As the great whites return to Cape Cod just in time for tourist season, there are inevitable comparisons to the most famous of all shark stories: Jaws. Not only does Jaws take place in a Massachusetts setting (Martha’s Vineyard stood in for the fictional Amity in the movie), it portrays an ocean lover’s worst nightmare: unprovoked white shark attacks on swimmers, rafts, boats, and even the occupants onboard boats!
But for many years, Jaws has been a greater nightmare for white sharks. Due to the widespread popularity of the movie, the public came to know white sharks as mindless maneaters, which has made generating support for conservation difficult: who would want to protect a mankiller? Trophy hunting white sharks also became a fad after the movie, which further hurt white shark populations vulnerable to overfishing.
Luckily, we understand a great deal more about white sharks than we did in the mid-1970s, and we know that their importance to their ecosystem is far greater than the “swimming noses” image of the movie. And despite its wild inaccuracies, “Jaws” has helped thousands of viewers become fascinated with white sharks, and led to much of the research that we can now use to disprove it.
Let’s break out the facts about white sharks in Jaws from the myths:
Things Jaws Got Right:
- White sharks visit the coastline of Massachusetts in the summer.
However, the sharks come to feed on the rebounding seal population, not on sunscreened tourists.
- The overwhelming majority of white shark attacks take place in the top 5 feet of water or less.
This does not mean that it isn’t safe to go swimming in the ocean. It does mean that swimmers should stay clear of areas where white sharks have been spotted.
- White sharks breach the surface of the water to interact with other animals.
The famous “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene is 100 percent plausible: white sharks are the only species of shark known to regularly look above the surface of the water (known as “spy-hopping”.)
- 25-foot long white sharks could exist (but there are no verified measurements of one that long).
The longest white shark verifiably measured was a 20-foot long female, caught in 1988 off Prince Edward Island. The longest unverifable white shark on record was a 37-foot shark caught off New Brunswick, Canada in the 1930s.
- White sharks are ambush predators – they attack without being seen.
However, the details of Chrissie’s attack in Jaws seem unlikely. When hunting, white sharks tend to make a traumatic blow to an animal, and then follow up with feeding once the animal has weakened. Chasing prey at a slow speed until eventually consuming her (after a rendezvous with a buoy) is a bit of a stretch, but it makes for good moviegoing.
Things Jaws Got Wrong:
- “Rogue shark” theory is considered to be a myth.
The concept that multiple attacks in a single time frame and area are caused by a single shark is now considered a poor explanation for shark attacks, given how rare and widely dispersed attacks are. If the Jersey Shore attacks of 1916 (which inspired Jaws) were caused by a single individual, that would be an exception, and not a typical pattern. Sorry, Hooper.
- White sharks do not chew their prey.
This is one of two ways that Capt. Quint’s dramatic demise was incorrect. White sharks rip off chunks of their prey with their teeth, and swallow the chunks whole.
- White sharks do not have black eyes.
Though it made for a classic monologue, white sharks do not have the lifeless black eyes of a doll. Their irises are blue, though this can be difficult to see at a bad angle.
- White sharks did not attack the living survivors of the USS Indianapolis.
Sailors who died after the ship was sunk were most likely scavenged by oceanic white tip sharks, not great whites.
- White sharks do not attack boats as prey.
White sharks have been known to interact with boats aggressively, but their behavior (such as bumping the boat) is more consistent with scavenging than attacking – they’re checking to see if the boat is a whale carcass. Also, white sharks are not known to target the occupants of boats, so Alex Kintner, Ben Gardner, Quint, and the anonymous rowboater should have nothing to worry about.
- White sharks are not unintelligent.
While “eat, swim, and make baby sharks” are high on their agenda, white sharks are also curious, investigative animals with a social structure we’re only beginning to understand.
And the biggest inaccuracy of all…
- White sharks do not tend to consume humans.
In the vast majority of white shark attacks, the shark releases the human when it realizes that it is not a fatty marine mammal. Given the size difference between white sharks and humans, these mistakes can still be fatal. Only a few percent of all attacks have involved a white shark actually eating a person, because humans are a terrible menu item for white sharks – our bony bodies aren’t good for their slow digestive systems.
So if you plan to go swimming on the Cape this summer, just use a little common sense and stay clear of areas where white sharks have been spotted. The white sharks will (more likely than not) mind their own business, and you won’t even need a bigger boat.