Read an Excerpt
Dr. Beach's SURVIVAL GUIDEWhat You Need to Know About Sharks, Rip Currents, and More Before Going in the Water
By Stephen P. Leatherman
Yale University PressCopyright © 2003 Stephen P. Leatherman
All right reserved.
It was the summer of 1916, and optimistic Americans were celebrating their inventiveness and prosperity. On July 1, 25-year-old Charles Vansant went for a long swim off the New Jersey shore at Beach Haven. As he was heading back to shore, someone spotted a large fin slicing through the water. The shark attacked Vansant, who died of his injuries. Five days later and 45 miles north, Charles Burder was swimming in the ocean near Spring Lake with a group of friends when a shark suddenly struck and severed his legs. He bled to death. The people of Matawan, New Jersey, a village 11 miles inland, seemed removed from the fears of their beachgoing neighbors. But on July 12 their sense of safety was shattered. Twelve-year-old Lester Stil-well was playing in the local watering hole, which was actually a small tidal creek. He suddenly screamed and disappeared beneath the water. Several men jumped in to save him. Stanley Fisher, one of the would-be rescuers, found the boy's mangled and lifeless body and was pulling it to shore when he, too, was attacked by something. Fisher died of his injuries. Further downstream, a group of boys were swimming in the same creek and unaware of any danger. Someone started yelling for the boys to get out of the water. Fourteen-year-old Joseph Dunn was the last boy out of the water; he was climbing the ladder to safety when his leg was seized by a shark. Dunn lost his leg but escaped with his life.
On July 14, a nine-foot great white shark was netted at South Amboy, New Jersey. The shark's stomach contained fifteen pounds of human flesh and bone, including the shinbone of a boy and a human rib. The final devastating tally? Four dead, one seriously injured. During this Twelve Days of Terror occurred the most gruesome series of shark attacks in American history. Nineteen-sixteen became the Year of the Shark, and, as a result, hundreds of sharks were caught and slaughtered along the mid-Atlantic coast. This compelling story of a marauding shark was the subject of the best-selling book Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo, who writes, "People who are attacked by sharks are exceptionally, almost absurdly, unlucky."
Although the number of deaths from such common incidents as bee stings or falling off of ladders is far greater than from shark attacks, many people have an almost hysterical response to shark attacks-the thought of being torn apart by a shark is ghastly indeed. Just mentioning the word shark conjures a mixture of fear and fascination in the human psyche-we never seem to hear enough about these creatures, which are often regarded as monstrous killing machines. The public has had a bad case of shark phobia since 1974, when the book Jaws, by Peter Benchley, was published. But the myth of shark attacks often surpasses the reality.
There are more than 400 species of sharks. They range in size from the one-ounce pygmy shark to the 28,000-pound whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean. Like almost all sharks, the whale shark is harmless to humans-it is a filter feeder that consumes plankton and small fishes.
Few people ever have a shark encounter, even though scores of sharks are often swimming just offshore. While sharks generally are not waiting to attack, there is always the potential for trouble, especially for someone who spends a considerable amount of time at beaches and in the water. My friends and colleagues and I have had our share of shark encounters of the very close kind. Here is a sampling, along with some other insights about shark behavior:
In 1998, I consulted for the rebuilding and revitalization of Lucaya Beach on the Grand Bahama Islands. This resort had deteriorated physically; the beach was badly eroded with part of the seawall falling into the water, and tourism was at low ebb, to say the least. My job was to evaluate the beach's condition and to locate sources of sand for use in restoration. As part of the preliminary investigations I snorkeled far offshore, studying the ocean bottom and diving down to examine pockets of sand that might be used to replenish the beach (and that were far from the living coral reefs). I never even thought about sharks as I was conducting my explorations up to a thousand feet offshore. (It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it!)
Fast forward to August 2001 and imagine my reaction when I heard about a man who, while swimming in the same area of Lucaya Beach that I had surveyed, and in only five feet of water, had his leg bitten off by a large shark. The Long Island, New York, vacationer lost so much blood from the massive injury that he was lucky to be alive. Considering the severity of the attack, it had to be a big shark, but the swimmer never saw it coming in the stirred and murky water created by Tropical Storm Barry.
I have seen sharks most often in tidal inlets, where the water is deep and the currents swift. These are the places you expect to see sharks, as there is great movement of nutrients and fish through these watery connections between the open ocean and the nursery grounds of bays, lagoons, and sounds. I once taught a summer course at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, and my students and I often took the boat Privateer to the outer barrier islands, especially Cape Lookout. While we cruised through the inlets we occasionally spotted lone sharks in the six-foot range, their fins cutting the water. It was always exciting to come close to these fearsome creatures while in the protective sheath of a boat.
Dr. Eugenie Clark, a.k.a. the Shark Lady, is one of the most Heralded shark experts of all time. She once told me about a fisherman who was bitten by a large hammerhead shark off the coast of the Red Sea. The poor man showed Genie how this monster shark had severely bitten his leg. What was confounding was that the attack had occurred in only four feet of water-very shallow water indeed for a predator almost ten feet long. Actually, the man had caught the shark and pulled it into his boat, thinking that he had killed it. But the shark was still alive, and it bit him. All of this had, in fact, happened in four feet of water, but the incident did not occur as it was portrayed by the media.
At one point in my career I directed a coastal research center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. While most of my time was spent conducting research at Cape Cod National Seashore, I also spent time on the islands and at many other New England shore areas. Once, while sitting on the dock at Duxbury in Massachusetts Bay on a sunny fall day and enjoying my lunch, I started thinking about going for a swim as I threw scraps of my sandwich to the appreciative gulls. My feet were dangling over the edge, not far from the water's surface. Suddenly, huge jaws came straight up from the water beneath, opened wide, and engulfed one of the large herring gulls that was sitting on the calm water. The long, bony teeth closed over the entire body of the struggling sea gull except for one of its desperately flapping wings. The wing continued to flutter in the toothy mouth as this predator slowly sank into the water, never to be seen again. My first thought was that this was a shark attack, but I later learned that it was the work of a large goosefish (called monkfish at the fish market), which is partial to gulls but perfectly harmless to people.
I grew up in the Carolinas, and one of my favorite beaches has always been Cape Hatteras. This is an area that I visited many times as I paid my way through college conducting beach erosion surveys. This spectacular ribbon of sand constitutes the Outer Banks of North Carolin-a long chain of barrier islands jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. When the surf was not too big I liked to swim far offshore into water tens of feet deep. Of course, I was younger and stronger then, so swimming hundreds of yards offshore wasn't a problem.
During one of my swims on the south side of Cape Hatteras, my upper leg was hit so hard that it jolted me in the water. I was sure that it was a shark. I had heard stories that big sharks can take off your leg with one painless bite. As I slowly moved my arm down to examine my leg, my hand came in contact with the flat nose of a huge loggerhead sea turtle. When she popped up to the surface for some air I got an up-close view of this giant sea creature, which must have weighed 400 to 500 pounds. She was most likely waiting for nightfall before coming ashore to lay her eggs; she bumped into me by mistake. I was relieved, to say the least, but this experience made me think hard about the wisdom of swimming far offshore all alone in deep ocean water.
I regularly travel along the U.S. coasts for research and to conduct my beach surveys, performing my duties as Dr. Beach. I particularly like to visit Florida's beaches during spring and fall to avoid the crowds, obtain good accommodations for a reasonable price, and still enjoy the warm water.
Florida has the clearest water on average of any U.S. continental beach because the base rock is limestone, and there are no rivers or streams carrying silts and clays to muddy the marine waters. I was once walking along the beach conducting my survey near Fort Pierce Inlet when I noticed a darkish area in the otherwise clear blue water. At first I thought a large patch of seaweed was washing ashore. As I neared the blotchy area, which measured many yards wide, I realized that I was approaching a huge school of bait fish. These finger-sized fish were moving right up on the shore, and some were jumping out of the water onto the dry beach. At first I tried to rescue the fish by throwing them back into the water. Then it occurred to me that fish don't normally jump onto beaches ... something must be scaring them into this behavior. Larger fish or small sharks had to be feasting on the schooling fish. Anyone who happened to be in the water during this feeding frenzy would almost certainly be bitten. I alerted the lifeguard whose stand was a few hundred yards down the beach. He immediately hoisted the danger flag for no swimming.
Spearfishing commonly attracts sharks. The Florida Keys is a favorite area for this activity because of its clear tropical waters. For spearfishermen, the harmless nurse shark can be a real nuisance. You have to literally fight off these sharks as they try to snatch a free meal with their small, stringy teeth. While nurse sharks are not aggressive, you can bring on an attack yourself. A few years ago a teenager who was spearfishing grabbed the tail of a three-foot nurse shark as it swam by. The shark swung around and bit the boy's chest so tightly that it stayed attached, through its ability to form suction, until removed by doctors at the nearby hospital in Marathon Key. The doctors were forced to split the shark's spine to unlock its jaws.
The really big and potentially life-threatening sharks are often circling just out of sight. If you are scuba diving and one of these predators wants you, there-is not much you can do about it. Sharks hit like a freight train-the attack is over before you even have time to react. The scariest time for divers is when surfacing. This is when sharks like to take a shot, coming up quickly from the depths. More than 90 percent of shark attacks occur in near-surface water.
Before I moved to South Florida, I made several trips to Miami Beach in the late 1970s to evaluate the erosion problem and propose solutions. At that time, waves lapped at the hotel seawalls at high tide; there was little to no beach, and tourists were scarce as well. Then came the most massive beach restoration project in the history of the world up to that time. More than 13 million cubic yards of sand were pumped from the offshore sea bottom through a pipeline to create a new beach over 9 miles long and 300 feet wide. The tourists returned in droves, and Miami Beach today is again considered a world-class beach.
Just before the beach restoration project started, a group of coastal scientists and engineers (including me) visited Miami Beach for a fact-finding mission. After a full day of meetings, some of us wanted to really experience the beach first-hand. It was December and the days were short, but the water was still warm, so we went swimming in the dark. There were no lifeguards to warn us, but we should have been smarter, since sharks often come out to feed at night.
Fortunately, no one was attacked on this outing, but we later learned that a large school of blacktip sharks up to six feet long had been spotted a few days earlier in the same waters. Next time I will recommend that we hit the hotel pool and save the beach swimming for daytime.
The irregular swimming actions of animals tend to attract sharks. People who swim in shark-infested waters with a dog greatly enhance their chance of being attacked. In 1987 a man and his poodle went swimming from his boat near Panama City, Florida. Within minutes a large bull shark struck, tearing at the man's legs; he died shortly thereafter in the bloodied water. The International Shark Attack File contains many accounts of sharks drawn to human victims by the erratic motions of a paddling dog.
Some shark researchers now believe that the phase of the moon is fundamental to shark behavior-full moons are credited with having a powerful effect on all living things. Interestingly, the gruesome attacks and "shark rampage" of 1916 occurred during an eclipse of a full moon. There is evidence that sharks attack more frequently during very high tides, corresponding to times of strong gravitational pull of the full moon. According to George Burgess, the noted shark expert, sharks could be reacting directly to the moon or, most likely, to its effect on other ocean species-the reproduction of corals and many types of fish is affected by moon phase. Of course, very high tides during full moons flood the beaches, resulting in deeper water closer to shore and perhaps drawing in seals and sharks.
Several of my friends are avid fishermen who like to fly to the Bahamas to catch large groupers and sailfish. Some years ago Dan Tuckfield was making one such flight back to Fort Lauderdale with a fishing party when the small plane developed engine problems. The people on board jettisoned all they could to lighten the load, but the twin-engine Cessna still could not stay aloft. The pilot had to let the plane drop into the Atlantic Ocean, where it sank to the bottom within an hour. All five people survived the crash, but some passengers could not swim well and, worse, became panicked, splashing and flailing when they saw tiger sharks.
The sharks, averaging nine feet in length, swam circles around the people, but they did not attack. An older man swallowed too much water and drowned. As his body sank, the sharks immediately consumed the corpse. The man's wife soon suffered a similar fate.
Excerpted from Dr. Beach's SURVIVAL GUIDE by Stephen P. Leatherman Copyright © 2003 by Stephen P. Leatherman. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.