“THE REAL SHARK ATTACKS BEHIND ‘JAWS’” and More True SHARK Stories! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: In June of 1975 we were exposed to one of the scariest movies ever made. For this podcaster, it’s just not Independence Day until I watch it – and you still can’t get me to swim in the ocean. We’ll look at what made ‘Jaws’ so successful… and so frightening. We’ll also look at the true story of a string of shark attacks in 1916 that inspired the novel and the film. And while 1975’s ‘Jaws’ was inspired by a series of shark attacks but greatly fictionalized, the film ‘Open Water’ from 2003 is based on a very real and terrifying story. But the truth behind the movie is a dark mystery that goes way beyond the horror of what you see in the film. We’ll look at several other real shark attacks that are almost too incredible to believe, and also try to answer the question as to why shark attacks don’t happen more often as you would expect them to, seeing as humans should be easy pickings. (Originally aired July 03, 2020)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
Facebook Post About “Jaws”: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/bpacmhz5
“The True Darkness of Open Water” by Erin McCann for Ranker: https://tinyurl.com/y8vaqgra
“The Real-Life Inspiration for ‘Jaws’” by Christopher Klein for History: https://tinyurl.com/yb5s35xc
“The Horror of ‘Jaws’” by Jackie Flynn Mogensen for Mother Jones: https://tinyurl.com/y2mxf8us, Andrew Housman for ScreenRant: https://tinyurl.com/yae8ohh6, Meagan Navarro for Bloody Disgusting: https://tinyurl.com/y7p8q9lw, Tim Donnelly for the New York Post: https://tinyurl.com/y9twrcc7, and Rachel Paige for Hello Giggles:https://tinyurl.com/ycdlb6je
“Real Shark Attacks” by Charles W. Bryant for How Stuff Works: https://tinyurl.com/y9scmg9x, and Lou Boyd for Mpora: https://tinyurl.com/y9e55t4u
“Why Sharks Attack Humans” by Richard Gray for BBC: https://tinyurl.com/ycf563up
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OTHER PODCASTS I HOST…
Paranormality Magazine: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/paranormalitymag
Micro Terrors: Scary Stories for Kids: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/microterrors
Retro Radio – Old Time Radio In The Dark: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/retroradio
Church of the Undead: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/churchoftheundead
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The year was 1975. I was six years old, and my parents, my brother and I had just come out of the movie theater after watching “Escape To Witch Mountain”… or was it “The Apple Dumpling Gang”? Honestly, I don’t remember. Which is kind of ironic, because despite seeing one of those films for a good ninety minutes, the only thing I would remember about this day with any true detail is about three seconds of it. When we left our theater, I bolted ahead and being the naughty redheaded boy that I was, I decided to open the door to another theater – I had no idea what was behind the doors, nor did I care. I just wanted to see another movie. I swung open the theater door to the darkened room with the movie already playing, and in that instant I saw a shark jumping out of the water, mouth gaping open, attacking a boat of men – blood everywhere. One of my parents obviously saw where I went and immediately pulled me out. Like I said – maybe three seconds had passed. But I remember that image. And it stayed with me. We didn’t live near the ocean, but I had issues even swimming in a freshwater lake through my teen years. Before the age of ten, despite being a very good swimmer, I still felt fear even when I was near the deep end of the swimming pool. All from that tiny moment of three seconds. You could probably say that was my first experience with a horror movie – and nothing has held a candle to it since. I’ve watched it dozens of times, and like “It’s a Wonderful Life” is my must-see Christmas film, I can’t celebrate Independence Day without watching Steven Spielberg’s classic, ‘Jaws’.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – (I’m Darren Marlar and) this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
In June of 1975 we were exposed to one of the scariest movies ever made. It still comes in a close second to ‘The Exorcist’, and for this podcaster, it’s just not Independence Day until I watch it – and you still can’t get me to swim in the ocean. We’ll look at what made ‘Jaws’ so frightening. (The Horror of ‘Jaws’)
The tagline for the sequel to ‘Jaws’, ‘Jaws 2’ was “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.” But it wasn’t safe to go back in the water of the Jersey Shore in 1916 either, as a series of deadly shark attacks forever changed Americans’ attitudes toward the sea creatures. So much so, it brought to life the whole idea of Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws”. (The Real-Life Inspiration for ‘Jaws’)
While 1975’s ‘Jaws’ was inspired by a series of shark attacks but greatly fictionalized, the film ‘Open Water’ from 2003 is based on a very real and terrifying story. But the truth behind the movie is a dark mystery that goes way beyond the horror of what you see in the film. (The True Darkness of ‘Open Water’)
We’ll also take a look at several other real shark attacks that are almost too incredible to believe. (Real Shark Attacks)
And despite what the movies might tell you – shark attacks are actually quite rare, which is why they make the news when they happen, and why they make such great stories for film. But why are they rare? Humans are like ungainly packets of meat when paddling in the ocean and should be easy prey compared to fast-moving fish and seals. So, why are so few people attacked by sharks? We’ll look at why sharks do and do not attack people. (Why Sharks Attack Humans)
It’s all about SHARKS on this episode of Weird Darkness!
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Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: THE REAL-LIFE INSPIRATION FOR JAWS=====
Here in the states we’re preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July. They were doing the same thing at this very same time back in 1916, in the aptly named resort town of Beach Haven, New Jersey, which promised a sanctuary from worries about the war raging in Europe and the polio epidemic sweeping through New York City. Seeking refuge from the sweltering heat gripping his hometown of Philadelphia, Charles Vansant stepped out of his beachfront hotel to take a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean before dinner on July 1, 1916.
The athletic 25-year-old waded into the shallow surf and swam out from shore with a paddling Chesapeake Bay retriever at his side when a dark fin suddenly sliced through the 3-and-1/2 foot deep water. The sea creature clamped onto Vansant’s left leg and refused to let go. The swimmer unleashed a morbid scream as the ocean’s white breakers turned red. A human chain tried to tug him to safety, but the animal did not unclench its jaws until its belly scraped on the pebbles in the shallow waters near shore. The rescuers carried the badly injured Vansant into the lobby of the luxurious Engleside Hotel where he bled to death.
The attending physician recorded a remarkable cause of death—a shark bite. While swimming in the ocean was still a nascent American pastime in the early 1900s, shark attacks along the coast of New Jersey were unheard of. Many scientists believed sharks to be shy, just another fish that swam offshore and posed no threat to swimmers, and not powerful enough to maul a human. Stories of shark attacks told by ancient mariners were often dismissed as salty tales akin to stories of sea serpents. “Bathers Need Have No Fear of Sharks,” declared a headline in the Philadelphia Public Ledger in which experts dismissed the attack on Vansant as a freak incident in which the shark was actually trying to attack the dog swimming near the victim.
Five days later, however, terror once again struck from the sea 45 miles north of Beach Haven as Charles Bruder swam out beyond the breakers of Spring Lake, New Jersey. The 27-year-old Swiss bellboy captain at the Essex & Sussex Hotel was taking his regular lunchtime swim when a “man-eater” struck 130 yards from shore and bit off his left leg above the knee and the right leg just below the knee. Lifeguards pulled the maimed Bruder to shore as women fainted at the sight. There was nothing that could be done to save him.
While an assistant curator at New York’s American Museum of Natural History who examined Bruder’s body declared the mutilation the work of a killer whale, others clung to the belief that a giant tuna or great sea turtle must have been the culprit. Some conspiracy theorists believed the attack was the work of a shark—that is a shark trained by the Germans to follow their U-Boats and strike American bathers.
Protective nets were now installed at beaches along the Jersey Shore as boats patrolled the ocean waters, but they proved useless in preventing the next attack, which occurred 25 miles north of Spring Lake on July 12. As the sun beat down on a 96-degree day, Lester Stillwell frolicked with other boys in a popular swimming hole along Matawan Creek. A sympathetic foreman at the basket-weaving factory where the frail 11-year-old worked had taken pity on his overheated employees and given them the afternoon off to cool down. Lester found relief in the brackish water of the placid creek more than a mile inland from where it emptied into Raritan Bay. As the boy floated on his back, a shadow suddenly emerged from the depths. A shark grabbed him by the stomach and pulled him under the water. He briefly surfaced long enough to utter an horrific scream before the shark once again took him under.
The rest of the terrified boys ran down Matawan’s Main Street yelling for help. A local tailor, 24-year-old Stanley Fisher, joined the townspeople rushing to the scene and from a rowboat probed the murky waters with a pole. Finding no signs of life, it eventually became clear that the mission had switched from rescue to recovery. When Fisher spotted Lester’s body as the boy’s parents watched from the banks, he dove into the creek, even knowing that a killer shark lurked nearby. As Fisher retrieved the lifeless body, the shark reappeared and tore into his right leg. Dragged to shore by his neighbors who desperately attempted to bandage the wound, Fisher passed away hours later.
Thirty minutes after the attack on Fisher, a shark bit the leg of 12-year-old Joseph Dunn near the mouth of Matawan Creek, but the boy managed to survive. The killer fish became public enemy number one with bounty notices promising a $100 reward “to the person or persons killing the shark believed to be in Matawan Creek.” Revenge-minded mobs wielding spears and pitchforks descended upon the banks of the creek as flotillas of shark hunters took to the water. Posses fired shotguns and tossed sticks of dynamite at any movement they saw in the creek’s muddy waters.
Telegrams and letters poured into the White House from panicked Americans urging the federal government to do something to stop the rogue man-eater. Two days after the attack in Matawan Creek, President Woodrow Wilson convened a cabinet meeting to discuss “the shark horror gripping the New Jersey Coast.” He tasked the treasury secretary to lead a “war on sharks” that included efforts by U.S. Coast Guard cutters and the Bureau of Fisheries to “rout the sea terrors.”
That same morning in a small motorboat off the coast of South Amboy, New Jersey, shark hunter Michael Schleisser spotted a black tail fin in the dragnet he had cast in Raritan Bay and struck the shark repeatedly on the head with a broken oar handle until it no longer moved. Back on land, Schleisser gutted the shark and human bones were reportedly found inside but never conclusively identified. Whether that particular shark was indeed the man-eater was not proven, but no further attacks occurred in New Jersey the rest of the summer.
The relationship between Americans and sharks, however, would never be the same again. No longer seen as benign, sharks were man-eating predators to be feared. Even the most skeptical scientists, as the New York Times reported, “no longer doubted that big fish attack men.” Although author Peter Benchley told the New York Times that the 1916 attacks in New Jersey did not serve as the inspiration for his novel “Jaws,” which was adapted into the 1975 blockbuster film, the parallels of a man-eating shark terrorizing a summer tourist resort are unmistakable.
When Weird Darkness returns… in June of 1975 we were exposed to one of the scariest movies ever made. It still comes in a close second to ‘The Exorcist’, and for this podcaster, it’s just not Independence Day until I watch it – and you still can’t get me to swim in the ocean. We’ll look at what made ‘Jaws’ a success – and what made it so frightening, even to phobia experts.
STORY: THE HORROR OF JAWS=====
When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws premiered, it was a booming success: In the first weekend, it grossed $7 million—adjusted for inflation, that’s a whopping $33 million in 2019 dollars. The film would go on to inspire a wealth of pop culture moments: a Saturday Night Live skit dubbed “Landshark,” references on The Simpsons and Family Guy, a Universal Studios theme park ride, three sequels, and even a board game.
Jaws is about a 25-foot shark that terrorizes the beachgoers of Amity Island, aka Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts (though you should know this already; if you haven’t seen it, please show yourself out). It’s a frightening film, ranked sixth in IMDb’s definitely very official list of the 10 best horror movies of all time, coming in just after The Exorcist.
It arguably led to more than mass fear. In the years after Jaws was released, thousands of people took to the ocean to kill sharks for sport, researchers say. “Shortly after the movie appeared, shark fishing as sport became popular, and in the next decade hundreds of shark fishing clubs and tournaments appeared along the U.S. east coast,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologist José Castro wrote in 2013. As a result, the number of large sharks fell by an estimated 50 percent along the eastern seaboard of North America in the years following the film’s debut, George Burgess, then the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, told BBC in 2015.
Peter Benchley, who wrote the 1974 best-selling novel that inspired the film, was shocked by the public’s violent response to the movie and devoted the later years of his life to advocating for shark research and conservation. “When I sat down more than 30 years ago to write Jaws,” Benchley wrote in the introduction of the book “Saving White Sharks” in October 2004, less than two years before his death, “I had a lot of freedom as a storyteller. At the time, virtually nothing was known about the lives of white sharks—or most other sharks for that matter. In the absence of scientific knowledge, I was free to tell a tale in which white sharks attack boats (which we now know they don’t do) and attack and eat people (which we’ve since learned they don’t really like to do).”
Still, by any standard, Jaws is an American classic. What’s less clear was the formula to its success—not to mention what exactly made it so terrifying.
Carl Gottlieb, who co-wrote the screenplay of Jaws with Benchley—has been asked about the film so much, he now refers to it just as “the fish movie.” He spoke about the film’s legacy, how Shark Week is like a religion, and why he’s happy that Spielberg didn’t take all his script notes:
“When Steven Spielberg asked me to write it and he gave me a copy of the script and said, ‘What do you think?’ I wrote him a memo, because in those days, that’s what you did, just typed it on paper, like old-school. This was 1974. And in it, I made two statements, one of which I could not have been more wrong. And the other one I could not have been more right. The wrong statement I made—I was criticizing the script. I didn’t realize what an amazing director Spielberg was. I said, ‘Look, you know, do we have to have the little teenage naked girl get eaten by a shark for having sex, or for even thinking of having sex?’ Because that’s such a cliché; even then it was a cliché. I was wrong. Chrissie’s death in the opening minutes of the movie is one of the most harrowing deaths in horror movies, and you never see the shark. That was my dopey comment. My prescient comment was, ‘If we do our jobs right, people will feel about going in the ocean the way they felt like taking a shower after Psycho.’ And sure enough, for the next 45 years, anytime I’m introduced to somebody as the co-writer, being involved with the fish movie, the first comment is, ‘After I saw that, I didn’t go in the water. I didn’t go swimming. I didn’t go in the lake. I didn’t go the stream. I didn’t take a bath.’ It resonated so strongly.”
One of the most notable and influential aspects of Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster thriller Jaws is the fact that the terrifying beast that is the focus of the movie is unseen for most of the film’s running time. However, this type of approach, which would inspire countless horror films in later years, was because the mechanical shark was a nightmare to operate. Without a working shark, Spielberg was forced to come up with an alternative method to enhance the terror and suspense of the film, and so a horror technique was perfected.
Spielberg hints at the size of the shark by showing only parts of the entire creature. A dorsal fin zipping through the water, or a shadow appearing just under the surface. When the great white does finally get revealed in the film’s action-packed climax, Spielberg still holds back from showing too much detail. The barrels that Quint attaches to the predator serve as a way for both him and the audience to track the shark’s movements, as well as a way for the director to minimize the budget and the usage of the faulty shark animatronic.
Jaws was already having a troubled production even before the technical disasters started happening. The script was still undergoing revisions at the time of shooting, while executives worried about the costly budget under the direction of, at the time, a little-known and unproven filmmaker. However, it was the salty waters off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard which served as the straw that broke the mechanical shark’s back.
Spielberg had, in fact, commissioned three different models of the great white, all affectionally nicknamed “Bruce” (after Spielberg’s lawyer), but none of them worked properly or looked totally and convincingly real. When the crew lifted Bruce down into the Nantucket Sound, he immediately sank to the bottom as his handlers realized with an impending sense of dread that they had only tested the shark animatronic in freshwater. It turns out that the saltwater corroded both the inside and outside of the creature and seeped into the pneumatic hoses, rendering Bruce nigh impossible to operate.
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws left an indelible mark on cinema upon release in 1975. It didn’t just instill a fear of going into the water, but it essentially birthed the summer blockbuster as we know it. The Fourth of July weekend-set movie that sees an unlikely trio team up to save the coastal town of Amity from a man-eating shark set a major precedent for killer shark horror movies, and became synonymous with summertime horror viewing. Even though Jaws became the de factor killer shark horror movie, inspiring a wave of copycats in its wake, there’s a lot more history behind shark horror than that.
Who could forget Quint’s riveting speech late in Jaws, where he reveals he survived the sinking of the USS Indianapolis? Quint might be a fictional character played memorably by Robert Shaw, but his story was steeped in historical fact. The naval ship really did sink on July 30, 1945, sending roughly 300 of the 1,165 crew down with the ship. Many of the remaining crew were cast adrift, left to contend with exposure, dehydration, and a serious number of shark attacks – the most attacks on humans in history.
[AUDIO CLIP FROM THE FILM]
It may seem tame as compared to today’s horror films. In fact, many of today’s movie-loving public may not even classify ‘Jaws’ as a true horror film (although if you are one of those people, I will meet you on the playground after school and we can, uh, discuss it). So just how powerful is the legacy of “Jaws,” the original summer blockbuster? It’s certainly responsible for generations of nervous beachgoers eyeing the black depths of the water with fear of what monsters lurk below. Heck, I wouldn’t even swim in freshwater lakes when growing up – and with my wild imagination, I got the heebie-jeebies diving into the deep end of a swimming pool. I couldn’t get that theme music out of my head.
The movie was so powerful that it even made phobia experts — the people whose job it is to talk people down from their irrational fears — afraid to take a dip in the ocean.
That’s the case for Ali Mattu and James Hambrick, both senior clinical psychologists at the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders. Their professional training tells them shark phobia is about as sensible as fearing a T. rex attack in Manhattan — and yet they’ve both grappled with their fear of fins since seeing “Jaws” as kids.
“ ‘Jaws’ was a source of my own shark phobia,” says Hambrick, 41, who was born in West Virginia and has been with the clinic for a decade. “I’m pretty sure I saw it at home on TV the first time. I remember watching most of it from behind a couch . . . I was pretty freaked out at the time.”
Mattu first saw the movie when he was about 7 years old, young enough to create a tide of fear of the beasts that washed into his life way past the beach. Not only did he avoid deep water near his home in Northern California, he stayed clear of the shallows — and even the water in his bathtub.
“I thought there was open water in the bathtub,” he says. To avoid a drain-based shark attack, he’d take showers by standing on the edge of the tub. “[My parents] hit me over the head and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘It’s in case Jaws comes!’ ”
Both psychologists are hardly alone in their lingering galeophobia (fear of sharks) and thalassophobia (fear of the open sea) that the Steven Spielberg film sewed into the lining of the world’s swimsuits in the summer of 1975. Especially when you consider the main antagonist of the film, the infamously malfunctioning rubber shark Spielberg built, is only on screen for a grand total of about four minutes.
In a time of CGI-created genetically modified megadinosaurs (like in “Jurassic World”) and intricately rendered fantasy worlds (basically every other movie), the simple tale of three men hunting a shark on a boat now seems like a no-budget student film.
So what is it about the film — made for an estimated $8 million — that still colors people’s nightmares, even during a time when sharks are propelled by preposterous tornadoes on cable TV?
Hambrick says your “Jaws”-related shark terror is simply evolution pulling strings on your brain — the same fight-or-flight response that could have saved your ancestors’ life out in the African savanna.
“When you go out into the water, there’s this idea you’re incredibly vulnerable,” he says. “Literally anything can kind of happen. We’re built to kind of fear that, we’re built to fear the unknown.”
Hambrick suggests thinking of early humans hearing a rustling in a bush or feeling something slimy slide by their legs in the water: Your brain tells you to run because your odds of survival are better if you assume that’s something coming to eat you instead of a friend coming to say “hi.”
“It really came down to our ability to think through faster and get away,” he says.
Unlike CGI monsters, which can look flat and cartoony, the mechanical shark in “Jaws” has to abide by real-world physics — making the attacks, like when shark-hunter Quint gets chomped off the boat, seem like real-world threats.
The taut tension of the film, aided by Spielberg’s economical use of the actual shark on screen combined with John Williams’ iconic, haunting score, plucks fear strings so effectively, it even transfers completely off-screen.
Claire Gresham found that out recently when her acting troupe, Ten Bones Theatre Company, did a live performance of “Jaws,” entirely from memory, at Videology, a bar and screening room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Even though it was meant to be a goofy comedy performance, the audience actually gasped when the shark (another actor) jumped out from under a table to attack Gresham, who was playing the swimmer who’s attacked in the opening scene.
“All of the attack moments sort of make up the structure of it when you’re remembering it,” says the 29-year-old Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, resident, adding that she was “traumatized” by the movie when she watched it again to prepare for the show. That trauma was a hangover from the first time she saw it as a little kid, triggering her own shark phobia.
“It’s hard to watch, because it’s really scary,” she says.
More than any piece of pop culture, “Jaws” ignited a specific and lasting fear (monkey houses at zoos didn’t exactly go out of business after “King Kong” came out).
The problem, however, is that the fear is entirely disproportionate to the reality: The chances of dying in a shark attack are just one in 3.7 million, according to National Geographic. The real dangers of the world are gas-powered: You have a 1 in 112 chance of dying in a car accident in your lifetime, reports the National Safety Council. The frenzy over shark fears got so bad that author Peter Benchley later said he regretted depicting sharks as killing machines.
The first movie Joe Romeiro ever saw was “Jaws,” and it sparked in him a terror that bled into eventual fascination and respect. He went from pretending he was shark-diving, by jumping off his couch into a pile of stuffed sharks, to doing the real thing: He’s been doing professional shark filmography for years. The New Hampshire man quickly learned that the “Jaws” shark was nothing like the real thing.
“There’s never been a shark that’s outright been aggressive to me, where I felt like it was aggressive to me to hurt me,” says Romeiro who was also featured in the 2012 Shark Week Show “How Jaws Changed the World.”
“In reality, we all know that we’re not on the menu. Their biggest dream is to just have a day not bothered by anything.”
Mattu eventually got over his fear in time for a trip to Hawaii, through the same thing he and fellow psychologists recommend for their phobia patients: gradual exposure therapy.
“You don’t want to be that anxiety disorder therapist who never overcame his fear of sharks,” he jokes.
That therapy means easing people into situations they’re afraid of — by visiting sharks in an aquarium or wading in shallow ocean waters. But the problem with shark fears — versus fear of other things like lightning or spiders — is that most people don’t encounter them on a regular basis. The fear of what lurks below may forever be tied to Spielberg’s film and that ominous fin poking out of the water.
“Everyone goes out to the beach in the summer,” Mattu says. “The film keeps hitting you with that uncertainty.”
There are scary movies and then there’s Jaws. It still holds up as one of the most terrifying films on the planet. Jaws is still scaring audiences more than any found-footage-human-centipede-slasher-monster movie of today. But why? What makes ‘Jaws’ so scary?
The fear of a shark attack is a real thing. Shark attacks are actually pretty rare, but still they do happen. ‘Jaws’ proves that the only thing more terrifying than a fictional monster, is a real one. And the kind of monster who hangs out at the beach on an awesome summer day? Bone-chilling.
Seeing it as a kid is way worse — and it stays with you. As a kid, not being able to understand that movies aren’t real is a big issue. For anyone who has the slightest aversion to the beach as a child, ‘Jaws’ is the last movie you should ever watch. For anyone who grows up to dislike the beach, ‘Jaws’ is still the last movie you should watch, because you will never go back to the beach. Ever.
That music. Thanks, John Williams. Thanks for creating a score that’s scary just listening to it. As a kid, you heard the “dun dunnn, dun dunnnnnnn” and knew that trouble was coming, even if you hadn’t seen the movie. There aren’t too many soundtracks that can instill fear in your heart that way. It’s a warning that something’s about to happen, and we can’t do anything about it. Except maybe panic-eat popcorn.
Then there are all the fake-outs. It’s a beautiful day at the beach, so what could go wrong? That’s the whole point — you know something is going to go wrong. As Brody (Roy Scheider) sits on the beach, staring out at the ocean, we’re all just waiting for something to happen. Then there are a dozen fake-outs, and just when you finally think the coast is clear. Nope. The shark’s just getting started.
Another reason it’s scary – there are no big special effects. When you think of a “summer blockbuster” you probably think of lots of explosions, robots, dinosaurs, and spaceships. ‘Jaws’ had none of those things. ‘Jaws’ had three guys out in a boat trying to kill a shark. They didn’t have laser guns. They had harpoons. That’s their weapon of choice. They probably should have lasers, but ‘Jaws’ isn’t that kind of movie. What the movie lacks in special effects it makes up for with sheer fright instead.
Two words: Shark. Cage. Hey, do you like enclosed spaces? How about enclosed spaces underwater? Cool, now add in a shark ready to destroy everything, and you’ve got an insane standoff that still takes place underwater.
And what made it the scariest… we don’t see the shark till the very end. The villain of the movie, the shark, makes his big breakout moment at the very end. There’s actually a reason for that as I mentioned earlier – the mechanical shark used in the movie kept breaking down. So even though Speilberg wanted us to see the shark early on, he couldn’t get it to work. So he had to re-write the movie so the shark was rarely seen and… you know what? That little setback added 10x the fear to the movie, since we don’t know kind of monster we’re dealing with. How big is this shark? How mean is it? Is it going to swallow that boat whole? All those questions linger until the very end, when we finally see the beast. As Speilberg said later upon realizing the accidental genius of it, it’s all about the “fear of the unknown.”
Coming up… while 1975’s ‘Jaws’ was inspired by a series of shark attacks but greatly fictionalized, the film ‘Open Water’ from 2003 is based on a very real and terrifying story. But the truth behind the movie is a dark mystery that goes way beyond the horror of what you see in the film.
We’ll also take a look at several other real shark attacks that are almost too incredible to believe. These stories and more when Weird Darkness returns.
STORY: THE TRUE DARKNESS OF OPEN WATER=====
Imagine surfacing from an ocean dive only to discover your boat is gone and you’re completely alone. This scary situation actually happened to Tom and Eileen Lonergan on January 25, 1998. Tom and Eileen Lonergan were experienced divers on a trip to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef when their dive boat crew left them behind. Two days passed before anyone realized they were missing, and rescue teams searched for the married couple unsuccessfully for days. The two were never seen again, their bodies assumed to be lost at sea.
Like other nightmarish experiences, Tom and Eileen Lonergan’s dreadful fate turned into a film, Open Water. The 2003 film was a critical darling and depicted the couple meeting their end being circled by sharks. The true story behind the Open Water movie, however, is much scarier simply because no one knows what really happened to Tom and Eileen Lonergan.
In order to communicate effectively underwater, many divers carry dive slates, small boards on which they can write messages or record information. Six months after Tom and Eileen Lonergan’s disappearance, a well-weathered slate was discovered by a fisherman miles away from their dive site. Along with the date of January 26, 1998, and a time of 8:00 am, the slate read, “PLEASE HELP US OR WE WILL DIE.”
This distress note appears to clearly indicate the Lonergans were not left behind by choice and were alive at least until the next day to write the distress message.
The diaries of Tom and Eilleen Lonergan were discovered after their disappearance and contained some eerie insights. According to entries, both Tom and Eileen were unhappy with their lives and each other. The couple both had careers as teachers, and each wrote how they hated their jobs. Eileen’s diary included entries about how she felt too intertwined with her husband and how he had developed a death wish. Tom’s diary backed this up as he wrote, “Like a student who has finished an exam I feel that my life is complete and I am ready to die.”
Although these disturbing writings from the Lonergans were mostly considered coincidental, some theories suggest the couple was carrying out a suicide pact or were the victims of a murder-suicide at the hands of Tom.
Open Water suggests the Lonergans met their ultimate fate thanks to sharks. Although half of the world’s sharks live in the waters around Australia, most of them are completely harmless to humans. There was also no real evidence of a shark attack – such as blood residue or teeth marks – on the couple’s wetsuit and dive jackets that washed ashore.
However, one veteran Australian diver believes they were eaten by tiger sharks. According to the testimony of Ben Cropp, the notoriously dangerous sharks probably watched the couple and approached slowly after a few hours, eventually taking a bite. He also believed the Lonergans had not lasted more than 48 hours because of this.
While police were investigating the case, another strange story emerged. Another boat captain who claimed to have visited the same dive spot the next day may have encountered the couple. According to his story, the head count before the vessel’s return trip came out two more than the one taken when the boat left port. The tourists on his expedition that day were all from Italy and spoke in their native tongue. However, the captain also claimed to hear a few American voices among the tourists that day.
If his story is true, it’s possible the Lonergans slipped in among the divers and simply disappeared once the boat reached the shore. This theory would mean the couple planned ahead of time to spend the night in the middle of the ocean, waiting for an entirely different boat to show up the next day. While it is an interesting theory, it’s not very plausible.
Several weeks after Tom and Eileen Lonergan were reported missing, pieces of their diving gear washed up on shore. Inflatable diving jackets and air tanks were found by group of people on a beach about 75 miles north of Port Douglas. The jackets had the couple’s names written on them. The air tanks had a little air left inside, meaning they were probably dropped when the Lonergans realized the ship wasn’t coming back for them. Even eight years after the incident, evidence was still being found, like a fin with “Lonergan” written inside.
It’s unclear why the Lonergans would have removed the jackets helping to keep them afloat. However, since there was no evidence of a shark attack, theorists believe the Lonergans became delirious from dehydration or removed them before an attempt to swim for shore. However, without the buoyancy of their jackets, the Lonergans would have likely worn themselves to the point of exhaustion from treading water.
In addition to pieces of the Lonergan’s diving equipment, a women’s wetsuit the same size Eileen would have worn was also found washed up on shore several months after the couple went missing. It was intact with no blood or holes that would be consistent with injuries from a shark attack.
The suit did have some tears in the armpit and buttocks areas but were thought to be the result of the suit getting snagged on coral as it drifted through the ocean. There were barnacles attached to the zipper, and authorities determined from their rate of growth the suit had probably been adrift in the ocean since the end of January, around the time of the couple’s disappearance.
In 1999, Outer Edge owner Jack Nairn was charged with manslaughter of the Lonergans and went to trial in criminal court. The defense used the diary entries to question the intentions of the couple and claimed they faked their deaths. The trial was also centered on Nairn, not the entire company, and many members of the jury may have felt it was not his fault alone.
Although they acquitted him, Nairn was also tried in Australian civil court where he pled guilty to negligence and was fined for breaking safety rules. Thanks to the fines, the court costs, and the amount of negative publicity he received, Nairn was forced to close down his business. The tragic story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan also inspired Queensland to enact stricter rules on how dive companies should operate and how head counts are taken.
Although there was never any concrete evidence, some people wondered if Tom and Eileen Lonergan faked their own deaths. After the Australian news broke the story, more than 20 people came forward claiming to have seen the Lonergans after they supposedly disappeared. They were allegedly seen all around Australia, including in a Darwin hotel and a Port Douglas bookshop two days after their dive, according to the owner.
Another disappearance theory supporting the “faked death” idea speculates an unidentified boat a mile away from the dive site picked up the Lonergans. Considering they both left their passports behind, never touched their bank accounts after the incident, and their insurance policies were never cashed in, if the Lonergans really did fake their death, they would have been forced to start completely from scratch. Also, they would have had to rely on the coincidental fact that the crew counted heads incorrectly.
When the Outer Edge boat returned to shore, a crew member found an unattended bag. They placed it in the lost and found, assuming a tourist had forgotten it.
Tom and Eileen Lonergan were staying at a local hostel and when they didn’t show up for the shuttle to take them back, the driver looked in the shops and restaurants and then called Outer Edge. Despite the fact both Tom and Eileen had left their shoes at the dive shop, it was assumed they somehow managed to return to the hostel on their own after not telling anyone.
Two days later, Outer Edge owner Jack Narin noticed the bag was still unclaimed in lost and found. He looked inside and discovered Tom’s wallet. Finally concerned, he called the hostel and discovered the couple never came back. He contacted police and a search was begun more than 48 hours after the Lonergans failed to get back on their boat. Apparently, none of the crew noticed they were missing two dive jackets and weights.
The day after Tom and Eileen Lonergan failed to get back on the boat, the Outer Edge returned to the same spot with a new group of divers. One of these divers discovered two weight belts – used as a countermeasure against all the other buoyant equipment divers carry – on the seabed of St. Crispin Reef where they were last seen. The diver reported this and the skipper Jack Nairn was informed, but since the Lonergans had not yet been reported missing, no one connected the two events.
The Outer Edge crew chalked the belts up to a lucky find and continued the day’s expedition. It’s extremely possible the weight belts were the ones the Lonergans were using and most likely dropped soon after discovering they were stranded.
Eileen Lonergan started scuba diving when the couple lived in Louisiana and convinced her husband to join her hobby. As they were returning from a Peace Corps mission in Fiji towards Hawaii, they decided they couldn’t pass up diving at the Great Barrier Reef. The Outer Edge boat carried their group of 24 out to sea about 40 miles offshore and visited three dive sites, the last being a place named “Fish City” due to its abundant sea life.
Since they were both experienced divers, the couple told one of the crew that they were going to go off on their own during the third dive. The crew member they told this to did not record this request in the dive log.
It’s standard practice for dive excursions to take head counts of everyone participating so all are accounted for before the boat heads back to shore. In the case of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, however, something obviously went wrong. Ship skipper and company owner Jack Nairn claims to have ordered one of the crew to conduct a head count before the ship left.
In the middle of the count, however, things became confused when two people jumped back into the water. Because the count was down two, these people were assumed to be the last divers and appeared everyone was back on board. Other stories claim some of the crew were inexperienced and somehow missed the Lonergans because of a failure to carry out their responsibilities.
Since the water was calm, clear, and warm that day, some people questioned why the Lonergans didn’t swim to one of the well-lit diving platforms a few miles away, a large lifebuoy nearby, or flag down a passing ship. Although these things would be easily visible from the deck of a boat, they may not have been as easily seen from the surface of the water. Tom had also left his glasses on the boat, making it even more difficult for him to see. The platform was most likely up current, which would make it difficult to swim towards.
In addition, it’s highly likely the Lonergans were panicking: They had been left alone, the boat didn’t return for them, and there was no active rescue underway. Compounded with the heat from the sun and lack of fresh drinking water, the Lonergans were most likely in an alarmed and disoriented state of mind.
STORY: REAL SHARK ATTACKS=====
Ever since Spielberg brought a giant rubber fish onto the big screen, sharks have become a regular fixture in our nightmares. While sharks have been around since the dawn of time, it was not until Hollywood made them it’s new monster of the week, that we started really fixating on the terrifying prospect of being eaten by one. In reality, as I’ve said before and will say again later, shark attacks are rare. To give you perspective – you’re 37 times more likely to die from a coconut than a shark attack every year. Seriously. That said however, the fact that there are these huge man-eating-capable fish in our oceans is obviously a constant subject of morbid fascination. What’s important is to separate the myth from the reality, here are a few of the scariest shark attacks that have happened in real life.
We’ll start with the one mentioned earlier – from the ‘Jaws’ audio clip of Quint telling the tale of the USS Indianapolis. The story, as told in the film, is from a true event. The U.S. Navy cruiser USS Indianapolis was sunk in a matter of minutes by Japanese torpedoes near Guam on July 30, 1945. Roughly 900 sailors of the 1,196 aboard made it into the water with only their life vests. The sharks came around when the sun rose the following morning. The crew was helpless against the hungry man-eaters. Four days later, the remaining survivors were discovered by an overhead bomber plane. A seaplane was sent to the site and landed to begin the rescue effort after seeing the Indianapolis survivors being attacked by sharks. Out of the 900 that made it into the water, only 317 survived, marking the worst maritime disaster in U.S. Navy history. It’s not known how many sailors died from shark attacks, exposure or thirst.
Barry Wilson is remembered in shark attack history, as he was the very first in Californian history to be killed by a shark. A 17 year old tuba player, he was in around 30 feet of water when a friend saw him start moving strangely from around 10 meters away. The shark apparently threw him out of the water, catching his legs so his entire body was above the water, up to his knees. The shark then dragged Wilson underwater. His friends came over and managed to drag him away and try to get him back to shore, but his extensive injuries meant that he didn’t survive the journey back to the beach.
Omar Conger was a free-diving abalone hunter. He was one of four victims during a mini-feeding frenzy in 1984 near Santa Cruz, Calif. Conger and his diving partner, Chris Rehm, were a long way from shore, nearly 500 feet (150 meters), and about 15 feet (4.4 meters) apart when he took a moment to tread water and rest. Out of nowhere, a huge great white shark grabbed Conger, shook him and pulled him under. A few seconds later, the shark surfaced with Conger still in its mouth and headed straight for Rehm. The big fish released Conger when he was close to Rehm and disappeared. Rehm pulled his friend onto a flotation mat and brought him back to shore, only to find that Conger was already dead from massive blood loss. The wounds to Conger’s legs, hands and buttocks indicate that the great white was roughly 16 feet (5 meters) long. Over the next two weeks there were three more shark attacks. Fortunately, those victims all survived.
Dave Quinlivan was at the beginning of an hour-and-a-half long ski paddle, when he noticed the dolphins around him getting spooked. Thinking nothing of it he continued on with the paddle. An hour away from Black Head Beach, Quinlivan suddenly realised his mistake. A great white shark leapt out of the water and attached itself onto his ankle, pulling him towards it. “Got it clean” says Quinlivan. “I reckon I was on the ski with him for about 10 seconds at least, because he took another adjustment and got [the leg] right into the corner of its mouth and then he gave me two almighty shakes.” Quinlivan managed to get back on the ski, but knowing that was the wrong decision to make in a shark attack, managed make the life saving decision to then get back into the water and swim away with a sense of control. His actions worked and the shark stopped its attack, swimming away. Quinvilan then managed to get to the shore with his serious injuries and to a lifeguard.
In 2004, Randall Fry and Cliff Zimmerman were free-diving for abalone in Westport, Calif., when tragedy struck. They were in about 15 feet (4.5 meters) of water and only a couple of feet apart when Fry dove and never came back up. Zimmerman reported that he turned from Fry for just a moment when he heard a “whooshing sound” and felt the water move “as if a boat went by”. Zimmerman turned to see the side of a large fish swimming by. The shark fin and part of its body surfaced momentarily at a high rate of speed before disappearing into the water again. At that point, Zimmerman said that “everything turned red.” Zimmerman swam for his life and managed to safely reach his boat about 150 feet (45 meters) away. Fry’s body was found by a search-and-rescue team the following day — bite marks stretched from shoulder to shoulder, indicating that the shark was a great white. Fry’s head had been separated from his body.
When Rodney Fox gave his firsthand account of an attack, he said, “I’m looking through the pink of the water, through my own blood, and taking huge, huge, breaths of air, and through it, I see the head. Getting bigger.” Fox is a spear fisherman who was bitten on the torso by a shark. As he was dragged 30 feet underwater, Fox gouged the shark’s eyes, kicked its face and bear hugged it. When he needed to breathe he let go and made his way to the surface, that’s when he turned and saw the shark’s head following him. Miraculously, instead of taking another bite of Fox, the shark bit into the float. As he was dragged through the water, Fox finally came apart from the float and was quickly rescued by a nearby boat. Instead of staying on dry ground after his experience, Fox now works with Planet Shark, diving, educating and entertaining.
The most remarkable part of Henri Bource’s shark attack was that part of it was actually captured on film. In 1964, Bource and two other divers were playing with some seals in the ocean off Lady Julia Percy Island in Australia when a great white came up from under Bource and took off his leg. His diving partners heard Bource scream and then saw his leg floating in the water. They managed to get Bource back onto the boat and he was able to tell them his blood type, which was radioed ahead to shore. Bource later recounted that he tried to get his leg free by jamming his hand down the shark’s throat and gouging its eyes. Bource is an amateur underwater photographer and filmmaker, and a few years later, he took the original film footage from the attack and reconstructed the other parts for a documentary called “Savage Shadows.”
Bethany Hamilton. She is one of the most famous surfers on the planet and the subject of a Hollywood film. Her shark attack must be one of the most famous in all of history. The surfer was riding waves at the age of 13 when a shark came up beside her and bit into her board, taking her whole left arm clean off with it. The bite was so quick and clean that Hamilton reportedly didn’t even realise what had happened until she heard her friends screaming and saw the red in the water around her. Quickly rushed to shore, Hamilton was taken to hospital where her injuries were quickly seen to – the shark had taken her entire left arm up to the shoulder. While you might think that this kind of event could scar a young girl forever, Hamilton has gone on not only to continue surfing but also to become one of the most successful female surfers of all time.
Robert Pamperin is one of the most interesting shark attack stories, as he might be the only documented person in history, to be totally devoured by a great white shark. Pampering was diving for abalone off the coast of San Diego, California in 1959, swimming about 50 feet away from his diving partner when his partner heard his screams. Turning towards Pamperin, the diving partner saw him being held completely out of the water by a gigantic shark he estimated to be more than 22 feet long. The shark then dragged Pampering under the water and into the depths. Search parties called straight away could only recover Pamperin’s innertube and one swimming fin.
1749 in Havana Harbour in Cuba, 14 year old Brook Watson was attacked twice by a shark before being rescued. The first time, the shark removed flesh from below the calf of the boy’s right leg; the second time, it bit off his right foot at the ankle. Watson was rescued by his shipmates, but his leg had to be amputated below the knee. Watson recuperated in a Cuban hospital and recovered within three months.
One morning when Krishna Thompson and his wife were spending their ten year anniversary in the Bahamas, Thompson decided to go for an early morning swim before his wife awoke. Swimming not too far away from the shore, he suddenly felt something grab him by the leg, and turning he was faced by a great white shark. Turning to face it, he repeatedly punched the shark in the face until it finally let go and allowed him to swim back to shore with his mangled leg. Crawling onto the beach, Thompson managed to get the attention of some people passing by and draw the number of his hotel room in the sand, before passing out. He was flown to a nearby hospital and while he lost his leg, he pulled through and kept his life. Amazingly, Thompson now works as an ocean conservationist, specializing in educating others about sharks.
When Weird Darkness returns… despite the impression you might have after listening to this episode so far, shark attack don’t happen all that often. But why is that? Humans are like already unwrapped packets of meat when paddling in the ocean and should be easy prey compared to fast-moving fish and seals. So, why don’t sharks attack us more often than they already do? We’ll look at why sharks do and do not attack people.
STORY: WHY SHARKS ATTACK HUMANS=====
The crystal-clear water beneath 13-year-old Hannah Mighall darkened for a moment. She was sitting astride her surfboard, enjoying the warmth of the sun as she and her cousin waited for the next wave in Tasmania’s idyllic Bay of Fires. Behind them the brilliant-white sandy beach was largely deserted and the surfing had been good so far.
The sudden shadow below made Mighall instinctively lift her feet – balls of kelp often broke off nearby rocks and drifted in the surf. “They are really slimy so I hated touching them,” she says.
But then something took hold of her leg.
“It didn’t hurt at first, it was like something gently grabbed hold of me and then I was in the water,” says Mighall.
To those who witnessed what happened, however, it was anything but gentle. The water around Mighall exploded as a five-metre-long great white shark latched onto her right leg, lifted her off the surfboard and shook her in the air before disappearing underwater.
“It took a few seconds for me to realise it was a shark,” she says. “When I popped back up from the water I was lying on my back but my leg was in its mouth. All I could see was my black wetsuit leg, its teeth, pink gums, teeth and the dark bit under its nose where it meets white. I thought I was having a nightmare and kept trying to blink my eyes open.”
Mighall’s cousin, 33-year-old Syb Mundy, who had been sitting on his own board just a few metres from her, raced over and began punching the shark in the side of its head. The shark pulled away from him and as it went underwater it let go of Mighall, lunging instead for her surfboard that was still attached by a rope to her leg.
With the board in its mouth, the shark pulled Mighall underwater for a second time. Moments later she popped back up to the surface with her damaged board. The animal had bitten clean through the fibreglass and foam.
Mundy grabbed hold of his cousin, put her on his back and paddled frantically for the shore. Earlier that day Mighall had been practicing water rescues with another girl during training with her local Surf Life Saving association, repeatedly being carried into shore as the “victim”. Now she was doing it for real.
“The shark was circling us underwater,” says Mighall. “Then this wave came in and Syb just said, ‘We have got to catch this as it is going to save our lives.’ I was just tapping the water as I was terrified but he was really paddling and the wave carried us to shore. The shark came with us all the way up to the beach as there is a deep gutter running up to it. We could see its fin as it surfed in on the same wave.”
Luckily for Mighall, among the few people on the beach who witnessed what had happened that day were a doctor and a nurse. They gave her vital first aid while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
More than 10 years later, she still carries deep scars on her leg that trace the outline of the shark’s mouth. Her right leg is noticeably weaker than her left – so much so that she has to lift it with her hands when she wants to kick-start the dirt bike she rides occasionally.
Mighall was one of roughly 83 people around the world to be attacked unprovoked by sharks in 2009. It is a figure that has remained around the same level over the past decade. The average number of unprovoked attacks between 2013-2017, for example, was 84.
But recent research indicates that shark attacks in some parts of the world appear to be on the rise. The eastern US and southern Australia have seen shark attack rates almost double in the past 20 years, while Hawaii has also seen a sharp increase. But why?
“Shark bites are strongly correlated to the number of people and number of sharks in the water at the same time,” says Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, which maintains the International Shark Attack File. “The more sharks and people there are in one place, the greater the chance of them bumping into each other.”
This seems like an obvious point, but when you look closer at where attacks are taking place there are some clues as to what might be going on. The large human populations along the southern coast of Australia and the eastern coast of the US mean large numbers of people enjoying the water. But southern Australia has also seen rising numbers of fur seals along its coastline, the favourite prey of great white sharks in the region.
Similarly, seal populations off Cape Cod on the coast of Massachusetts in the US have rebounded in recent years, largely thanks to protection by the US’s Marine Mammal Act introduced in 1972. This has led to increased numbers of great whites in the area too during the warm summer months as they look to feast on the seals that pull themselves out to bask on the beaches.
Sadly, in 2018, Massachusetts suffered its first fatal shark attack in 82 years and growing numbers of shark sightings led to a string of beach closures.
But there is no real evidence that sharks are actively hunting humans, according to the scientists who study them. Great whites in the North Atlantic, for example, show seasonal movement patterns, migrating thousands of miles to warmer waters further south during the winter months. Some mature adults will venture out into the open ocean for months at a time, covering tens of thousands of miles and diving to depths of 1,000m as they seek prey.
“We are like helpless little sausages floating around in the water,” says Naylor. But despite being potentially such an easy meal, sharks are really not that interested in hunting humans. “They generally just ignore people. I think if people knew how frequently they were in water with sharks, they would probably be surprised.”
However, Naylor believes that the official statistics on shark attacks are probably an underestimate. Most reports come from highly developed countries with large populations and highly active news media. Attacks on remote islands or in less developed communities probably go unreported.
Looking at the statistics for the number of shark attacks in 2018 can reveal some fascinating trends. In 2018 there were just 66 confirmed, unprovoked attacks, roughly a 20% fall compared to previous years. Just four of these were fatal according to the International Shark Attack File, although another database of shark attacks records seven deaths. In 2019, there was four fatal shark attacks, although USA Today reports just two.
The reason for the fall – which bucks the overall trend of growing numbers of attacks – has been attributed to a sharp decline in the number of black-tipped sharks. These sharks account for many of the bites around the south-eastern US, migrating down the coast of Florida due to rising sea temperatures that have led their prey to become more dispersed.
The findings highlight one of the key challenges in understanding why sharks bite humans. There are dozens of different species responsible for bites, each with their own unique behaviour, hunting strategies, prey and preferred habitat – although in many cases the species can be misidentified or not identified at all.
The majority of unprovoked attacks on humans where a species is identified involve three large culprits: the great white, tiger and bull sharks. Yet great whites – the species depicted in the film Jaws and demonised by Hollywood ever since – isn’t just a separate species, but an entirely different taxonomic order from the other two.
“There are 530 different species of shark and there is so much diversity among them. You can’t just group them together,” says Blake Chapman, a marine biologist who has studied shark sensory systems and recently wrote a book on shark attacks on humans. “Different species have such a range in terms of their sensory biology, how they behave, their motivations and the habitats they live in.”
Bull sharks, for example, tend to hunt in shallow, murky water that will require them to rely less on vision and more upon their sense of smell and electroreception, which allows them to detect minute electrical fields produced by their prey.
“(Great) white sharks, which often hunt in very clear water use their vision a lot more and their eyesight is much better,” says Chapman. There is also some evidence that shark teeth may also function as mechanosensory structures – similar to touch – to help the animals learn more about what they are biting.
Chapman believes there may be a complex set of reasons for why unprovoked attacks on humans appear to have risen in recent decades.
Aside from rising human populations along coastlines, the destruction of habitat, changing water quality, climate change and shifts in prey distribution are leading sharks to gather in greater numbers at certain hotspots around the world.
In 1992, for example, there was a sudden spate of shark bites off the coast of Recife, Brazil – an area that had no unprovoked attacks for the entire previous decade. Chapman believes that heavy commercial port construction in the area damaged large areas of reef and mangrove, potentially displacing species like bull sharks, which moved to new areas like Recife in search of prey.
Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean – renowned for its beautiful, unspoiled marine habitats – has seen a dramatic rise in tourism but in recent years it has also suffered a growing number of shark attacks by the bull and tiger sharks that live in the surrounding waters. Since 2011, there have been 11 fatal attacks on Reunion, mainly on surfers. Those who survive often lose limbs. Researchers have found that around two-thirds of the Reunion attacks have occurred in turbid water and swells of more than two metres – the favoured environment for bull sharks, which are thought to be responsible for most of the attacks.
Naylor believes that in most cases, sharks bites are a case of mistaken identity.
“If these animals are chasing bait fish, the flash of the white sole of a foot from someone kicking on a board might cause them to dart at it,” he says. “When you have a large animal like a tiger or a white shark, which move quickly, a bite is far more likely to be fatal.”
Great whites typically attack from below, delivering a massive catastrophic bite. In some cases they will withdraw while their prey bleeds to death before returning to eat.
“A great white in full predatory mode is quite a sight,” says Greg Skomal, a marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries who has been tagging and tracking great white sharks since 2009. He should know – in 2018 as he was leaning over the pulpit on the bow of a research vessel while trying to tag a shark, a large great white breached directly underneath him with its jaws agape.
“It gave me some idea of what a seal feels like,” he says. “I’ve seen that behaviour a couple of times over the years we have been doing this. Most of the time we put a camera in the water and the sharks are completely complacent. We must have done it thousands of times. But on a handful of occasions they attack straight away, breaking the pole and the camera. It is like they are in a heightened predatory state where their senses lock onto any kind of stimuli.
“I wonder if those strikes on people that are not merely investigative are the result of a person being in the wrong place at the wrong time with a shark in this kind of heightened state.”
But for every attack on a person, there are just as many stories of people who have managed to get up close to these giant predators without any harm. Take Ocean Ramsey for example, who swam alongside an enormous 20-feet-long great whiteoff the coast of Hawaii and made headlines around the world.
Skomal and his colleagues are now using new high-resolution tags that can give the researchers minute by minute and second by second data on what the sharks are doing.
He hopes it might help to answer questions about the behaviour of these animals as well as about where and how they breed. It could, ultimately, also help to tell us something about the reasons underlying attacks on humans, he says.
Some researchers are turning to forensic methods to try and unravel some of the reasons behind attacks. They are developing techniques to use DNA and bite-mark patterns to identify species, while others are examining video footage of attacks and comparing these to injuries to get a better understanding of what happened.
Data from shark spotters in South Africa have shown that great whites are more active near the surface, and so more likely to be seen, when water temperatures are above 14C, during a new moon and in the afternoon. Other research, however, has suggested that great whites are more successful hunters at night when there is a full moon.
Other researchers have suggested juvenile great whites may attack humans as they hone their predatory skills, in much the same way that young lions will experiment with whatever prey they can take on.
But regardless of the reasons for attacks on humans, the risks involved are still vanishingly small. In Australia the rate of shark attacks is in the order of 0.5 attacks per million people, while in the US it is less than 0.2 attacks per million. It is worth noting that in 2018, the US figures dropped to around 0.08 attacks per million while in Australia they rose to 0.8 attacks per million people.
These figures are blunt instruments, of course. They fail to account for the comparatively fewer numbers of people who actually use the water, and the fewer still who swim in water inhabited by dangerous sharks. But these statistics, however ridiculous or comforting they might seem, do little to dampen our fear of sharks.
“Fear has played a very important role in our survival,” adds Chapman. “Humans don’t need to be eaten themselves by a sabre tooth tiger to learn to fear them. We learn that fear very quickly from a single story. People who have never seen a shark before fear them because we hear or watch stories about them.”
The focus on the risks that sharks pose to us also diverts attention from the far greater threat we pose to their survival due to over fishing. Some estimates suggest shark numbers in Australian waters, for example, have declined by between 75-92%.
But for those who are afraid and want to know how to protect themselves from a shark, some advise punching a biting shark in the gills or poking it in the eyes. Swimming in groups and staying close to the shore are known to reduce the risk of attacks. Wearing dark clothing and avoiding wearing jewellery can also help to reduce the chance of attracting a shark’s attention in the first place.
In some areas, the local authorities themselves have taken action. Traditionally, some authorities have used shark nets to protect areas used by swimmers, but these are controversial due to the harm they do to other wildlife.
Instead, smart drum lines – which use baited hooks attached to a system that sends out an alert when triggered – are now being trialled at several beach locations along the coast of western Australia. When a shark takes the bait, an alert is sent to response teams who catch, tag and then release the shark in a safer location.
Another approach being tested in Cape Town, South Africa, is an electromagnetic cable that aims to discourage sharks from approaching areas used by swimmers. Scientists have also been testing an electromagnetic barrier as an alternative to shark nets.
These could be important steps as the harm caused by shark attacks can extend far beyond their immediate victims.
“Shark attacks cause a lot of personal loss, but the impact they can have on the wider community is often not considered,” says Dave Pearson, one of the founders of Bite Club, which offers support to the survivors of shark attacks. He himself was attacked by a bull shark while surfing some years ago in south-west Australia, nearly losing his arm when the animal smashed into him, bit into his forearm to the bone and carried him underwater.
“After my attack, lots of my friends didn’t go back into the water for a long time,” he says. “The fear spreads really quickly.”
On a recent visit to Ballina, a surfing hotspot in New South Wales, Australia, he saw just what a shark attack can do to a town. The area has suffered a spate of attacks, including two fatal ones on surfers in 2015.
“I was standing there watching these perfect waves coming in but there was not one person in the water,” he says. “One of the local coffee shops said they had suffered an 85% drop in business and the surf shop couldn’t give boards away. They were both thinking about closing.”
A similar story is unfolding in Reunion where the local authorities have banned surfing and swimming in the water at certain times of the year due to fears about further shark attacks. The number of bites on humans have reduced as a result, but it has also taken its toll on the tourism industry.
Despite the fear and economic costs of shark attacks, like many of those who survive encounters with sharks, Hannah Mighall doesn’t want to see these animals being punished with culls or by killing those animals that stray into areas being used by humans.
The personal effect of her attack, however, has been long lasting. While she got back onto a surfboard within six months of her attack and went “shark mad”, plastering her bedroom walls with pictures of the animals, she says her passion for surfing gradually ebbed away.
“I’d be fine and then I’d get this weird feeling and start looking around,” she explains. “I never had that before – I was a water baby and loved the water. Now I am scared of it. I used to think sharks were cool, but now I am terrified of them, although I still [have] respect for them.”
Her shark posters have gone, as has her enjoyment of the sea. Instead she tends to prefer swimming or kayaking on rivers. But she still has the occasional nightmare about sharks.
Pearson says this is a common problem in shark attack victims.
“Many of them never fully recover and the psychological scars can be even greater than the physical ones,” he says. “I started getting dreams and would wake up screaming at night. I ended up seeing a psychiatrist to help me get over this.”
Mighall still has the surfboard she was riding on the day of her attack, a huge toothy bite missing from one side. Like the scars on her leg, it is a reminder of what can happen on the rare occasions that sharks do choose to attack the humans who stray into their domain.
They both entitle her to fear these animals. For those who fear them without having had such a close encounter she has a sound piece of advice.
“If you are frightened, you can always stay out of the water.”
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Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other’.” – Zechariah 7:9-10
And a final thought… “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” – Henry Ford
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.