You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Tote…

This week marks the official start of summer, and though I love to read all year round, in my opinion there’s no better time to settle in with a good book than a gorgeous day at the beach. And nothing goes better with a dip in the waves and a stroll on the shore than some really awesome shark books. Well, nothing besides popsicles.

To that end, here are some of my favorite tomes dedicated to our most beloved apex predator, best enjoyed with a decent SPF and a cold beverage.

Oh, and one more quick thing: should you wish to purchase any of these great books, this former publishing professional entreats you to please step away from the amazon and visit your local independent bookseller. Wander a little, shop local, and support the noble book purveying profession. Here’s a wonderful resource to find an indie near you: http://www.indiebound.org/indie-store-finder

 

Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks by Richard G. Fernicola, M.D.

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This excellent book is a detailed unraveling of the mysterious shark attacks that took place over a period of twelve days in New Jersey in the summer of 1916, in which four people were killed and a fifth terribly injured. This strange series of shark attacks, long assumed to be the work of a lone great white, served as major inspiration for Peter Benchley when crafting his novel, “Jaws”. Using scientific knowledge about shark behavior acquired in the years since the attacks as well as primary source material, the author attempts to answer pervading questions about what took place in 1916.  What species was involved? Was it the work of one shark? Why so many violent interactions with swimmers in such a short span of time in one location?

My Rating: 4 out of 5 fins. A fantastic history lesson mixed with a detective story, and absolutely never boring. A must if you’re visiting the beaches of the Jersey Shore this summer.

 

The Secret Life of Sharks: A Leading Marine Biologist Reveals the Mysteries of Shark Behavior by A. Peter Klimley, Ph.D.

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This books sets out to debunk many myths about shark behavior, and the author especially wants to disabuse readers of the notion that sharks are mindless eating machines, willing to take a bite out of anything they come across. Klimley gives the reader a front row seat alongside him as he details a career of observing many different species of sharks and cataloging their fascinating behaviors.

My rating: 3 out of 5 fins. Great photographs and helpful illustrations bring the sometimes dry and scientific narrative to life. For the serious and patient reader and shark enthusiast.

 

The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks by Susan Casey

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I love this book. I LOVE THIS BOOK. I love this book so much that last October I found myself trying not to lose my lunch like every other shark nut with me as our vessel rocked in stomach-churning swells for 10 hours, just yards from the forbidding and forbidden Farallon Islands where Casey’s story takes place. A lifelong swimmer and journalist, Casey was bedridden with an illness when a documentary on the white sharks of the Farallon Islands captivated her. Just like that, she was on a voyage that would take her to one of the least accessible and wildest places in America, entrenched with passionate and dedicated scientists who were privy to the behaviors of the biggest white sharks in the world. This book has it all; an outlier’s perspective (note the lack of letters after Casey’s name-she’s writing for the laymen because she’s one too), thrilling encounters, narrow escapes, and even political and environmental controversy.

My rating: 5 out of 5 fins. Go get this book. Just call me before you book a trip to the Farallons. We should talk first.

 

Jaws by Peter Benchley

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I know, okay? I know. Just hear me out.

Yes, this novel and subsequent blockbuster film were responsible for decades of anti-shark feeling in America and spawned a great many harmful myths about these largely misunderstood animals. But this is also a simply brilliant novel-thrilling, terrifying, nuanced, and I believe especially interesting to read today in light of the white sharks recent re-establishment in the waters of Cape Cod. Benchley’s book is both an age old Leviathian-eque man vs. monster story and a sophisticated account of a “modern” resort community’s battle to stay alive in the wake of a problem both primal and political.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 fins. Pulpy, scary, fun and different from the film. Not going say who’s involved but there’s a pretty juicy affair in these pages that never made it to the big screen…

 

Happy Sharky Summer Reading, friends!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wonder Years

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“I need the sea because it teaches me,
I don’t know if I learn music or awareness,
if it’s a single wave or its vast existence,
or only its harsh voice or its shining
suggestion of fishes and ships.
The fact is that until I fall asleep,
in some magnetic way I move in
the university of the waves.”
~Pablo Neruda, “The Sea”

I don’t remember a time when I did not have this curious love for sharks.

What I do remember is Saturday mornings tucked into my Dad’s side watching nature specials on the couch. I remember paging through his college science books, with illustrations of great white sharks (comically/tragically) labeled as “Maneater.” I remember visiting The Living Seas restaurant at Disney World when I was six, staring rapt at the glass and the creatures gliding by like aliens from another planet, feeling deliciously terrified and besotted all at once.

Right through adolescence, any poster of Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1997 had to compete for wall space with my “World’s Most Dangerous Sharks” chart. My friends thought it was super weird. I really didn’t care.

Now that I’m a mother, and raising a child who is fortunate enough to live a block from the ocean, I realize how important it is to me to pass along to my son this love of the sea, and respect for all of its inhabitants and the delicate but vital role each creature plays in the great drama of the ocean’s ecosystem.

I brought home my sweet new baby to a nursery decked out in an ocean theme: happy orange fish curtains, a reproduction London Aquarium poster from the 1930s, and books, books, books about the marine world.

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And we’ve gone on from there. My son loves to walk to the beach at the end of the street and tell me which shells belong to mussels, and which to the razor clams. He loves to talk about whale sharks and basking sharks and which one is his favorite that day and why. He loves episodes of “Blue Planet” and reading Bob Shea’s “I’m a Shark!” and examining the shark dissection chart I have framed in our bathroom.

He wants nothing more than to share in this passion with me.

And that’s heady stuff. I feel the power and responsibility of that every day. I have so much influence on him; more than any media, or peer, or even teacher could ever hope to have. I try to take that seriously. For a very brief window of his life, I am all-knowing and wise. If I teach him that sharks are beautiful and mysterious, to be respected and protected instead of feared, he will believe me.

So we take trips to the aquarium, and get down on our knees to peer into tidal pools, and get our sleeves very wet in either scenario. I am savoring this shared interest of ours, and storing it in my memory for when he’s fifteen and I’m so annoying he can’t even stand it.

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Now I don’t want to dictate my child’s interests anymore than I want anyone else to try and dictate my own. There will be no crazed ichthyology-themed stage parenting in our house. If my enthusiasm for sharks becomes cringe-inducing for him at some point (as most things beloved of parents are for their children) well, then I’ll take it down a notch when his friends come over.

Unless he’s rude about it. Then I’m totally trotting out the baby photos where he’s wearing nothing but a shark hat and a smile.

He doesn’t have to don scuba gear and plan for Woods Hole for me to be proud of him. I can’t wait to see what will excite him as he ages. What will light him up, and put that sparkle in his eye. I don’t care what gets his motor running, as long as it runs—loud and strong and takes him somewhere fantastic.

But what I do want, desperately and without agenda, is to instill in him a sense of awe at this amazing planet, to encourage and prolong that sense of wonder at the world that is such an essential part of childhood. A wonder that I still feel at age thirty one, whenever I stand before a salty body of water.

I want him to look out at the sea and the fin in the water and marvel at its majesty.

I want there to be fins left to marvel at.

And I want to marvel with him.

10 Ways to Stay Safe Around Great White Sharks

Great White Shark Shark Safety Tips

A white shark checks out a kayaker – taken a year ago at Nauset Beach.

Summer is in full swing on the Cape now, which means that both swimmers and white sharks are sharing the same waters. While the sharks have no plans to hunt the swimmers en masse like in a corny Sci-Fi movie, they aren’t harmless creatures either. All sharks are wild animals, and when you swim in the ocean, you’re a guest in their home, which is really a sort of wilderness.

Just as you wouldn’t wander into a desert or remote mountain chain without taking precautions for wild animals, you should be aware of your safety when swimming in the white shark’s habitat.

1. Don’t Swim When The Water Isn’t Visible.

This includes swimming at night, during dawn and dusk, and when the water is unusually murky. White sharks largely rely on their sight to distinguish between tasty prey (seals) and not-tasty prey (humans), and if they are uncertain, they may give a test bite to figure out what sort of creature you are.

2. Don’t Swim Where There Are Seals, Or Gatherings of Bait Fish.

Seals are white sharks’ preferred food, so there’s a good chance there’s also a white shark in the water observing them from a distance. Even though humans aren’t on the shark’s menu, it’s not worth the risk.

3. Don’t Swim If Sharks Have Been Spotted In The Area.

This seems like a no-brainer, but people often take silly chances if they think “it’s not going to be me.” Heed the warnings of any signs that have been posted.

4. Don’t Swim Alone.

A solitary individual of any species can’t be defended by other members of its group, and a white shark may seek it out as prey.

5. Stay Close To Shore.

The further out you swim in the water, the further away you get from other swimmers (see #4) and the further away you are from help.

6. Don’t Wear Shiny Jewelry In The Water.

The sunlight reflecting off the jewelry makes an interesting pattern that resembles a darting fish or seal, and can attract sharks.

7. Don’t Swim With An Open Wound.

Sharks’ sensitivity to blood is well-known, and any type of blood can pique their interest.

8. When Leaving The Area Where A Shark Has Been Spotted, Don’t Splash Around.

Splashing is a signal of distress, and can draw a shark’s attention to you.

9. Don’t Spearfish In Areas Frequented By White Sharks.

The amount of blood spearfishing generates can put you at great danger. If a white shark approaches you while spearfishing, drop your catch and leave immediately!

But what happens if you encounter a white shark in the water?

10. Don’t Panic!

A wild hearbeat and erratic movements can increase a white shark’s curiosity – see #8. The white shark may leave when its curiosity about you has been satisfied, so your calm reactions will demonstrate that you are neither threat or prey. Maintain eye contact with the shark if you can, or at least don’t turn your back on it – white sharks are ambush predators, so don’t give it an opportunity to attack by appearing distracted. If you can create any sort of barrier between you and the shark (with a surfboard, for instance), use it.

When you are able leave the water, do so calmly, quickly, and with as little splashing as possible.

Bonus Tip: Don’t Seek Out White Sharks!

Look, sharks are cool, and it’s obvious that they aren’t the mindless killers we once thought they were. But they are wild animals, and can easily become dangerous animals, especially if they are provoked by an encounter with a human. The diving professionals who swim with great whites outside of a cage are doing so at great risk to their lives, and their actions are controversial. You can show your love for great whites by helping out groups like the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, not by disturbing white sharks in their own home!

Sources:

Shark Safety Tips – City of Cape Town

WikiHow – How to Prevent a Shark Attack

Stephen P. Leatherman, “Dr. Beach’s Survival Guide”

Are Great White Sharks Endangered?

Trophy hunting for great whites may make them endangered

Trophy hunting is one of several reasons why white sharks may be listed as endangered.

No – great white sharks are not listed as Endangered, but they are currently listed as a Vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Reasons for this include their relative scarcity compared to other sharks, their slow reproduction speed, and the high demand for shark related products.

However, with new population studies publishing results, it wouldn’t be surprising if white sharks are listed as endangered in the near future.

In 2012, Oceana, Shark Stewards, and the Center for Biological Diversity all filed petitions to list white sharks as endangered. This prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to conduct a census of the white sharks on the California coast.

Identifying individual sharks by their dorsal fins, they estimated that only 219 white sharks (both adult and juvenile) were living off Central California, with about double that amount living along the Pacific coastline in the United States.

Of course, these numbers are controversial – the study assumed that the California population of white sharks was closed (i.e. no sharks left or joined the population during the time period of the study). Another census suggests that the actual population may be more around 2000.

The more important question, says research scientist Sal Jorgensen of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, should be “is the number of white sharks rising or falling?”

Another study, based out of the white shark hot spot of Gansbaai, South Africa, published its results a few days ago. Using 1683 images of dorsal fins collected over 4000 hours of research by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, the study identified 532 unique individuals.

The study then used statistical methods to estimate the overall numbers of the white shark “super-population” living off the African coastline, thought to migrate as far as Australia. Their results: even the “super” population contained only 908 individuals, which was half of what researchers were expecting.

In their conclusion, the researchers suggested that even though white sharks have been protected in South Africa since 1991, the population hasn’t recovered enough to sustain growth. This will certainly generate followup studies and rebuttals, so it will be interesting to see how many studies end up with this same conclusion.

Either way, tagging white sharks off Cape Cod, supported by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, helps researchers understand the local population, which in turn helps paint a clearer picture of the white shark population overall.

Sources:

Phys.org – Are Great White Sharks Endangered? 

IUCN Red List – Carcharodon carcharias 

IOL Scitech – It’s a Great White Shock

What “Jaws” Gets Right About White Sharks on Cape Cod (And What It Gets Wrong)

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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.

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.

Yawn

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.

References:

Florida Museum of Natural History – White Shark Biological Profile

Live Science – The Truth About Great White Sharks, 30 Years After ‘Jaws’

GeekExchange – Human Infested Waters

The Dorsal Fin – Rogue Shark Theory

RTSea Blog – Great White Sharks and Boats

Size and Age of the White Pointer Shark

Save Our Seas – Why Do White Sharks Bite People?

How Your Massachusetts White Shark License Plate Helps Great Whites

“Hey, thanks for getting your Massachusetts white shark license plates! I appreciate it.”

In case you haven’t heard, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy has launched pre-orders for Massachusetts great white shark license plates, which are available for only $40 dollars, more than half of which is tax deductible. Of course, if you’re a Massachusetts resident, you could get your white shark plate just to be awesome (and really, who doesn’t want to be awesome?). Or, you could get a license plate because you know the proceeds are going to help the white sharks of your state. Here’s how:

90% of the proceeds of the plates will go to white shark research, and the remaining 10% will go to education. Why such a big split? Researching sharks is really expensive.

Studying great whites in the wild requires money for chartering boats and spotter planes, and purchasing the tags that track the sharks’ movements. The AWSC will be able to support all of these activities with the help of your license plate.

But that doesn’t mean educating the public isn’t just as important. Your license plate will also support lectures (such as this one that happened recently at the Intrepid Museum in New York), scholarships for summer camp programs that teach about the sharks, and the materials needed to make these happen.

Plus, when you drive around with a white shark license plate, you get to show how you’re part of a community that wants to study and protect one of the world’s most fascinating apex predators.

So if you haven’t already, why not sign up for your Massachusetts license plate right now? (And make the residents of the other 49 states very, very jealous.)

How Many Great White Sharks Are in Massachusetts?

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Fisherman Bill Chaprales prepares to tag a white shark off Cape Cod.

Like so many other questions about white sharks, the short answer to the population size of great whites in Massachusetts is we don’t know.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make an educated guess. We know that a population of great whites visits Cape Cod in the summer months, and the sharks appear to spend the winter months off the Southern US states and the North Atlantic.

We also know that seventeen white sharks were tagged off Cape Cod last summer, and three more returned from the summer before. State biologist Greg Skomal estimated that there may be one or two untagged sharks in the area, which suggests that there are at least twenty known white sharks who visit the coast of Massachusetts. However, since the numbers of white sharks have increased each year, it’s hard to say how many others have avoided notice so far, and how many will arrive anew this summer.

Globally, the estimated population of white sharks ranges from about 800 to 2600. If those sounds like tiny numbers, keep in mind that white sharks are apex predators who need to eat a lot of food, and don’t reproduce quickly. But also keep in mind that every white shark killed or finned makes up a significant chunk of the overall population. By proportion, the death of one white shark is like the death of about 4 million people. (That’s taking the average of the two white shark population estimates, and comparing it to 7 billion humans.)

So how many white sharks are off Cape Cod? Let’s see how many visit in a couple of months…

Do you love great white sharks? Are you a Massachusetts resident?

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy is pre-selling great white license plates for your state! They’re only $40, and are partially tax deductible. Order yours today before the campaign ends!