Decades later, this fearsome reputation spawned by the attacks was reinforced by the 1974 publication of Peter Benchley's bestselling novel Jaws, then fully cemented by Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster film adaptation.People would never see sharks the same way again. Their portrayal as insensate monsters has metastasized so far and wide that it has spawned an entire genre of parody movies built on devising absurdist means for sharks to extend their people-eating reach. The Shallows, a thriller released just last week, openly bills itself as "Jaws for a new generation," much to the dismay of shark advocates. Even non-fiction portrayals of sharks often take the "man-eater" bait: Discovery Channel's annual "Shark Week" has become a pop culture juggernaut partially because of its controversial tendency to play up shark aggressiveness for ratings.
The more relevant and pressing reality is that sharks die at the hands of humans in astronomically higher numbers than the few humans who die in the jaws of sharks.
This new grisly reputation was actively embraced by the press, generating headlines like "Jagged Stumps of Youth Stain Water Deep Crimson" or, put more bluntly, "Shark Eats Bathers Legs." But it wasn't an invention of the media alone. Many of the leading scientists of the day contributed to sharks' emerging PR problem, including ornithologist Robert Murphy and ichthyologist John Nichols, both based at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In October 1916, the pair published a shocking condemnation of sharks in the Brooklyn Museum Science Bulletin."There is something peculiarly sinister in the shark's makeup," wrote Murphy and Nichols. "The sight of his dark, lean fin lazily cutting zig-zags in the surface of some quiet, sparkling summer sea, and then slipping out of sight not to appear again, suggests an evil spirit. His leering, chinless face, his great mouth with its rows of knife-like teeth […] the relentless fury with which, when his last hour has come, he thrashes on deck and snaps at his enemies; his toughness, his brutal, nerveless vitality and insensibility to physical injury, fail to elicit the admiration one feels for the dashing, brilliant, destructive, gastronomic blue fish, tunny, or salmon."
"It is a really interesting turning point in our history with sharks and our relationship with the oceans, in terms of whether we looked at the oceans with wonder, curiosity, or fear."
Some biologists have argued that a bull shark is the most likely candidate for the attacks, given that this species has no trouble hanging out in fresh or brackish water. But according to Burgess, there were some important extenuating circumstances that may have allowed a great white shark to wander inland despite this animal's normal aversion to low salinity environments."We looked carefully at the timing of [the Matawan Creek] attacks and discovered that they occurred on a full moon which brought the highest tidal waters possible," he told me. "So when the attacks occurred in the creek, it was at maximum water depth and maximum salinity. In other words, it would not have been a barrier for a great white shark."Further corroborating the great white theory was a catch made by lion tamer Michael Schleisser on July 14, 1916, near the mouth of Matawan Creek. It was a female great white, over seven feet long. Schleisser claimed she had given him "the hardest fight for life I've ever had," according to Capuzzo's Close to Shore.
"In other words, it would not have been a barrier for a great white shark."