous for human flesh. After being uncloaked by his fellow villagers, Nanaue manages—with the help of his god-father—to escape to sea as a shark, reclaiming his human form once he lands on another island, Moloka’i. Nanaue finds himself pitted against a demigod known as Unauna, or Hermit Crab. With Unauna’s aid the villagers manage to tie up Nanaue and burn him, in a place that still bears the name Shark Hill. There are many variations on this theme—in one tale the shark man is Kawelo o Mãnã, a sorcerer; in another it’s Pau-walu (Many Destroyed)—but in each case the attacker warns his victims in advance of the risks they take by entering the ocean.18

This nuanced portrayal of sharks highlights a central tenet of these ancient belief systems: sharks are neither pure evil nor pure good, but something of a mix. McDavitt attributes this to the fact that these islanders, coastal tribes, and river dwellers saw sharks on a regular basis. “If you have a society that’s not very engaged with them, it tends to be a monolithic and negative view,” he reasons. “If they’re engaged, you might see a more balanced view of them.”

The Ijo peoples living along the Niger River delta in southern Nigeria also believe in water spirits that are both dangerous and beneficial. According to their legend, these spirits used to play along the beach in masked dances and left their masks on the shore. In late December the Ijo summon the spirits by wearing large masks showing sharks and rays, becoming possessed in an effort to get rid of illness and misfortune. In this tradition, the dances provide a way for the water spirits to “play” with their human friends, but there remains an element of risk in this exchange. As Martha G. Anderson and Philip M. Peek write in their book, Ways of the Rivers: Arts and Environment of the Niger Delta, a masked dancer “can interrupt a dance sequence to dive at the drummers through the pole fence provided for their protection or dart around it to attack them. He might go crazy, slashing wildly at his own supporters until others join forces to restrain him, only to follow this by locking one of his human friends in an affectionate embrace.”19 Other societies in the region channel water spirits differently. The Bidjogo of Guinea-Bissau stage dances with shark, sawfish, and stingray costumes as well, but these are used for young men’s coming-of-age ceremonies. For them, harnessing these sea creatures’ powers allows them to become men at last.20

These ancient societies used sharks for practical purposes as well. Aborigines living along Australia’s coasts have eaten stingrays and sharks for years, often in the form of a round cake that combines shredded meat with the animal’s heated or raw liver. (The Lardil people living on Mornington Island, in fact, use a fist lying on a cupped hand as the sign-language symbol for sharks and rays, mimicking the shape of this rounded cake.21) Australian aborigines used other shark and ray products for weapons and ornaments as well: the vertebrae became necklace beads, while the Wik from Cape York fashioned the tails of rays into circles they sported as knuckle-style hand weapons, in the same way Hawaiians made ones out of sharks’ teeth.22 Australians, like Hawaiians, used sharks’ teeth to create both cutting implements and war clubs. Their skin served as a sort of sandpaper and was even used for drums.23

Thousands of miles away in New England and Florida, American Indians were using sharks for many of the same purposes—sandpaper, tools, and ornaments. It appears sharks’ teeth became a commodity used in trading, since a Native American burial site in Ohio included teeth from a great white shark among its finds. The fact that shark remains have surfaced in a range of such burial sites, in locations throughout southern New England and Nova Scotia, suggests that these peoples viewed sharks as deities even as they hunted them in prehistoric times. They used the teeth from some of the fiercest sharks—great white, short-fin mako, and sand tiger—as grave gods, even as they targeted the spiny dogfish for their dinner.24 And in a sign of how New England waters have changed over time, evidence from American Indian middens in the region show these societies consumed cod and different species of sharks, but not the lobster that defines much of the Gulf of Maine today.

Some societies also used shark worship as an excuse for human sacrifice on earth, as well as for their own entertainment. In the Solomon Islands villagers viewed sharks as good but demanding deities, for whom they constructed worship caves along with stone altars nearby. To pay tribute to them, the villagers selected human victims to lay upon those altars. Several Pacific island tribes also occasionally sacrificed a man, woman, or child, but these cultures viewed the shark gods as hostile. They observed a ritual in which a high priest would approach a crowd along with an assistant wearing a mask whose nose resembled a shark’s snout—when the priest instructed the assistant to point his nose at the assembled throng, the person who became the target of the assistant’s gaze would be offered up to the sea.

Hawaiian kings used to engage in a particularly gruesome ritual in which they ordered gladiators to fight a shark to the death in a circumscribed, watery arena. To lure the sharks into battle, Hawaiians tossed both fish and human bait into the water; once the fight began, the rules of engagement favored the fish. Not only did the human competitor have to let the shark lunge toward him before he could attack, but his only weapon was a single shark’s tooth mounted on a piece of wood that he could hold clenched in his fist. Faced with those odds, few gladiators survived.25

While several cultures in the Pacific and Latin America incorporated sharks into their everyday and spiritual lives, an odd thing transpired in Europe as it entered the Middle Ages: people forgot sharks existed. Europeans at the time believed in a large, ill-defined group of sea monsters, but they stopped generating any literature that referred specifically to sharks. Medieval Christian accounts of animals included whales, panthers, and plenty of other wild creatures, but the “dogfish” that caught the attention of Greek and Roman philosophers had no place. Even once the Renaissance began, Europeans used shark artifacts without knowing what they were. A ceremonial practice began of dipping glossopetrae, or dragon “tongue stones,” into wine—these were sharks’ teeth, but the men and women who fetishized them didn’t have a clue.26 This historical break, where Europeans lost their connection to sharks altogether, had profound implications for how the West views sharks today. Severing that historic tie helped ensure that going forward, sharks would become humans’ outright opponents.

Sharks returned to the Western consciousness once Europeans began seafaring in earnest and entered tropical waters. The academic debate over the origin of the word “shark” continues to this day—some posit it evolved from the Anglo-Saxon term scheron, meaning to cut or tear, while others say it came from either the English term “search” or the French version, chercher. However, there’s strong evidence that it stems from the Mayan word for shark, xoc. The Humboldt State University geography professor Tom Jones argues that the men credited with introducing the word “sharke” to Europe—sailors who served under the British captain John Hawkins—picked it up during a problem-plagued trading expedition to the Yucatán in the mid-sixteenth century. During that expedition, Hawkins lost five ships in a fight with Spanish warships and had to turn to the pilot of a Spanish wine ship, who made his home in the Yucatán port of Campeche. Jones reasons that this man, Bartolomé Gonzales, was likely to have used the term xoc when piloting one of Hawkins’s vessels, Jesus of Lübeck. There’s no question that the Maya used the word xoc frequently: it even became incorporated into the name of a mythological creature called alternately Ah Xoc, Ah Kan Xoc, or Chac Uayab Xoc, which Jones describes as “an ominous demon that killed and devoured women, children and animals, a were-shark whose anthropomorphic tendencies finally, among the Lacandon, lost all connection with the rarely seen shark that had been its source and inspiration.”27 By contrast, the Spaniards and the Portuguese who had sailed to the tropics had developed two different but related words: tiburón and tuburão, respectively.

The Romans had already labeled sharks generically as “dogfish,” but the English apparently considered the sharks they witnessed in the New World so alien, so vicious, that they classified them as a new species: a sharke. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, this word emerged in 1569 when Hawkins’s sailors returned from their traumatic expedition with a specimen of what they called a sharke to London; one account later described the preserved creature as “a marueilous straunge Fishe.”28 For years British writers used the words “shark” and “sharke” interchangeably. Over time, as Europeans became more familiar with sharks’ behavior, they came to apply its name to a slew of unsavory human activities. “Shark” became synonymous with the word “predator,” as when in 1713 The Guardian, in its issue number 73, referred to “the sharks, who prey upon the inadvertency of young heirs.” By 1806 it had become another term for lawyers; in 1828 a writer used it to describe a gang of reporters. Americans picked up these slang terms without hesitation and added a new twist in 1946 by applying the word to anyone who displayed lechery when seeking a liaison.29 The German word for villain is Schurke. In every instance, “shark” has had negative connotations.

For much of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, European and American seafarers were on the front lines with sharks. At times, they were grateful for the sustenance sharks gave them. The British captain William Dampier—who explored parts of what later became Australia as well as Papua New Guinea in the late seventeenth century—delivered several enthusiastic reports about them in his writings. While sailing south of Sierra Leone in 1683, Dampier wrote, “While we lay in the calms we caught several great Sharks; sometimes 2 or 3 a day, and eat them all, boyling and squeezing them dry, and then stewing them with Vinegar, Pepper, &c. for we had little flesh aboard.”30 Sixteen years later Dampier and his crew found even more eating opportunities off the coast of Australia (then New Holland), where, he wrote, “There are Abundance of them in this particular Sound, that I therefore give it the Name of Shark’s Bay.” (The name persists to this day.) The sailors not only munched on sharks there; they dissected them in gruesome detail: in one eleven-foot-long shark, they “found the Head and Boans of a Hippopotomus; the hairy Lips of which were still sound and not putrified, and the Jaw was also firm, out of which we pluckt a great many Teeth, 2 of them 8 Inches long, and as big as a Man’s Thumb, small at one end, and a little crooked; the rest not above half so long. The Maw was full of Jelly which stank extreamly: However I saved for a while the Teeth and the Sharks Jaw: The Flesh of it was divided among my Men; and they took care that no waste should be made of it.”31 At times sailors even sought sharks out for their own amusement, as the log of the Leopard, a ship that sailed the Gulf of Maine’s Frenchman Bay in 1861, makes clear. “Catch a shirk with pork had some fun,” it recorded. From Dampier’s utilitarian perspective, sharks were a marine resource like any other, which could help his crew survive. While the captain was not above saving part of his catch as a keepsake, laying claim to one shark’s teeth and jaws, he neither glamorizes nor demonizes the animals. And with enough vinegar and pepper, they made for decent rations.

But most sailors came to view sharks with hostility, seeing them as a mortal threat. It’s not an accident that the first detailed eyewitness account of a shark attack—which now ranks as the earliest record in the International Shark Attack File—involved a sailor. The 1580 Fugger News-Letter report describes a seaman falling off his ship somewhere between Portugal and India in vivid detail. While he grabbed a line his shipmates tossed him, “there appeared from below the surface of the sea a large monster, called Tiburon; it rushed on the man and tore him to pieces before our very eyes. That surely was a grievous death.”32 For Westerners who had been largely shielded from sharks for centuries, these animals suddenly emerged as an unseen threat that could hurt them without warning, and this fear only grew as ocean exploration intensified.

Historical accounts make it clear those riding on slave ships were particularly vulnerable to attack because these overcrowded ships released their waste—and even some of their slaves—into the ocean, which drew sharks to the vessels. Samuel Robinson, a Scottish teenager who worked on his uncle’s slave ship at the turn of the nineteenth century, wrote a memoir decades later in which he recalled the sharks that would follow the trail of waste and trash thrown from the vessel on which he sailed: “The very sight of him slowly moving round the ship, with his black fin two feet above the water, his broad snout and small eyes, and the altogether villainous look of the fellow, make one shiver, even when at a safe distance.”33

While Robinson was able to keep his distance, not all the slaves aboard the ships did. Sailors frequently discarded the bodies of dead African captives overboard, and occasionally threatened to do the same to their live cargo. At times slaves who jumped into the ocean to escape their captors fell prey to an equally gruesome fate.34 These seafaring tales were so grim that an abolitionist named James Tytler used the prospect of this watery grave in the late eighteenth century to bolster his antislavery argument, submitting a document to the British House of Lords titled “The Petition of the Sharks of Africa.” Written tongue in cheek from the sharks’ perspective, the petition recounted how they had prospered at the expense of the slaves they picked off during these transatlantic crossings, which gave them “large quantities of their most favourite food—human flesh.” These “sharks” wrote they were confident the British lords shared sufficient “wisdom and fellow feeling” to ensure that this supply of food would continue for years to come.35

At times, sailors boasted about their narrow escapes from such sea monsters. Julius L. Esping, a sailor who struggled with drink and women early in his life before becoming an ardent Christian missionary, wrote in his memoir that he skirted death on a trip from Brazil to New York City:

On our return passage I went into the sea to bathe, and while swimming near the ship, the captain, who was walking on deck, noticed a large shark approaching the vessel, and enquired of one of the crew if any of the men were in the water. On receiving an affirmative reply he ran to the stern of the ship and told me of the shark, barely in time for me to make my escape. Being informed of my danger, I looked around and saw the monster coming with lightning speed directly toward me. With a desperate effort I made for the martingale, and just cleared the water to save myself. All who witnessed the operation concluded that if the shark had closed its jaws on my body, “the New York harpies would have been heavy losers.”36

In certain instances, sailors on whaling ships came into conflict with sharks because they were competing for the same prey. Once sailors managed to harpoon a whale, they still faced the task of hauling their prey up on board, often in the midst of the shark feeding frenzy that would inevitably ensue from such an attack. One of the best accounts of this sort of contest comes from George Barker’s 1916 self-published memoir, Thrilling Adventures of the Whaler Alcyone: Killing Man-Eating Sharks in the Indian Ocean, Hunting Kangaroos in Australia. Barker, a Boston native who headed to sea on a whaler as a sixteen-year-old, describes how safety precautions for carving up whales in the water were nonexistent:

The mate tied a rope under his arms and he jumped into the sea and slipped down between the whale and the side of the schooner and worked his way along until he came to the head. Fastening the rope securely, he shouted to the boys on deck to haul him up.

When near the deck of the vessel he noticed that one of the crew was standing on a staging with a long lance in his hand, while another held a lantern, and all wore a scared look on their faces. Upon landing on the deck he asked the meaning of this, and was told that the water around the whale’s body was filled with sharks and that several times the lances were thrown close to him to ward off these man-eating monsters.

He then looked over the side of the schooner and by the aid of the lantern could see several sharks swimming about. He was then convinced that the officers of a whaler cared but little for a man’s or a boy’s life. Nothing further was done that night.37

While Esping and Barker were little-known American seamen whose brushes with sharks went largely unnoticed, the Englishman Brook Watson made sure to immortalize the 1749 attack that cost him his right leg just below the knee. At the time Watson was a fourteen-year-old orphan traveling on a trading ship in the harbor of Havana, Cuba: he went on to become a successful London merchant and eventually mayor of London and a baronet. John Singleton Copley’s iconic 1778 painting depicts Watson, in a state of shock, while three of his shipmates try to pull him from the water and another prepares to harpoon a vicious shark, its jaws agape. The painting ranks as one of the most famous shark attack scenes of all time: the animal is a hulking menace, with a glowing yellowish eye and serrated teeth.

But the painting, which Watson presumably commissioned himself after meeting Copley in London four years before, was not enough for the survivor. When he was crowned a baronet more than half a century later, Watson asked for a coat of arms alluding to his attack. The design includes the Latin motto Scuto Divino (“Under God’s Protection”) and features Neptune, the god of the sea, using a trident to repel an attacking shark. The upper-left corner of the shield even shows the part of his right leg he lost as a teenager. The coat of arms’ message is clear: Watson faced down the sea monster and, with divine protection, bested the animal.

These attacks on sailors began to permeate the public mind-set. No longer were sharks seen as complex creatures that could provide sustenance as well as mete out justice as part of some higher order. They were perfect, unrepentant killers, enemies in the sea.

Still, even though sailors had recounted horrifying tales of the predators they faced at sea, average Americans had been largely shielded from sharks until the summer of 1916. For one terrifying week a shark—or multiple sharks, it remains unclear—attacked and killed four people off the New Jersey shore. This deadly episode, which helped inspire the movie Jaws, was captured brilliantly in Michael Capuzzo’s nonfiction account, Close to Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence. From that moment on, beachgoers in America had a reason to fear entering the water.

The attacks of 1916 tell us as much about changes in U.S. society as they do about shark behavior. For years ordinary Americans kept their distance from the sea, but this shifted during the late nineteenth century. It became fashionable to seek respite from the summer heat by heading for the ocean, and for the most part the victims of the Jersey shore attacks were adults and children enjoying the new popular pastime of spending time at the beach. When a great white started attacking swimmers near the New Jersey beach towns of Beach Haven and Spring Lake as well as in Matawan, more than a dozen miles from the ocean, it marked a turning point in Americans’—and by extension the industrialized world’s—relationship with sharks.

On July 1, 1916, Charles Epting Vansant, a young textile salesman and recent University of Pennsylvania graduate, was vacationing in Beach Haven with his family when he entered the water for an early evening dip. He was joined by a dog—whose erratic paddling may inadvertently have attracted the shark’s attention. The shark struck when he was in just three and a half feet of water, chomping his left leg below the knee. Onlookers managed to drag Vansant onshore, and his own father, a Philadelphia physician, tended to him back at their hotel. But Eugene Vansant could not save his son, who died that night.38

What followed was a terrifying round of shark strikes. Charles Bruder, a bell captain at Spring Lake’s Essex and Sussex Hotel, was torn apart on July 6 during a solo swim around dusk. On July 11 a group of boys took a dip in Matawan Creek—five miles from the nearest bay—and fourteen-year-old Rensselaer Cartan Jr. felt something bump against him, leaving bloody scrapes across his chest. While the boy and a retired sea captain, Thomas V. Cottrell, tried to warn residents of Spring Lake that a shark lurked in the water, few paid attention. A day later the same shark killed both Lester Stilwell, an epileptic teenager, and the town’s tailor, W. Stanley Fisher, who fought to recover Stilwell’s body. That same day, July 12, the shark ripped off the left leg of twelve-year-old Joseph Dunn, before Dunn’s older brother and a man passing through on a boat managed to pull him from the creek.39 The debate over whether a single great white was responsible for the attacks or whether it was a combination of animals—bull sharks are well-known for entering creeks, since they can survive in both salt water and freshwater—has raged for nearly a century. But the public reaction to the spate of attacks was unanimous: people were scared. An urban population that had just begun to venture out to sea now saw the ocean as harboring a deadly threat.

Ironically, just before that series of shark attacks, prominent U.S. scientists and publications had downplayed the threat these fish posed. On August 2, 1915, The New York Times published an editorial titled “Let Us Do Justice to Sharks,” which declared, “That sharks can properly be called dangerous, in this part of the world, is apparently untrue.” The head of the American Museum of Natural History at the time, Frederic Augustus Lucas, did his best to dispel the idea of man-eating sharks in a letter to the editor in the Times: there was, he wrote, “practically no danger of an attack … about our coasts.”40

At the same time that Lucas and others were assuring the American public that sharks could do no harm, Captain William E. Young was doing his best to convince his compatriots that they were brutal killers. Young, a native Californian who began his itinerant seagoing career in Hawaii, quickly developed a reputation in Oahu as a skilled “shark killer,” or kane mano. (He preferred this moniker to the first nickname he picked up in Hawaii: Sharky Bill.) The Californian stumbled on his quirky career by accident while he and his brother were hauling trash from Honolulu offshore. One day they dumped several horse carcasses in the Pacific and sparked a shark feeding frenzy: from that moment on, Young was hooked on the idea of killing sharks for fun and profit. From the outset he saw the animals’ fearsome reputation as a key element of their marketability, as when he collected $1,500 by charging local onlookers ten cents each to gaze at a tiger shark pregnant with forty-two babies that he had hauled in and refrigerated.

To attract attention I rang a dinner bell. The curious, the novelty-seekers, the idlers, the good-natured and the gullible began to collect. Without any ballyhoo outside, my first gate proved extremely rewarding. People gathered around the refrigerated fish with gaping jaws, and oohed and aahed to their (and my) complete satisfaction. Women, holding their noses, came forward cautiously; then they forgot to hold their noses and became absorbed in the spectacle.41

Young realized he could make a career out of fishing sharks, and he became a hunter for hire.

In 1934, Young published a memoir titled Shark! Shark! that recounts his globe-trotting search for the biggest, scariest fish he could find. Throughout it he repeatedly emphasizes sharks’ viciousness, invoking every possible cliché to describe their appearance and character:

When one sees or hears the word “shark” a powerful mental image is generated of a cold-blooded rover of the deep, its huge mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth, swimming ceaselessly night and day in search of anything that might fall into the cavernous maw and stay the gnawing hunger which drives the rapacious fish relentlessly on his way; a terrible creature, in short, afraid of nothing and particularly fond of tasty human flesh. There is something particularly sinister in a shark’s appearance. The sight of his ugly triangular fin lazily cutting zigzags in the surface of the sea, and then submerging to become a hidden menace, suggests a malevolent spirit. His ogling, chinless face, his scimitar-like mouth with its rows of gleaming teeth, the relentless and savage fury with which he attacks, the rage of his thrashing when caught, his brutal insensitivity to injury and pain, well merit the name of Afriet, symbol of all that is terrible and monstrous in Arabian superstition.42

Apparently, American readers at this point still needed to be convinced that these animals posed a threat. As Young travels the world finding different ways to make money from sharks, he repeatedly tells people he meets that these fish can actually kill humans. In one instance Young spears a shark whose stomach contained the remnants of a blue serge jacket and human bones, the remains of a wealthy man whose plane had crashed in the ocean. Young tells the tale of the man and his jacket frequently during his travels, sometimes offending his listeners in the process.

Young’s effort to stoke the public fear of sharks dovetailed with a new literary trend, where a group of contemporary writers were constructing an entire body of literature around hunting and fishing. As writers including Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway penned books about this American subculture, they did their best to portray sharks as brutes. Both Grey’s and Hemingway’s writing glorifies men for taking on these animals in physical contests. A few species, like the mako, earn their respect, but most are like the shovel-nosed sharks Hemingway derides in The Old Man and the Sea, “hateful sharks, bad smelling, scavengers as well as killers.”43

Just as Hemingway describes hand-to-hand combat in graphic detail, Grey revels in the battle he faces with a fish weighing more than a thousand pounds. In his book An American Angler in Australia, Grey recounts how he fought a tiger shark off Sydney as a group of onlookers watched from a nearby ship. He recognizes the fish’s beauty—“Pearl gray in color, with dark tiger stripes, a huge rounded head and wide flat back, this fish looked incredibly beautiful. I had expected a hideous beast”—but he takes pains to ascribe the worst possible motives to the animal he had lured to its death.

I had one good long look at this tiger shark while the men were erecting the tripod; and I accorded him more appalling beauty and horrible significance than all the great fish I had ever caught.

“Well, Mr. Man-eater, you will never kill any boy or girl!” I flung at him.

That was the deep and powerful emotion I felt—the justification of my act—the worthiness of it, and the pride in what it took.44

From Grey’s perspective, he had done a public service by killing an animal that could have conceivably hurt some innocent swimmer. But Grey, Hemingway, and others wrote of deliberately battling fish with the skills they had honed over a lifetime; they were not amateurs venturing into the water.

Still, it was nearly three decades after the attacks of 1916 before the United States as a whole focused once again on a massive shark strike. While both world wars featured horrific attacks on ships that exposed sailors to these ocean predators, the single worst incident stemmed from the sinking of the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945. That incident—in which 880 of the nearly 1,200-man crew died in the water, many of them devoured by sharks during the four days it took for a rescue mission to mobilize into action—ranks as the single worst loss of life at sea in the U.S. Navy’s history.

While the exact number of shark attacks during this episode is still not known, it’s clear from both survivors’ accounts and autopsies that these ocean predators played a major role in boosting the death toll: 88 of the recovered bodies had been bitten by sharks, and many of the survivors suffered damage from shark attacks as well.45 The commanding officer of the USS Helm, the vessel that eventually rescued the remaining 316 survivors, wrote a report that not only described the carnage the animals had caused but also documented how they continued to feed on sailors even as their colleagues sought to save them.

At that point, sharks largely receded from public view for another three decades. But when the writer Peter Benchley reminded a worldwide audience why they had reason to fear going into the water, he unwittingly did more to instill the intense fear and hatred of sharks than anyone else in the twentieth century.

Peter Benchley’s home lies just a few blocks away from the main drag in Princeton, New Jersey, a precious university town where even fast-food and coffee outfits must post their names in faux-British wrought-iron lettering above their doors. A beautiful gray manse with white columns, the late writer’s house most closely resembles the eating clubs in town where F. Scott Fitzgerald and other Princeton luminaries used to socialize.

The third floor of the house truly captures the reach of Benchley’s work. Pasted to the walls are a series of letters—some handwritten, some typed—from Benchley’s fans. The paper has yellowed, and cracked in some places, and some of the ink has faded. But the intensity of the missives—along with that of the black-and-white and color photographs of nubile young women who wrote the author of Jaws in the hopes of scoring a date—remains unchanged. One woman writes that she’s heard Benchley has a “freaky fetish” for not wearing anything below the belt during his television appearances, adding she and her girlfriends think it would be “really groovy” if they could all meet up sometime. Another admirer simply asks, “What is God’s last name?” (Wendy Benchley explains drily, “That’s from one of the schizophrenics.”) Even the movie star Burt Reynolds gets into the act, writing to Benchley on demure gray stationery with a New York City letterhead, “Now that I’m unemployed and have lots of time, why don’t we get together for some drinks.”

Benchley didn’t start his writing career with the intention of producing a terrifying cult 1970s classic. The son of the author Nathaniel Benchley and the grandson of the humorist Robert Benchley, one of the founders of the Algonquin Round Table, Peter struck a deal with his father during his teenage years that he could write during the summers and collect the same salary he would have if he had done more mundane chores such as mowing grass or working in a restaurant. He didn’t need to show anyone what he produced, but he had to write.

When he started writing his first book, Benchley decided to draw upon the time he had spent in Nantucket—he had gone fishing there with his father, and had met Wendy there while sitting in a restaurant puffing on a Lucky Strike cigarette—to provide an eerie and compelling look at how small-town life is transformed when a man-eating shark starts preying on summer beachgoers. Nowadays the word “jaws” immediately brings to mind the ominous yet catchy John Williams musical score that accompanied the 1975 movie (DA-duh-DA-duh, DA-duh-DA-duh), but Benchley’s book is more cerebral than that. Benchley described the shark in its most primordial state, with a scientific accuracy that holds up more than thirty years later.

Published in 1974, Jaws was an instant success. It rocketed up the best-seller lists, where it stayed for nearly a year. It didn’t just sell on America’s East and West coasts: it sold in landlocked countries like Tibet. Fidel Castro read it and raved about it, saying it offered a compelling critique of U.S. capitalism. The New York publisher sent giant packets of fan letters to the Benchleys’ New Jersey home; eventually the couple tired of reading them and simply asked the publisher to stop.

Hoping to capitalize on this phenomenon, a young Hollywood director, Steven Spielberg, decided to make a movie based on the book, and when Benchley’s agent called to say it would make it onto the big screen, the author was elated. Wendy Benchley, however, felt differently: “He was thrilled and I cried, and I figured my life was ruined.”

The film didn’t ruin the Benchleys’ lives, but it did change their everyday existence. Released in the summer, a traditionally dead time for theater releases, it became the first movie to gross $100 million at the box office. (Ultimately, it grossed $450 million worldwide.) It created what Americans now think of as the inevitable annual summer blockbuster, before Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark made it to the screen. It made the cover of Timemagazine, spawned three movie sequels, a video game, and two unofficial musicals. (A producer has approached Wendy Benchley about creating a Broadway musical based on Jaws, but she seems even more skeptical about that than she did about her husband’s initial book idea.)

Everyone involved in Jaws knew that it would come to define them. Benchley joked before his 2006 death that no matter what else he did in life, “When I die, the music that will be played at my funeral will be ‘DA-duh-DA-duh, DA-duh-DA-duh.’ ” (He was right: it played at the start of his New York City memorial service.) Roy Scheider, who portrayed the police chief Martin Brody in the movie, felt exactly the same way: one of his obituaries noted that he once confessed before his February 10, 2008, death that he feared the role “will be on my tombstone.”46

Benchley’s book is both more sophisticated—it explores the sharp class divisions that help define summer vacation towns—and less frightening than the movie that stemmed from it. The film’s terrifying nature stems, in part, from what amounted to a technical glitch in the course of making the movie: mechanical problems with the movie’s fake shark (nicknamed Bruce) prevented the filmmakers from showing it too often.47 As Wendy Benchley recalls, “They had all these days where the shark didn’t work, weeks, months. They had to fill in.” But that made Jaws all the more terrifying. It’s the unseen, rather than the seen, that scares us the most.

For all its nuance, the book still includes a heavy dose of vengeance. At one point Brody and Matt Hooper, a scientist from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, get in an argument about whether it’s rational to, in Hooper’s words, “get out a contract on him,” and it becomes clear that the shark’s demise is inextricably linked with the town’s survival.

Brody was growing angry—an anger born out of frustration and humiliation. He knew Hooper was right, but he felt that right and wrong were irrelevant to the situation. The fish was an enemy. It had come upon the community and killed two men, a woman, and a child. The people of Amity would demand the death of the fish. They would need to see it dead before they could feel secure enough to resume their normal lives. Most of all, Brody needed it dead, for the death of the fish would be a catharsis for him.48

One of the striking things about the shark in Jaws is that, like the one that launched the 1916 attacks off the Jersey shore, it kills several people within a matter of days. By definition, this makes the fish a mass murderer and suggests a sort of conscious strategy on the shark’s part that doesn’t exist in real life.

Jaws highlighted the obvious: anytime a person enters the ocean, he or she is vulnerable to a shark bite. The fact that these attacks were rare did nothing to calm the public’s nerves; it was their unpredictable nature that mattered. People were scared, and there was little scientists or statisticians could do to ease their fears.

The film does point out that sharks don’t intentionally hunt people, though it also portrays great whites as lethal predators. Richard Dreyfuss, playing Hooper, manages to both pay tribute to sharks and freak viewers out as he explains how they operate. In an argument with the mayor over whether to close the beach in light of the recent attacks, Hooper explains, “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim, and eat, and make little sharks.”

The film also exaggerates the size of great whites swimming off the New England coast, saying the shark is twenty-five feet long. When the gigantic shark emerges from the water for the first time, Brody turns to Quint, the boat’s captain, and deadpans, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

In writing Jaws, Benchley tapped into humans’ natural terror of sharks. In their essay, “When Humans and Sharks Meet,” Erich Ritter, Kai Lutz, and Marie Levine argue there are a number of reasons we are inclined to be afraid of sharks, something they characterize as “the ubiquitous selachophobia” that permeates modern society. Even though the number of strikes against humans is relatively small in comparison to sharks’ abundance, they are still visibly threatening predators. Just as important, the authors argue, they play into humans’ fear of the dark. All of this taps into our “biologically prepared fear acquisition,” triggering a less-than-rational reaction.49 Every new report of a shark attack—the random, vicious strike from below, out of nowhere—reinforces this fear.

But by making the attack as vivid as it did—and bringing this message to such a broad audience—Benchley’s work had a disproportionate effect on the public psyche. It was as if by bringing a nightmare to life, Benchley gave it a credibility, a sense of concreteness, it had never had before. As a result, we became convinced that sharks were a far graver threat to us than they actually are.

One of the oddest things about our view of sharks is that we’re convinced they are everywhere. Several years ago Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, a Democrat, was having lunch in the Members’ Dining Room when the talk turned to sharks. Nowadays, lobbyists who have served in Congress are prohibited from snacking in this exclusive establishment, but for years it was a huge draw, which is why Blumenauer found himself sitting with South Carolina’s Robert “Robin” Tallon, a former House Democrat turned lobbyist. After discussing news of a shark attack, Tallon speculated that sharks must cover the seas, outnumbering humans. Blumenauer—an environmentally minded lawmaker who represents Portland and founded not just the Congressional Bike Caucus but the Livable Communities Task Force to boot—would have none of it. The ocean’s food chain couldn’t sustain that many top predators, he reasoned.

“This fellow thought I was crazy,” the congressman recalls, sitting in his office. “You know how banter can escalate, even without alcohol.” The two bet $100 on the question. (“I wanted to up the ante, I was so confident,” Blumenauer says now.)

It seemed like a simple question at the time of the bet, but Blumenauer soon discovered it was almost impossible to pin down. For years, the long-standing wager amounted to an unofficial research project for Blumenauer’s office. Summer interns would make inquiries; sometimes even full-time staffers delved into the question. No one could find the answer. One night, at a Washington dinner party, I learned about the bet. The next day, I endeavored to figure it out.

I called the Dalhousie University marine biologist Boris Worm, who has spent his career seeking to quantify how many fish are in the sea, in Halifax. “Well,” he offered, “there are nearly seven billion people on earth now, right? There are five hundred species of sharks, so in order to have more sharks than people, you’d have to have ten to twenty million per population. That seems like a lot. My guess would be there are more people than sharks in the world, but it’s hard to say because there are some shark populations we don’t know anything about, like deepwater sharks.

“Humans are now the most abundant large vertebrate on earth, by far,” he continued. “Once you take out cattle and sheep, which come in roughly second and third, since we raise them, the next most abundant large vertebrate may be the crabeater seal in the Antarctic, which numbers somewhere between ten and fifty million. The worldwide wolf population, to put it in context, numbers only about 150,000. Brown bears are maybe half that.”

A decent answer, but not definitive enough. So I e-mailed Sarah Fowler, who co-chairs the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Shark Specialist Group, in England. She responded with a more precise guesstimate, along the following lines. About half of the known shark species live in one bioregion of the world, such as tropical Africa and Indo-Malaysia. A significant proportion of them live in restricted areas, so Fowler posited that of these 150 species, they wouldn’t number more than 150 million total. “However, the most fecund and abundant small coastal and shelf shark species that are more widely distributed in a single ocean or region (e.g., regional species of smooth hounds and cat sharks) could number in the tens of millions,” she wrote. “Let’s say about 7 million each on average for ~250 species that are moderately widely distributed. That brings the running total up to 2 billion individuals of ~400 species. Five billion individuals and 100 species to go.”

Many of those remaining species, she explained, have a more global distribution, while others are rare. She assumed that about thirty are relatively rare or patchily distributed, boasting between 5 and 10 million individuals. Another fifty more common species might have about 40 million individuals, adding 2.2 billion to the total.

The last twenty species on the list are widespread and abundant. Fowler decided to give these species an average of 100 million each, adding another 2 billion. And then she noted the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the spiny dogfish, despite its substantial depletion through fishing, has a global population of 1 billion.

“OK, I cheated quite a bit to get to a figure very close to 7 billion,” she wrote. “Total is highly dependent upon a few of the most abundant species, regardless of quality of estimates for the rarities and endemics.”

In other words, there is no precise way at this moment to calculate whether sharks outnumber humans, or vice versa. It will take research for years to come.

But details like that don’t bother Blumenauer, who considers Fowler’s answer a “stamp of approval” for his position: “I think there is a super shark specialist who acknowledges reality, and I’m running with it.” Sharks are the subjects of such intense myth, he reasons, it only makes sense that we’ve inflated their numbers out of proportion.

While it might not provide much comfort, sharks almost always attack humans by accident, rather than on purpose. The classic shark attack follows a pattern of “bite and spit”: the fish will take a bite out of a person to determine if it’s suitable prey, and more often than not it will then spit it out after the shark realizes human flesh is not its snack of choice. What bite it takes is critical, since sometimes a shark can deliver a devastating blow by severing an artery, while other times it may inflict a manageable flesh wound. When Deborah Franzman was swimming in the midst of sea lions off central California’s Avila Beach Pier in 2003, a shark bit into her leg and severed the femoral artery: while it released her after pulling her briefly below the water’s surface, she had bled to death by the time lifeguards reached her minutes later.

As any shark expert will tell you, seals and sea lions make far more attractive shark bait. The fat that seals contain in their outer coat accounts for half their body weight and has twice as many calories as muscle. Peter Klimley, who has studied sharks for three decades, says there’s a reason great whites bite into humans and abandon them.

“Sharks don’t eat humans. Humans are not nutritious enough. They are not worth the effort,” explains the UC Davis researcher. “Seals and sea lions, not people, are the Power Bars for the white shark.”50 In fact, great whites engage in a visible form of communication if two of them are targeting the same marine mammal, which Klimley has dubbed “the tail slap.” In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Klimley and his colleagues examined a series of predatory attacks off the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, which boast large numbers of juvenile elephant seals vulnerable to attack between September and November. In more than two dozen cases, one white shark lifted its caudal fin out of the water and then slammed it down, splashing water in the direction of another white: in most cases, the shark with the most aggressive tail slap ended up consuming the elephant seal. While some of Klimley’s peers mocked him at a 1993 scientific conference for offering this “tail slap” account of whites’ feeding behavior (some even made a drawing of two white sharks high-fiving each other), his hypothesis offers the best explanation for how great whites compete for food when they home in on the same object.51

Three species of shark are responsible for nearly two-thirds of shark attacks worldwide: bull, great white, and tiger sharks. Several factors help explain this: bull sharks have the highest level of testosterone of any animal on earth, and white sharks seek out marine mammals, prey that can be confused with a human on a surfboard when seen from underwater. While great whites only need to eat occasionally, they tend to do their hunting during the day because their retinas have a higher proportion of cone receptors, which are used for daytime vision, than rod segments, which are used at night.52 All three species seek out larger rather than smaller prey.

There are other factors that seem to heighten a swimmer’s chances of luring a shark, according to the International Shark Attack File compiled by George Burgess, who directs the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History: the vast majority of attacks involve people wearing black or blue swimwear, even though many divers refer to yellow fins as “yum-yum yellow” for their tendency to attract sharks. Swimming with dogs may also lure sharks to the scene, since the rapid beating of a dog’s heart, coupled with its quick movements, can mimic the signals of a fish in distress.

Certain parts of the world pose a greater risk of shark attacks than others, giving swimmers ample incentive to avoid them. While surfers tend to flock to Volusia County, Florida, for the great waves off New Smyrna Beach, they do so at their own peril, since the county has ranked number one in the world in shark bites for years. While the precise number varies from year to year, the sheer number of incidents—seventeen in 2007, and twenty-two in 2008—drives the overall trend in shark strikes worldwide. But since many of these amount to minor scrapes—blacktip and spinner sharks congregate in the area, and usually leave their victims with lacerations rather than major wounds—the surfers remain undeterred. “It’s far from being the most dangerous place in the water,” Burgess insists. For that you need white sharks congregating, whether it’s off California, South Africa, or Australia. Historically, half of all reported attacks take place in U.S. waters, with Australia and South Africa jockeying for second place.

As more people head to the beach and spend more time in the water, the total number of unprovoked shark attacks has increased. The 1990s were the worst decade in the twentieth century for such strikes, according to records, with a total of 470 attacks and 61 fatalities worldwide, and the first decade of the twenty-first century broke that record with 646 incidents and 47 fatalities. While the annual number of attacks dipped after reaching an all-time high of 79 in 2000, the sheer fact that the global population continued to increase and more people flocked to the water helped sustain an overall rise in clashes between humans and sharks. Still, fatal shark attacks worldwide dipped to their lowest level in twenty years in 2007, when just one swimmer in the South Pacific died from a heart attack. By contrast, four people died worldwide from shark bites in both 2005 and 2006, and seven suffered the same fate in 2004.

While Time magazine declared the “Summer of the Shark” in 2001, its pronouncement stemmed more from the shocking nature of the attacks than their actual human death toll. On July 6 that year an eight-year-old named Jessie Arbogast had his right arm and part of his right leg torn off by a bull shark while wading the shallow waters of Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore, prompting a flurry of media coverage. During Labor Day weekend two Americans lost their lives to sharks—Sergei Zaloukaev, who was attacked along with his companion Natalia Slobodskaya off Avon, North Carolina, and ten-year-old David Peltier, who was killed off Virginia Beach, Virginia. But the number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide actually declined that year compared with the year before.

Put in a broader context, shark attacks fail to represent a serious threat to humans. Of all known shark species, only 6 percent are known to attack humans.53 According to Burgess, sharks kill between four and five people a year worldwide. To put that in context, you are more likely to die from lightning, a bee sting, or an elephant attack than from a shark’s bite. On average, more than forty times as many Americans seek hospital treatment for accidents involving Christmas tree ornaments than incidents involving sharks. Moreover, with recent medical advances, the chances of surviving an attack have risen dramatically, to 90 percent.

By contrast, the growing demand for shark fins—the most touted element in shark’s fin soup—has driven such intense shark hunting that even some of the people who have suffered from shark strikes are now lobbying for heightened shark conservation measures. Researchers estimate 73 million sharks are being caught and killed worldwide each year to supply the fin trade, and the act of finning—cutting off a shark’s fins and tossing the fish’s mutilated body back into the water—has sparked opposition worldwide. For years the United States required sharks brought ashore from the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico—but not the Pacific—have their fins attached, deferring to regional fishery management councils. But environmentalists (including those who have experienced shark attacks firsthand) launched an intense lobbying campaign to change the law. As one of its final acts, the 111th Congress required all sharks landed in U.S. waters (with the exception of small dogfish, a concession to win one senator’s vote) to have their fins attached.

Every shark attack survivor has a different story, though many of the details are the same: usually swimming around sunrise or sunset, they feel a sudden strike—frequently from below—and find themselves losing a tremendous amount of blood. Victims often don’t experience much pain at first; that comes later.

In 1978, Mike deGruy was in his mid-twenties and working as a marine biologist in the Marshall Islands atoll of Enewetak when he and a friend decided to spend their Sunday diving. Fifty feet down, deGruy saw a gray reef shark engaged in what he now describes as “agonistic display”: the shark was arching its back and raising its snout. Initially, the biologist backed up slowly and tried to be as still as possible so as not to provoke it, but when the shark did not move toward him, he couldn’t resist snapping a picture.

“When the strobe fired, so did the shark,” deGruy recounts, more than thirty years later. “It just came like a bullet.” While deGruy tried to use his camera to block his attacker, the shark was undeterred, taking his elbow in its mouth and raking the back of his hand when deGruy put it out in self-defense.

While the shark sailed off, deGruy thought at that moment he was destined to die. Blood was pouring out in three distinct streams, he could see the bones in his hand, and he was well aware of how many sharks inhabited the water he was immersed in at that precise moment. “I thought, ‘Christ, I’m in trouble,’ ” he recalls. “The sharks were there all over. They were everywhere. You toss a little blood in the water, and there are fifty sharks in five minutes.” As he spent twenty-five minutes swimming to his boat anchored fifty yards away, deGruy thought of himself as “a living chum line.”

DeGruy managed to make it to the twenty-one-foot Boston whaler, as did his diving buddy, who had also been struck. After hastily tying a tourniquet around his arm, deGruy radioed for assistance, help that took an hour to arrive; because the waves were strong, the military helicopter that came to the two men’s aid had difficulty making out the white boat amid the frothy whitecaps.

In retrospect, deGruy thinks his fatalistic attitude after the attack saved his life. “If I thought there was any chance to make it, I wouldn’t have. I would have panicked; I would have freaked out. I was 100 percent convinced I was going to die.”

As deGruy is recounting his brush with death, he’s sitting in the gleaming white offices of the Pew Environment Group in downtown Washington. Flush with money from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the group is both well financed and creative: its employees are constantly devising campaigns aimed at influencing both national and international ocean policy, along with a handful of other green issues. In July 2009 they came up with one of their boldest salvos, bringing roughly half a dozen shark attack survivors to Capitol Hill—deGruy among them—to lobby for the anti-finning bill.

DeGruy doesn’t look, or act, like your typical lobbyist. Now a professional underwater filmmaker living in Santa Barbara, he’s ebullient even when he’s describing what it was like to feel the life draining from his body. He shows off his scarred arm, repaired after he underwent two skin grafts and eleven separate operations, without reservation. “It looks pretty good now,” he declares with a bit of pride, looking at his lumpy but intact appendage.

And while he admits his attack made him more cautious about entering the sea, deGruy says it didn’t shift his fundamental view of sharks. “My attitude before I was attacked is there isn’t a creature in the ocean as adapted to the ocean and as beautiful as the shark,” he says. “It is unchanged.”

Wearing matching white T-shirts that bear a black fin jutting out of the water and the slogan “Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation,” deGruy and the other survivors made their way to the Senate for a brief handshake with Barbara Boxer and a longer conversation with her aides. By the end of the day, it was unclear how much headway they’d made in Congress, but they scored more press coverage than the Pew staff had ever imagined. Their story made the front page of The Washington Post, as well as featured segments on CNN, Fox News, and National Public Radio.

Mike Coots, a native of Hawaii who lost his leg to a tiger shark while surfing in October 1997, isn’t surprised that he and the others managed to make news. “The media loves shark stories,” he says matter-of-factly, relaxing at the end of the day in a Senate cafeteria, the American Grill. While most of those stories undermine the cause of conservation, Coots adds, this particular campaign has challenged the conventional wisdom.

“This is actually helping the sharks,” he says, looking over at a reporter interviewing one of his fellow survivors. “The sharks are smiling today.”

These survivors are effective, in part, because they make us face an unpleasant truth: sharks will always threaten us, in an unpredictable way. But if deGruy, Coots, and others can make their peace with that, why can’t we?

From the moment Jaws became a hit, Peter Benchley made it clear he did not advocate killing sharks. Benchley spent years filming underwater adventure specials for a variety of production companies, highlighting the virtues of ocean exploration. But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the best-selling author decided to become an environmental crusader.

In the immediate years after his book and movie came out, Benchley was fairly defensive when it came to the question of sharks: as reporters repeatedly called him for comment on incidents involving either human attacks on sharks or vice versa, the author became skilled at deflecting the idea that he started the war of man versus shark. “He had various ways of explaining to people why he shouldn’t be responsible for everyone who was bitten by a shark, or afraid of sharks,” Wendy Benchley recalls.

Toward the end of his life, Benchley became an environmental crusader, making short educational films for the New England Aquarium and conducting a speaking tour in Asia, and he started telling reporters he couldn’t have written Jaws knowing what he now understood about sharks.

“He was looking for ways to get involved and use his reputation and his clout,” says Greg Stone, chief oceans scientist for Conservation International and senior vice president for exploration and conservation at the New England Aquarium. “It’s pretty much the way he spent the last ten years of his life.”

Benchley died with this work unfinished. Even after a decade of advocacy, he had just begun to erase what seems like an indelible mark on the public consciousness. And even decades after the release of his book, plenty of people devote their careers to keeping the Jaws myth alive. As long as the myth persists, shark hunters will have many reasons to go about ridding the sea of them. How can you fault someone for wiping out a killer?