I saw a real live shark hauled up onto Bob Hall Fishing Pier when I was four years old. The shark, a wriggling, silvery hammerhead, measured only about two feet long from head to tail. A fisherman had hooked and hauled it up, and then, while wrangling its slippery body, grabbed a big serrated knife and slashed the sharkâs throat. I saw a real live shark hauled up onto Bob Hall Fishing Pier when I was four years old. The shark, a wriggling, silvery hammerhead, measured only about two feet long from head to tail. A fisherman had hooked and hauled it up, and then, while wrangling its slippery body, grabbed a big serrated knife and slashed the shark's throat. Blood streamed red down the shark's silver body, and from its startled gills. Then the fisherman chucked it, still-wriggling, over the wooden pier railing and back into the Gulf of Mexico. My dad explained that to the fisherman, the shark was just a pest who ate up bait, and that was that.
So that's where my shark obsession began, I guess; but I'll bet if I'd seen the same thing happen to a flounder, I wouldn't have read everything I could find about those. I wouldn't have fixated on Cousteau searching for the elusive mackerel. There's something about sharks.
I was too little to go see Jaws when it came out, though I saw it later, at about age ten, and will watch it everyâand I mean everyâtime it comes on TV. The thing is, Jaws was so pervasive, so omnipresent, and so fiendishly devised to tweak our deep-downiest horrors and fascinations, that its mythos and images saturated my childhood before I ever saw the movie. I'll bet you can picture the poster with zero effort; the beautiful woman doing the American crawl along a blue horizon line, oblivious to the shark thrusting upwards like a giant toothy missile from an unfathomable blue Hell. I'll bet you can hear the crucial part of John Williams' score in your head right this minute, too. Same with me. My sister, a married mom in her thirties now, will still haul ass out of the swimming pool âout of the bathtub, even if you intone: DUNN-dun! DUNN-dun!
I'm nowhere near alone in my shark obsession, is my kinda-point. Sharks lurk in our human collective subconscious. When I mention my shark thing to people, they rarely ask "Why sharks?" Because: dude! Sharks! The ultimate in bad-assitude! The eating machine! Four-year-old boys, professionals at dinner parties, whoever; mention sharks, and their eyes get wide, breathing accelerates, grownups even giggle. Shark talk can straight-up own any other conversation, the apex predator of chit-chat.
Because sharks in the abstract, which is how most of us encounter them, are fascinating as hell. Itâs particularly delicious to fear something contained; unlike, say, psychopaths, cancer, or financial ruin, the sharks can't get you on the couch. Or can they? I remember being scared by SNLs old "Land Shark" sketch. The absurdity of that sketch speaks to the unlikelihood of shark attack, really; the threat sharks wield in our imaginations is all out of proportion to the threat they actually pose. Recently, by way of entertaining myself, I conducted an informal poll using my Facebook status update. I asked âwhich do you think kill more people a year: snakes, or sharks? My friends responded quickly and with enthusiasm. Sharks won my poll by an enormous margin.
But I had my doubts. So I looked it up. Average yearly human fatalities by shark: four, out of roughly 61-62 attacks reported per year. Average yearly human fatalities by snake: 50 to 60 THOUSAND, 20,000 yearly in India ALONE, although according to Wikipedia the number of worldwide yearly fatalities may go as high as 125,000.
RE-CALIBRATE YOUR PHOBIAS, EVERYBODY.
Other animals who kill way more people every year than sharks do: big cats, bears, domestic dogs, spiders, scorpions, donkeys (!), and hippos. The champion person-killing animal, though, is the lowly mosquito, which kills an estimated 1,000,000 persons yearly (though, to be fair, itâs the malaria that does it). You are more likely, by the way, to be struck dead by lightning or crushed to death by a vending machine than killed by a shark.
But we need sharks; inborn respect for the might of the natural world made manifest is somehow necessary to our soul. Thus shark lore contains a ritual function. We relate to each other the shared lore of sharkdom, like a religious observance, like Cro Magnons mustâve talked about Mastodons, only more pop-cultural: starting with Jaws, and the USS Indianapolis, to the rash of attacks in Florida the summer of â01, how they get you in knee-deep waters, how a bull shark swam miles upstream in a New Jersey river and ate boys. Shark Week! James Bond! Sensing a drop of blood from a half-mile away! Sharks attacking boats, bathers, mannequins of seals, steel cages, even a guy's dog! (This happened recently in Florida, and the dogâs owner, thrillingly, fought the shark off).
And a special venn diagram sector of dork will even recall the infamous "zombie vs. shark" fight scene in Lucio Fulciâs 1979 gorefest Zombi 2 (which ends with the zombie biting the shark in an almost affectionate way, to which the shark responds by biting off the zombie's arm. Who wins? Who can say?). I am that sector of dork. I know, for instance, that the actor hired to play in the scene was âunableâ to film on the day, (ha! Iâll bet!) so they used the sharkâs trainer instead.
But shark lore has changed. It's grown up with us Jaws-devouring kids, and like us become more poignant, fraught with consequence, bittersweet, ambivalent. There are tragicomic elements to shark lore, even: Fonzie "jumping the shark" on his motorcycle in late-era Happy Days, of course, became shorthand thereafter for the desperate attention-getting antics of any timeworn franchise. And then there's Bruce, the friendly Great White in Disney/Pixar's Finding Nemo, who frames his predatory tendencies as something of an addiction.
Further eroding the canon of sharky badassery is the âredemption arcâ evident in contemporary shark lore: The recognition of the vulnerability and centrality of apex predators; the repeated coda in Shark Week programming that sharks are not, in fact, man-eating monsters (or at least not man-seeking; marine biologists seek to reframe attacks now as accidents, with most human bites arising from mistaken identityâwe sorta look like sealsâ rather than interspecies vendetta). Even Peter Benchley, the novelist best-known for his 1974 mega-juggernaut about you-know-who, came to regret the shark hysteria heâd conjured up, saying in his 2001 ocean conservation opus Shark Trouble that âI know now that the mythic monster I created was largely a fiction. I also know now, however, that the genuine animal is just asâif not even moreâfascinating.
This is true enough, Peter. While I grew up relishing the unregenerate, bitey, 70âs-era shark, and loved (and love!) every terrifying story and scary image (do yourself a favor; Google Image John Singleton Copley's "Watson and the Shark" right the hell now), that baby hammerhead I saw at four has never left me. And recently, in one or another Shark Week program, scientists fitted a female Great White with a fin-mounted camera, and tracked her for a bit. When, as it was designed to do, the camera disconnected from her and floated upwards to be retrieved, it caught the image of the shark circling it, then pausingânot to eat it, you understand, but with, my hand to God, a quizzical expression, as if to say "What the hell was that all about?" Her bafflement just about made me cry.
I could go on and on.