Where the heck is “Quint” when you need him!!! Oh yeah! He went feet first down the throat of a great white in the first “Jaws I”. Where is Captain Mundus of the Cricket II? Long gone to the monster fishing seas of King Neptune. Where does that leave us? Well, that, my sea-loving friends, is a complicated question. There’s been shark sightings and incidents up and down the coast in our area this year from Maine, Cape Cod, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Long Island, Jersey Shore, and fin sightings in the Hudson River. Frankly, you may not believe me, but there was an 18” baby bull shark in my neighbor’s pool that sure cut down their loud pool parties.
This has been a summer of shark beach closings. There were four injuries due to shark “aggression” as of August 11th on Long Island alone. Bathers at beaches from Asbury Park, Coney Island, Rockaway, Atlantic and Long Beach, and on to Maine abandoned the cool waters as fins appeared near beaches. Even my grandson Nate was surfing with others ordered back to shore and waited two hot hours for the “All clear”. To date, four encounters took place leaving only bruises and some deep but not serious bite marks – the beaches became crowded on the sand but the surf was almost empty. Heck, there was even a giant mako thrashing about inside Hempstead Bay near Freeport!
The coastal states went to work using patrol boats, jet skis, spotter planes, helicopters and new highly sophisticated drones to spot sharks that could cause a problem. Lifeguards were given extra training on spotting sharks and dealing with any rare incident. This has been effective in reassuring bathers and surfers and bringing them back to enjoy our waters, with a tad of caution. So, what is really going on with this perceived onslaught of sharks?
There are many factors involved. The first is that sharks have always been where we swim. Some years ago, the New York Times ran an article titled “Man and Shark on Long Island, An Uneasy Co-existence” in the 1970s. It had a photo of beach bathers jumping waves while, on the crest of that wave, was a toothy shark head,. yet no one was harmed. It also showed aerial shots of sharks swimming slightly beyond masses of swimmers yet, there were no incidents. It’s a simple fact. You aren’t on a shark’s menu – just like a boiled shoe isn’t on yours. Oh yeah, Aunt May’s roast may taste like an old shoe, so you spit it into a napkin when she’s not looking. (Sorry, dear departed Aunt May, but it had to come out someday!) A shark has a similar reaction when a human is very rarely bitten.
The second reason is that worldwide there has been enormous pressure on sharks with 100 million murdered per year to supply the Asian craving for expensive, tasteless “shark fin” soup. In our waters and other environmentally concerned countries, shark finning, the act of catching sharks and cruelly chopping off their fins while alive so it can fall to the bottom of the sea and die, is outlawed. Our coastal water shark population is slowly increasing back to normal sustainable levels and we need sharks to have a healthy ocean. When they die, the sea will eventually die.
I captained many a fishing trip in my salty life. We would head to Angler Banks, the wrecks, even as close in as the Bergan Point outflow. I would be lying if I didn’t say it was exciting. We caught our share of big sharks of many species in that time, I only took one mako home. As sharks became rarer in the mid-nineties, I gave it up and felt good about it. I began reading about and studying sharks and appreciated “Shark Week,” because they were educating us amongst their hype. I learned that in our area bunker fish (Menhaden), which is big on the shark menu, were being decimated by the Omega bunker fleets from the Chesapeake Bay. I wrote an article criticizing the practice and folks campaigned to kick them out of the area. The result was a more naturally balanced ocean environment. And what did that do? It brought back the whales and increased the food source for every species of pelagic fish including tuna, swordfish and yes, sharks. It should be noted that the biomass of several of these species is trending upward which is a very good dynamic. A balanced ocean environment supports commercial and party boat fleets and the pleasure fishing boat industry in our area, keeping multi-thousands of boating professionals working. There are the shortsighted who say, “Bring back the bunker fleet and there would be fewer sharks”. This is a shortsighted, prejudiced viewpoint. The gain would be dirtier water simply because bunker are one of the greatest filter feeders in our coastal environment. Each processing more water than a clam or oyster.
Another reason for the appearance of more sharks in our area is Global Warming which is at a crisis point. As the waters around us heat up, more southerly species of sharks are moving into our area. The bull shark is a great example of this. It’s not that they haven’t occasionally strayed here but now they are inhabiting our waters in strength. The bull shark is an aggressive coastal shark. This shark can grow to 12 feet and weighs over 700 lbs. Down in southern waters, they are the shark that accounts for a larger segment of tragic encounters of swimmers and surfers, but incidents are not exclusive to them. Tiger sharks, much larger, are also being seen more often as well as spinner sharks and other species. Let’s try to put this into a sane perspective. There is a lot of undo panic here. For example, what led to the deaths of over 42,000 Americans last year and untold amounts of life-altering injuries. I’ll grace you with the answer. Do we have lifeguards on our highways whistling at you to get off the asphalt every time you drive?
Now let’s get to the biggest, badest maneater of all, The great white shark. How did he get this reputation? Well, there is history to it. Firstly, they are REALLY BIG and TOOTHINGLY frightening. It was the Gimbal brothers who first encountered them in quantity while diving the wreck of the Andrea Doria in the 1950s off Nantucket. One of the famous brothers died there in the terrible currents of that area. Peter Gimbal, the survivor, began underwater filming of great whites in the Cape Cod coastal waters and produced a popular nature film called “Blue Water, White Death”. It’s a great film but it caused, what I call the “Holy S—T those beasts are in the water” reaction amongst the swimming public and the title Gimbal picked included “White Death”. It didn’t give swimmers a fuzzy feeling. Montauk charter Captain Frank Mundus had been bringing in these monsters on rod and reel and satisfying high roller, cigar-chomping, testosterone-laden dudes from Wall Street for years but his fame was limited. Peter Benchley, who had been fascinated by Gimbel’s film, haunted the Montauk docks and befriended “Monster Man Mundus’’ with his boat Cricket II. Thus, the best-selling book and mega-hit film “Jaws” were born. Shark fishing became the rage in Macho Marine land. Mundus never forgave Benchley for what he saw as ripping off his story.
Fast forward to our most recent times, Scientists have verified that Frank Mundus was no fool. He knew the great whites were there for years before anyone including Peter Gimble realized. Mundus, with his gold earring and holding the menacing jaws of a monster great white open for photo ops on the dock, kept his knowledge and coordinates to himself. Today naturalists have established that Long Island and Cape Cod is a vast “Great White Shark Nursery” where giant females come to give birth every year. Then the large mature moms head away, and the juveniles return year after year until sexually mature, attracted by the abundance of seals and other prime prey. Any incident you may have with one is a very rare case of mistaken identity and highly unlikely.
So where does this leave us? Sharks are the most important part of our ever-shrinking natural world. Panic and hype should not deter us from respecting and protecting sharks. Enjoy the ocean, the danger from a shark is minuscule but the dangers from other issues such as water pollution, overfishing, deforestation, drought and global warming are what should really scare you into the action of protecting our planet.
C.2022 by Mark C. Nuccio All rights reserved for article and illustrations.