Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth - Trevor Norton (2010)

Carnivorous and Coming This Way

‘Into this dangerous world I leapt’ – William Blake

One of Bombard’s greatest fears was an attack by swordfish or sharks. In a contest between either of them and a rubber dinghy the winner would not be in doubt. He lashed a knife to the oar to defend himself and had to use it several times. One shark repeatedly buffeted the boat and lashed its tail as if taunting him. A shark’s skin is covered in tiny sharp teeth. You can sand wood with shark hide. After one had scraped against the inflatable’s bottom, it sprang a leak. From then on nothing would persuade Bombard to get into the water.

In 1987 I was working in the Philippines and considered taking a ferry between the islands. The locals advised against this. The boat would be very overcrowded and uncomfortable. They didn’t exaggerate. The Dona Paz was built to carry 608 passengers, but the company had the official capacity raised to 1,500. She set sail with an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people on board. She collided with a tanker and there were only twenty-five survivors. Three hundred bodies were recovered from the sea. All had been mutilated by sharks. For weeks afterwards fishermen found body parts in the stomachs of tiger sharks. Whether they ate living or drowned passengers is uncertain. I am glad I wasn’t there to find out.

Bombard drifted from the North Atlantic into tropical waters and man-eating sharks are denizens of the tropics. Aren’t they? An American millionaire once offered a $500 reward for proof that any live person had been attacked by a shark in temperate waters. There were no takers. In 1916 the director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York declared that there was ‘practically no danger of any attack from a shark about our coasts’. Perhaps the sharks took this as a challenge.

The New Jersey shore was a paradise for bathers. The summer of 1916 was a sizzler and Charles Vansant waited until the early evening before running into the cool surf. He swam out beyond the other bathers, enjoying being alone in the sea. Then he turned back towards the shore. In water only a metre or so deep a great white shark clamped down on his leg. The blood in the water alerted a brave man to come to Vansant’s rescue. There was a terrible tug-of-war. The shark refused to let go and was rising out of the water. Then it relented before it was beached.

Three doctors rushed to Vansant’s aid – one was his father. The leg was all but severed from the body and blood was pouring out onto the sand. He became the first man in America to have ‘Bitten by a shark’ on his death certificate. A scandalous divorce hit the headlines next day and Vansant’s death was relegated to a brief mention on the back page.

Five days later Charles Bruder, who worked at a hotel just up the coast, took his daily dip in the sea. He had heard of Vansant’s death but agreed with the majority of people who expressed ‘doubt as to the veracity of the story’. Bruder boasted of swimming with sharks in California and coming to no harm. He was reputed to be the strongest swimmer on the beach and he swam out further than all the rest. But he was not alone. There was a massive explosion in the water and a woman on the beach shouted, ‘The man in the red canoe is upset!’ There was no canoe. It was Bruder’s blood. Lifeguards in a skiff arrived promptly at the scene to see Bruder flung cartwheeling into the air. The shark struck repeatedly, shaking him ‘like a terrier with a rat’.

With Bruder’s horrific death even the newspapers now admitted there was a monster on the loose. And it was heading north. Coney Island and New York were only fifteen hours away at the shark’s most leisurely cruising rate.

Asbury Park had guaranteed the ‘absolute safety of its bathers’. But after the boat containing the captain of the lifeguards was attacked by a large shark ‘a great many bathers are rather scarce’. It was not shaping up to be the most prosperous summer for the seaside resorts of the New Jersey coast. Their mayors issued a joint statement complaining that trade was being hurt ‘without reason’. The Director of the Bureau of Fisheries told the public ‘not to be unduly alarmed or deterred from going bathing’. Although no one saw him splashing about in the surf.

That same day a big shark was spotted in New York Bay. A policeman emptied his revolver into it. It just swam away. Opposite Staten Island is a small estuary called Matawan Creek. One of the boys larking about there felt something big scrape past him in the turbid water. He scrambled out and found that his chest was grazed and bleeding. The next morning a retired sea captain out for a stroll saw a huge shark rushing upstream towards the town. He ran as fast as his old legs would carry him to warn the townsfolk. They just laughed, thinking it was another of his salty tales.

That afternoon the boys were back swimming in the creek, ‘bombing’ into the water and making as many splashes as possible. It was irresistible to the shark. One boy suddenly vanished, only to reappear screaming and in a shark’s mouth. Then he vanished for ever.

Two men volunteered to go duck diving to search for the body, no easy task in the murky water. One of the men, Stanley Fisher, surfaced and shouted ‘I’ve got it.’ Instantly the water around him began to boil and he screamed, ‘He’s got me.’ As he tried to drag the boy’s body towards the bank he was hauled down time after time. The shark snatched back the boy and Stanley was dragged up onto the bank. Half his thigh was gone and the flesh around the wound resembled bloody rags. He muttered that he had seen the shark below feeding on the boy and as he’d snatched the corpse away the shark had turned on him. The nearest hospital was over two hours away. Stanley was conscious throughout the journey, only to die on the operating table.

Meanwhile, downstream another bunch of lads were bathing, unaware of the drama. The retreating shark grabbed one of them, but a plucky fellow dived in and snatched him from the shark’s jaws. As the boy was being hauled out of the water the shark took a final bite out of his leg. Below the knee his left leg was just ribbons of flesh, yet with prompt medical help he survived.

Two days later a boat trawling for fish was dragged backwards. When they hauled up the net a large shark’s head appeared over the stern, snapping at them. The fishermen beat it to death with a oar. When the shark’s stomach was opened, out tumbled the rib of an adult human and the shin bones of a child. Perhaps this was the killer shark. It was impossible to say whether all the mayhem was caused by a single shark or by several.

A board member of the Zoological Society searched for sharks around Long Island. In 1916 alone he caught 277 and shot over a hundred of them. None matched the description of the killer. Nonetheless sharks were common in these cold waters. Many years later, the seaward side of Long Island was found to be a hotspot for juvenile white sharks (popularly known as great white sharks). In 1964 a great white was caught off Long Island that was 5.25 metres long and weighed almost two tonnes.

In 1916, although witnesses had provided detailed accounts of five shark attacks and four victims had died in a period of only two weeks, the scientists were still in denial. A zoologist insisted that there was no reliable record of an unprovoked shark attack. The experts of the day worked in museums and laboratories and studied the anatomy and classification of fishes. They examined specimens small enough to fit into their pickling jars. Every zoology student dissected the dogfish a dozen times. They could tease out the blood vessels or the cranial nerves, but were taught nothing about the private lives of sharks. Indeed, little was known of their behaviour and ecology.

The first person to study sharks beneath the ocean was an Austrian called Hans Hass. In 1939 he and his student friends organised a diving trip to the Caribbean. They took a bucket diving helmet, like the one that Kitching used, swimming goggles and home-made flippers. They had several cameras to capture images of fish and especially sharks in their natural environment. They took 4,000 photographs, some of them in colour.

Now that diving is commonplace it is difficult to appreciate the risks they were taking. The Caribbean was teeming with sharks that had never met a human under water. How would they react? Which ones were benign and which were dangerous? There was a real possibility that the first dives of the expeditioneers would be their last.

During a dive by Hass and his friend Jörg, three sharks appeared and torpedoed straight towards them. It was so frightening that Jörg gave out a piercing yell. All three sharks turned and fled. So yelling became the divers’ defence when threatened. When Hass tried it in the Mediterranean and the mid-Atlantic it had no effect whatsoever.

Hass read zoology at the University of Vienna and later received his doctorate from Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin. He spent his spare time trying to raise money for another expedition. The first book of his underwater adventures was published in 1939 and a leading magazine serialised his account of the Caribbean trip. He also sold prints of his underwater photographs and went on lecture tours.

On most of his dives Hass held his breath, as did the reader. What he needed was a breathing device that would allow him to retain the freedom of the skin-diver. His requirements were put to Drager, the company that made the escape equipment for use in U-boats. They provided him with modified oxygen re-breathers in which pure oxygen was supplied from a small cylinder into a bag like a life vest from which the diver breathed. Caustic soda in the bag ‘scrubbed out’ the carbon dioxide from the exhaled air and allowed the diver to use the remaining oxygen. The gear gave substantial time underwater, but was dangerous. As Jack Haldane had confirmed, pure oxygen is potentially poisonous under pressure. In 1942 Hass became the first to use self-contained diving equipment for research. The aqualung was still just a glimmer in Cousteau’s goggles.

There were accusations that Hass’s shark photographs were fakes, which made him determined to get even better ones with divers and sharks in the same shot so there could be no doubt. His next expedition was marked by misadventure. Their ship caught fire before leaving port. When eventually they set sail it began to sink. So they joined forces with dynamite fishermen to photograph the behaviour of sharks that were attracted to the dead fish.

When the war ended Hass set off to study sharks in the Red Sea. On arrival at Port Sudan he was immediately told of a ship’s passenger who had fallen overboard and been torn to pieces by sharks under the gaze of his fellow travellers.

The friendly British Commissioner recommended a site where ‘the water was so full of sharks that you could put an oar into the water and it would remain standing upright’. Hass was lowered into the murky sea armed only with a length of picture framing whittled to take a harpoon point. He met sharks aplenty.

Even on land it wasn’t safe. Torrential storms swept through the town and some residents were washed down to the sea to have their heads bitten off by sharks. Worst of all, according to the Commissioner, the golf course was flooded.

On his return to Austria, Hass found that the public were just as fascinated with sharks as he was. At a lecture attended by the Minister of Education he revealed that his field trip had been supported by donations from classes of local schoolgirls and a masked all-in wrestler. The Minister was sufficiently embarrassed to sponsor his next expedition to the Red Sea.

Hass’s beautiful secretary Lotte became his diving companion. On their second dive she found herself alone underwater. A shark appeared and patrolled back and forth in front of her, assessing her first with its cold right eye, then with its icy left. She was terrified, but it departed. When Hass appeared she tried to tell him of her narrow escape, blabbering through her mouthpiece. All he did was to confirm that there was something wrong with the camera.

Sharks needn’t be big to be dangerous. Hass caught a young shark by the tail. It was supple enough to whip round and grab his arm in its mouth. It then swam off dragging him with it. By the time it let go Hass was bleeding profusely. The flesh was hanging from his wrist in shreds. The starter cord for the outboard served as a tourniquet and he was rushed to hospital. Hass was out of the water for three weeks before he lost patience and removed his own stitches.

He had felt the chomp of a shark, but the critics’ teeth were sharper still. They suggested that the sharks must have been stunned before being approached. Worse still, the value of pictures taken of animals acting normally in their natural environment was not appreciated by a well-known biologist: ‘Any good aquarium picture is of greater scientific and instructional value than similar shots taken in nature, even at the risk of one’s life.’

Hass had a theory that sharks homed in on the distress noises of fish. To enable him to study this, Philips provided some sound gear on which he recorded the flutter of harpooned fish. When played back underwater it attracted sharks from a distance. Later other workers recorded artificial low-frequency sounds and found they were also attractive to sharks, but only if they were pulsed. Continuous sounds had no effect.

Hans and Lotte married and honeymooned on the Great Barrier Reef. On their arrival the local doctor informed them that ‘Only last week a young couple were eaten in the harbour.’ He assessed their life expectancy as unlikely to exceed a fortnight.

While in the Maldives with fellow zoologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Hass filmed the shark’s ability to find food that it couldn’t see. Eibl-Eibesfeldt harpooned a grouper and then hid the corpse in a hole on the reef. Sharks rapidly appeared and snuffled around trying to locate the bait. The first to find it chomped it in half. This aroused the others to start snapping at the successful shark and at Eibl-Eibesfeldt who was sitting perfectly still while Hass filmed the proceedings. Eibl-Eibesfeldt assumed that he was of more interest because he had handled the bait. The experiment was repeated many times with the same result.

Nowadays, when every schoolboy can recognise a manta ray, it is difficult to imagine the excitement the public felt when they first saw Hass’s pictures. Every creature he photographed was strange and huge and potentially dangerous. The almost naked divers weaving between the predators seemed small and vulnerable. Hass never filmed even the most voracious sharks from within the safety of a cage, in case it induced unnatural behaviour.

The Second World War saw numerous pilots ditching into the sea and many thousands of sailors abandoning sinking ships. The survivors often told of being harassed by sharks. It happened far more frequently than we know, for those most troubled by sharks probably failed to file a report.

The US Navy grasped the magnitude of the problem in 1945. In July of that year the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis delivered a vital component of the atomic bomb to the US airbase on the Pacific island of Tinian. From there the Enola Gay would fly to Hiroshima.

The Indianapolis departed for the Philippines to resume its role as flagship to the US Fifth Fleet. Headquarters failed to warn its captain that a Japanese submarine was active on its designated route. The cruiser was unescorted and had no sonar. It was, therefore, blind to submarines.

The Japanese submarine 1-58 had excellent sonar and could hardly fail to register such a huge ship. At midnight on 30 July the submarine fired six torpedoes at the Indianapolis. Should they miss, the sub also had a giant fourteen-metre-long torpedo strapped to its belly with a kamikaze pilot on board. It was packed with high explosives and could slice a ship in two. It wasn’t needed. Two of the torpedoes destroyed the entire bow section of the Indianapolisand she sank within fifteen minutes.

Of the 1,196 men aboard, between eight and nine hundred survived the sinking, although fifty soon succumbed from their injuries. Those survivors in the worst state were put on twelve small life rafts with canvas pontoons stuffed with kapok. They had to sit on the pontoons as the rafts had no floor, just a net of ropes to brace the feet against. The majority bobbed in the waves, some with life jackets, some without. They clung to ropes to stay together. There were two large groups, one of around four hundred men, the other of 150, plus many smaller groups. Every group thought they were the only survivors.

Most of the rations in the rafts were soaked and useless. Many of the water containers were empty or contaminated with seawater. The officers tried to ration the supplies. Every man was allocated one cracker, one malted-milk tablet and a taste of water per day. From the start the men were drinking seawater, either deliberately or because it was impossible not to swallow some water and oil in the rough sea.

Sharks arrived on the first day and were beaten off with the rafts’ paddles. On the second day they arrived in numbers to feed on the dead bodies. Some men fished, but everything they caught was stolen by the sharks. So they gave up. Then the sharks turned against the men. When a shark singled out its victim, neither yelling nor beating of the water would deflect it. There would be a scream and the water turned crimson as the shark butchered its victim.

By the third day men were becoming delirious and delusional. Some swam away towards imaginary islands. Others became violent and fought over life jackets, although as men died the supply became ample. Perhaps as many as twenty-five were killed by their shipmates.

To add to the men’s despair the kapok in the jackets was gradually becoming waterlogged. They were sinking lower and lower in the water, and the sharks kept coming back. One man turned to his companion whose head was dipping towards the water. He just flipped over to reveal that the entire lower half of his body was missing. A shark had chopped him in half.

When help eventually came on the fifth day the rescuers had to use gunfire to keep the sharks at bay. Every body they pulled from the water had bits missing. Half were stripped to the bone. About five hundred men had died in the sea. Most had been eaten by sharks, but there is no way of knowing how many were alive at the time. One survivor claimed that he had seen over eighty attacks on sailors.

Most of the 350 species of shark are ‘chinless cowards’. Thirty-five species have been known to attack man, but only ten are frequent offenders. Yet polls reveal that one of our greatest fears is being attacked by a shark. We are not reassured that more people are killed by falling coconuts than are eaten by sharks. The remoteness of any risk of being attacked is not the point. It is the fear of being systematically dismembered that stokes such terror. It rekindles the ancient fear of our ancestors for whom death by wild beast was common. We have tamed or shot almost all the big terrestrial carnivores. Today vehicles are our greatest predator, yet we accept the carnage on the roads as a risk of daily life. Being eaten alive invokes a much higher order of dread.

After the Indianapolis disaster a perceptive navy researcher announced that fear of death and dismemberment by sharks was a major morale problem among ditched flyers and survivors of sunken ships. The US Navy began to fund the search for an effective shark repellent.

The remit was to find a chemical that could be leaked into the water to form a protective cloud around a floating man. It had to be sufficiently concentrated to repel a shark, yet innocuous to the man. They tried hypochlorites, chemical warfare agents and cyanide – having forgotten the ‘innocuous to man’ requirement. No compound met the criteria. In any case, how would you maintain a protective cloud in an ocean of diluting water beset by turbulence and currents?

Some sharks had been observed to avoid decaying fish. Of all the chemicals given off by rotting carcasses someone decided that ammonium acetate was the repellent substance. So they added a toxic metal and came up with copper acetate mixed with a dye to obscure the shark’s vision. Even though preliminary trials indicated that the dye was avoided more than the repellent, copper acetate was supplied with all life jackets and life rafts. The packets were labelled ‘Shark Chaser’. Although they provided great psychological comfort to the troops it’s unlikely that they chased away many sharks. Eventually the US Navy admitted that ‘Shark Chaser’ was perhaps not the ultimate deterrent.

It was decades later that a diving zoologist called Eugenie Clark observed that sharks sampling the Moses sole spat it out in disgust. The fish was found to secrete a surfactant (detergent) repellent to sharks. Donald Nelson and Wesley Strong developed an air-powered ‘syringe gun’ to deliver a dose of the detergent into the mouth of an advancing shark. Its sea trial took place in 1991 at the aptly named Dangerous Reef in South Australia. It is an assembly place for white sharks. The original idea was to squirt the sharks from the safety of a stout cage, but the wily fish refused to come close enough.

A more hazardous method was tried. The gunman had to be close to the shark’s mouth so Strong crouched on the swim deck at the stern of the boat. It is a shelf only thirty centimetres or so above the sea’s surface. A shark was lured in by trailing bait behind the boat and then drawing it up until it was just out of the water. As the shark lunged open-jawed with its head in the air, Strong fired a dose of detergent into its mouth. Every shark responded vigorously to being dosed, making a rapid retreat and not returning for days, if at all. A photograph makes it clear that Strong was dangerously close to the shark’s mouth. The slightest misjudgement would indeed have provided a stern test for the deterrent.

His fellow researcher Donald Nelson was also not averse to risk. On an earlier project a shark had charged him. His dive buddy photographed him fending off the beast with his hand. Its teeth were within centimetres of his groin. The assailant had to be shot to save Nelson’s life.

After this experience Nelson studied shark behaviour from the comparative safety of a small one-man submersible shaped like a shark complete with a tail and fins. The submersible ‘confronted’ and pursued grey reef sharks (close relatives of great whites) thus provoking aggressive swimming displays and attacks. It was attacked fifty-seven times. Most often the sharks charged the submersible’s transparent observation dome. Following their violent lunges the plexiglass (perspex) dome became deeply scarred and weakened. Had it given way, Nelson would have drowned.

His companion was Scott Johnson, who devised a novel way to be safe from sharks – maybe. He designed the ‘Johnson Bag’. Imagine a large black plastic sack like a giant novelty condom. The open top had an inflatable yellow collar. The man climbed inside the sack and peeped nervously over the collar, looking out for sharks. The idea was that the bag kept the survivor’s body fluids from leaking into the sea and alerting a shark to his presence. Also, as he relaxed with confidence in his condom, he was not splashing about, which would be another signal to sharks. Since Johnson invented the device he was the one to test its effectiveness in a pool full of sharks. He was investigated, probably because the yellow colour of the collar is highly attractive to sharks, but he was not attacked.

Several non-scientists also became obsessed with shark biology. David Webster knew danger. In the Second World War he had been a member of ‘Easy Company’, immortalised as the Band of Brothers. After the war he became a journalist with the Saturday Evening Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The quiet life didn’t suit Webster and he turned to the sea for excitement. He surfed and dived and became interested in sharks. They represented all that was mysterious and dangerous about the ocean. He studied them underwater by swimming among them. In September 1961 he left Santa Monica pier in California in search of sharks. Perhaps he found them for he never returned. His boat was found drifting eight kilometres offshore. Its tiller was gone and so was Webster.

Webster’s book on sharks was published posthumously the next year. He had collected an archive of stories. One tells of a sailor stranded on a life raft and being dogged by a shark. None of the suggestions in the on-board survival manual deterred the creature. In frustration he tore its pages into shreds and cast them onto the sea. The shark followed the paper trail and didn’t return.

Another enthusiast, Michael Rutzen, skippered a dive boat and lowered tourists in cages to the sea floor off South Africa. He became obsessed with white sharks and felt he could only get to understand them if they met on the shark’s terms.

He snorkelled and SCUBA-dived with them and learned that they responded to his body position. If he curled into a ball it attracted their attention. When the sharks came too close he uncurled and they usually turned away. If he swam away, a shark would follow. As they read his posture so he read theirs. A gaping mouth was a sure sign of aggression. Really? I should have guessed.

Rutzen usually conferred with sharks in relatively shallow water to minimise the risk of attack from below. When there were several great whites in the vicinity he backed onto the reef to protect his rear. He was particularly cautious when they were feeding, in case he was mistaken for the side order. If the sharks got too frisky he didn’t try to surface. Instead he went below, which he considers to be the ‘power position’. Despite his astute reading of the sharks’ body language, his body is covered with scars donated by sharks that clearly weren’t paying attention to his.

Theo Ferreira, another South African, developed an interest in sharks that his son Craig inherited. Together they developed the White Shark Research Institute on the Cape coast. Their main aim is to save the white shark from extinction, for vastly more sharks are killed by man than the other way round. The jaws of a great white make a fine trophy, or so they say.

The Institute is not far from ‘Shark Alley’ where white sharks still congregate in appreciable numbers. They are attracted to the boat in the traditional way by ladling ‘chum’ into the water. Chum is an irresistible bouillabaisse of sardine mush, fish guts and blood. Every shark that comes close enough is numbered by jabbing it behind the dorsal fin to fix a tag. This means that the individual can be identified when seen again, and the ratio of tagged to untagged sharks seen subsequently gives an indication of the population size.

Researchers also sample the shark’s blood. A syringe is inserted by hand to prevent contamination by seawater. Craig Ferreira lies on the swim deck of the boat with the shark immediately below him. He has lost count of the number of times he has had to jump out of the way of the shark’s teeth.

To determine whether a male is sexually active, Craig has to feel the external ‘claspers’ that serve as a penis. Sharks violently object to such foreplay and should they bite him it would not count as an unprovoked attack.

Many of the Ferreiras’ underwater observations of shark behaviour were made from inside a cage. The cage is not a close-barred steel prison immune from all attack. It resembles a large circular basket of steel mesh that looks little stronger than chicken wire. It wasn’t designed to resist a charging shark, merely to deflect it. The researchers inside must feel it’s like a game of dangerous dodgems. More worrying still, the top half has only occasional metal poles with large openings between them. These ‘windows’ give the researchers an unobstructed view of the advancing sharks and are easily big enough to allow the head of a great white to enter. Indeed, one agitated shark got intothe cage to hassle two cameramen. They described the experience as being locked in a coffin with an excited chainsaw. Several times researchers have been trapped in the cage when five-metre sharks have grabbed the bars with their teeth and have shaken the cage like a toy. When sharks once became entangled in the cage’s cable, the entire cage and its human contents were almost dragged down to the bottom.

Craig Ferreira has had his air hose severed six times and he has often been no safer on the surface. Angry sharks almost scuppered the boat on more than one occasion and frequently he was almost hauled into the sea. Ferreira admits that they have had lots of close calls. He knows that a white shark can end it for you whenever it wants. In his words, ‘It’s all fun and games until someone gets munched.’

I have personal evidence that marine biologists view sharks with both wonder and apprehension. I was sitting in a boat when someone spotted a large fin breaking the surface and shouted ‘Shark!’ All the divers in the boat leapt into the water and all those in the sea scrambled back into the boat.


That cerain smile, circa 1700.