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Thursday, May 30, 2024
The independent student publication of The University at Buffalo, since 1950

Sharks Bite Close to Shore

Turn-of-the-century America was a time of ascendancy for the "young" republic. The Victorian-minded men and women of that age considered their world the pinnacle of reason and scientific enlightenment. As the summer of 1916 unveiled itself, a series of shark attacks struck at that refined sense of civilization with primordial terror detailed in Michael Capuzzo's book "Close to Shore."

World War I era America was dominated by misguided and false notions about the nature and abilities of sharks. Hans Oelrichs, an early 20th century combination of Bill Gates and Michael Jordan, offered $500 for proof of shark attacks on humans, much like James Randi's contemporary $1 million-plus yet unclaimed offer for proof of the paranormal. As the years went by with no takers, the uncollected wager became popular "proof" of the harmlessness of sharks.

The summer of 1916 saw a peak in the number of Americans rushing to the beaches to escape the equally deadly heat and "infantile paralysis" of cities like New York and Philadelphia. New York's Coney Island and smaller resort-towns like New Jersey's Beach Haven and Spring Lake were destinations for those from all levels of society looking to take advantage of the recreational pursuits made possible by the new-found prosperity of the day.

Charles Vansant was one of those who sought pleasure in the ocean at Beach Haven. His splashing with a canine companion attracted more than just the attention of onlookers from the boardwalk. An adolescent rogue great white shark delivered "one massive, incapacitating bite tearing into the left leg below the knee." As brave rescuers pulled Vansant out of the water, the shark followed. "The monster was coming onto the beach," Capuzzo writes. Vansant bleeds to death on the beach as his physician father looks on in impotent horror.

The shark proceeds to kill another ocean resort resident, then astonishingly travels down a virtually freshwater creek killing two people and mauling another in a matter of hours. Panic sweeps coastal communities as the Washington Post and the New York Times accord the first recorded shark attacks in American history the same importance as news from the battlefields of Europe.

"Close to Shore" qualifies as good summer reading, if your summer activities take you far away from the ocean. Capuzzo skillfully paints a picture of terror when this rogue great white, the same species of shark immortalized in Peter Benchley's "Jaws," attacks its victims.

Still, it is a balanced account, revealing how magnificently designed machines sharks are, yet stressing that they are not capricious "man-eaters" and how unique this great white was in nature. After reading this book, however, it would be impossible to swim in the ocean and not look down and feel a little fear.

Considering the culprit would have trouble telling its side of the story and the eyewitnesses to the attacks have passed on, few primary sources exist. The pages are dominated by paragraph descriptions about what can only be inferred from records of the past. Sometimes this leads to terrific word pictures like "luscious with blubber and fat." Sometimes it's difficult not to ask just how is it known what one character thought or did if no record exists of his or her actions.

Part of what makes this a compelling story is it chronicles the first recorded shark attack in American history, and the stories were flamed by the same press that had "turned the sinking of the Maine into war." But that sense of panic never reaches the reader.

Perhaps Capuzzo spends too much time building up characters like Vansant's father or engaging in topical name-dropping. Perhaps it's because in the 21st century, we're used to stories like this coming in from all over the globe as they happen and find it difficult to be stunned by the violence engendered by Mother Nature anymore.

"Close to Shore" can be compared to a big-budget summer blockbuster - the shark attack scenes are what you paid to see, and the rest is filler you could do without.



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