My Relationship with White Sharks

Ret SurfWith a growing number of white sharks returning to New England each summer, I’ve been asking people about their relationship with sharks and how that relationship may have changed over time. I’m struck that many start by talking about JAWS. I was barely five years old when the movie was released in June 1975, and I don’t remember the first time I saw it. Maybe on VHS? Maybe a late night TV movie years later? It’s possible the first time I watched it all the way through was only a couple months ago when I bought it on Amazon. As a child, I don’t recall being afraid to swim in the ocean (although I did grow up mostly on beaches in Long Island Sound…so take “ocean” as such). In fact, I actually don’t recall thinking very much about sharks at all.

Even as an adult, sharks were not really on my radar screen. As a science writer, I’ve spent more time criticizing Shark Week than watching it, and I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a shark t-shirt or other shark-themed souvenir. As a journalist who covers ocean issues and fisheries, my book shelf is full of books on all manner of marine animals, but up until recently, there wasn’t a single book on sharks save a tattered copy of Peter Matthiessen’s Blue Meridian–The Search for the Great White Shark. I love Peter Matthiessen.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like sharks. I recognize the presence of a top predator–an apex predator like a shark–to be be a sign of ecosystem health. In my writing about coral reefs, I’ve frequently commented on the lack of reef sharks as indicative of deeper troubles. I’ve dallied in debates over shark fisheries and shark finning from time-to-time, and I’ve even written two shark-specific articles–one on sharks in Maine and one on dogfish. Still, sharks have never really been a focus for me personally or professionally.

All that changed this past March, however, when amidst a global pandemic, I had the opportunity to work on a project concerning white sharks in the western Atlantic. I set out, as I usually do when starting a new project, to read every book I could find about white sharks and sharks in general. I read Susan Casey’s Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Shark and Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore. William McKeever’s Emperors of the Deep: Sharks—The Ocean’s Most Mysterious, Most Misunderstood, and Most Important Guardians and Peter Klimley’s The Secret Life of Sharks: A Leading Marine Biologist Reveals the Mysteries of Shark Behavior now sit next to Blue Meridian on the bookshelf in my office. The Shark Chronicles by John Musick and Beverly McMillan, The Shark Handbook by Greg Skomal and Richard Fernicola’s Twelve Days of Terror: Inside the Shocking 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks have all joined the stack beside my bedside table. Amidst my reading, I talked to shark scientists and worked my way through many scientific papers. My take-away: While I knew we had a lot to learn about the biology and life history of white sharks, I’m floored by how much we still simply don’t know.

Screen Shot 2020-08-24 at 4.14.46 PMFast-forward to July and the first shark fatality in Maine’s history. I covered the event in a piece for National Geographic, where I emphasized that, while tragic, the event should be seen in the context of a relatively rare conservation success story. We no doubt still have a lot to learn about the white shark population in the northwest Atlantic, but the data we do have–combined with some pretty compelling anecdote and deductive reasoning– suggest an uptick in the number of white sharks returning to New England (and farther north) every summer. Yes, that means human-shark interactions are likely going to increase, but it also suggests a healthier ecosystem. In addition, apex predators are viewed as “sentinels” of an ecosystem’s response to climate variability and change.

Passionate Hopes and Fears

Thinking about all this–what a resurgence of white sharks in the western Atlantic means–takes me back to the 1990s when I was living and guiding in Wyoming. At the time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was working on re-introducing wolves to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, an initiative that had its origins nearly two decades previous when the gray wolf was listed as endangered and recovery was mandated under the Endangered Species Act. I was fascinated by how emotionally charged the prospect of reintroducing this apex predator to the West became. When the Environmental Impact Statement was complete in 1994, there were over 160,000 public comments–the most comments ever received for any federal proposal at the time.

I was still in school in the early 1990s, pursuing a degree in writing, and penning mostly fiction. During the summers, I was working in Wyoming, and Rick Bass’ short story collection The Watch was almost always in my backpack. When Bass published The Ninemile Wolves in 1992, I purchased the hardcover at Jackson Hole’s Valley Bookstore (not an insignificant purchase for someone who was saving his pennies to buy pasta). The book recounts the story of a female wolf that was spotted in Marion, Montana in 1989. She was captured and moved to Glacier National Park but soon left the park and re-emerged with a mate and then pups in the Ninemile Valley near the border with Idaho some 100 miles south of Glacier. In the years before federal reintroduction officially began in 1995, the Ninemile Wolves (both the pack and the book) became the most focused lens through which Americans, most of whom had never co-existed with an apex predator, considered our place in a world where we could restore and conserve a species we’d spent nearly a century eradicating in the name of “predator control.”

As the New York Times put in their review of Bass’ book, the pack was watched “closely by ranchers, hunters, environmentalists, politicians and bureaucrats, and became the object of the passionate hopes and fears that wolves had inspired in humans ever since the first one was kept away from the door.”

The resurgence of white sharks in New England waters is a more cryptic conservation success story than the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, but it’s one of equal significance. As I’ve experienced first hand, and as Nate Blakeslee recounts in his 2017 book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, people flock to watch the wolves in Yellowstone, where a little effort to see one generally pays off. It’s not quite so easy with white sharks. The undersea topography in which the white shark lives is largely hidden from the casual observer, and white sharks, unlike wolves, share very little in common with domesticated animals with which people are familiar and consider intelligent, cute and friendly. This all can make recovering a species like the white shark more difficult.

And yet here we are, and it has me thinking a lot about our relationship with sharks. It also brings to mind something Bass wrote in The Nine Mile Wolves:

We’re all following the wolf. To pretend anything else—to pretend that we are protecting the wolf for instance or managing him—is nonsense of the kind of immense proportions of which only our species is capable. We’re following the wolf. He’s returning to Montana after sixty years.

“Something Holy in Their Silence”

While I don’t remember when I first saw JAWS, I do remember my first significant shark encounter in the wild. More importantly, I remember the emotion it evoked. I was a teenager, and it was in the Galapagos Islands. I was snorkeling at a place called the Devil’s Crown, a sunken volcano crater that resembles the wretched vertical column of some behemoth lying coiled in the shallows. I’d ventured to one side of the rocky formation where the bottom fell away into a deep blue-black abyss. It mesmerized me. While the rest of our party explored the relative calm of the shallows where small fishes peppered the rocky substrate and shoals of surgeonfishes and grunts moved like undulating tapestries, I remember just floating over the deep and thinking about the immensity of it all. It was like leaning over the rim of the Grand Canyon without any gravity to pull you down.

The first shark I saw was just a dark shape far below. I didn’t know it was a shark. Then there was another. And then another. The scale was deceiving–my own weightlessness disorienting–but slowly the individuals blurred into a group that grew larger as they slowly corkscrewed up from the depths. They were hammerheads, their shadowy silhouettes making the scene all the more surreal as they drew closer in a sort of fluid choreography. I’m not sure if I recalled Matthiessen then, but he comes readily to mind now when I remember the scene. “The shadow of sharks is the shadow of death, and they call forth dim ultimate fears,” he writes. “Yet there is something holy in their silence.” To me, it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, and while it may have been the immortality of youth, I do not recall thinking about death, much the less fear. Something holy? Absolutely. 

Over the past five months, I’ve considered the escalation in shark-human interactions in New England. The risk of being bitten by a shark remains small. The risk of dying as a result of the bite is even smaller, but still a single attack brings with it an outsized response of both fear on the one hand and bravado on the other. I was talking with Dr. Greg Skomal, the Massachusetts’ senior marine fisheries scientist who leads the State’s white shark research, and he told me that after the 2018 fatality of a body-boarder off Newcomb Hollow Beach on the Outer Cape, surfers were back in the water at the very same spot the next day.

I think about that a lot.

And I remember that in 1998 I surfed Stinson Beach in Marin County, California, within a month of a 16-year-old being bitten in shallow water less than 50 yards from shore. I walked right by the large signage warning beachgoers of the risk and pulled up the hood of my wetsuit, attached the leash to my ankle and surfed. I don’t remember why I made the decision to surf that day despite the risk. I don’t even remember if I made a conscious decision.

I’m not sure if I would make the same decision today.

An Evolving Relationship

My own relationship with sharks has evolved, and I’m quite certain it will continue to evolve. As a science writer, it will be largely informed by the data and by the words of shark biologists, but it will also be infused by memory and emotion–by stories and even mythology. In understanding these animals better–in observing them and hearing people who both revere and fear them talk about them–it will be hard to remain objective at times. Maybe that’s okay.

I’m sure I’ll think about wolves a lot. As someone who spent my fair share of time with my eye glued to a scope watching wolf pups emerge from dens in Wyoming, I know how easy it is to interpret a cocked ear or a curled lip as representative of human characteristics or emotions. It’s perhaps harder with sharks because it’s harder to see them, but the risk of anthropomorphizing them is there. Take, for example, the recent picture of a white shark after gorging on a whale carcass off Nantucket. Is there any question as to why the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy used that image for a caption contest?

Screen Shot 2020-08-23 at 4.53.03 PM

There are lines that I don’t want to cross, but there are also places I don’t want to keep myself from going. It will be a balancing act. I’ve taped the following quotation from The Ninemile Wolves above my monitor:

They say not to anthropomorphize–not to think of them as having feelings, not to think of them as being able to think–but late at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that, once again, the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again.

To learn more about the resurgence in the white shark population in the western North Atlantic, I invite you to read my new book Chasing Shadows, which I wrote with Greg Skomal and will be published on 11 July 2023.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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