A couple of years ago I read Peter Benchley’s Jaws. It had a great story, but I was turned off by the overuse of needless profanity and ridiculous sex scenes. Needless to say, Spielberg’s 1975 rendition surpassed the book in terms of, well, everything.
But it turns out, Benchley’s tale is not all that fictitious. If you’ve driven the up the New Jersey coast anywhere between Beach Haven Inlet and Matawn Creek (yes, creek), you’ve followed in the wake of a true-to-life vicious man-eater, not unlike the immortal Jaws.
In his brilliant book, Close to Shore, Michael Capuzzo documents the terrifying shark attacks of 1916 – the first recorded shark attacks in American history. A time when the ocean water was just being tested out as a recreational swimming pool, women were arrested or beaten by the mob for wearing bathing suits that revealed too much skin, and scientists believed sharks – especially great white sharks – were no more harmless than bunny rabbits.
Unlike Benchley’s fictional account of the great white, Capuzzo’s non-fiction book does not offend with cursing nor promiscuity. But there is blood. And detailed accounts of gory attacks in the water of people of all ages. And the climax is so unbelievable that Benchley must have known that replicating it for fictional use would have easily had his book thrown aside as a joke.
I read part of this book on the beach of Florida on vacation. I didn’t go into the water at all. In fact, I had a hard enough time not letting my imagination get the best of me in the swimming pool. Here is an excerpt of Close to Shore:
Between dynamite blasts, men trolled the dark creek in boats, working in eerie ribbons of lantern light, dredging the creek bottom with oyster hoops, trolling the much for Stilwell’s body. During cease-fires, more than a hundred armed men in boats patrolled up and down the creek, scanning for ripples that signaled the man-eater. Reporters crowded closer to the townsfolk on the banks with their notebooks and visions of a village besieged by a sea monster. Despite the bright light of the waxing moon, there were no sharks in sight, but that hardly mattered as men shot and bombed everything that stirred. “The one purpose in which everybody shares,” the Times reported, “is to get the shark, to kill it, and to see its body drawn up on the shore, where all may look and be assured it will destroy no more.”
Have a safe and happy Labour Day, don’t burn the burgers, and stay close to shore! Get your copy here.