Do SHARKS Really BITE (Aug, 1931)

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Is It Possible to Learn the Truth About the Habits of Alleged Man-Eaters in the Semitropic Water? Here Is the Report of a Study Made for Popular Science Monthly by One Who Now Fears the Swift Monsters


SOME years ago, I heard a celebrated naturalist state unequivocally that sharks would not attack men. As proof of his statement, he cited his own experience in shark-infested waters. Clad only in a bathing suit and a diving helmet, he had descended to the sea bottom, staying there for considerable periods while sharks and other fish swam negligently about, merely evincing a mild curiosity in his presence.

Further, this naturalist said that, though he had tried in various parts of the world to run down instances in which men had been attacked by sharks, he had failed to discover a single authenticated case. He gave it as his opinion that attacks hitherto attributed to sharks had in reality been perpetrated by that other killer of the sea, the barracuda.

Not being a naturalist, I do not propose to set up my own opinions in controversion of an expert. Nevertheless, I have gleaned a few items of information that do not gee with the theory that the shark is as harmless as a dove.

Not long ago, several young men were swimming in an inlet on the east coast of Florida, diving into the water from a bridge. Suddenly, at the cry of “shark,”

they scrambled to land. From the bridge, the intruder, a good sized fish, was plainly visible. It had cruised in from the ocean, as sharks often do, in search of food.

Among the swimmers was one who was not afraid of sharks. ”They don’t attack men,” he declared. To prove his theory, he waited until the fish floated close to the bridge and then jumped onto its back.

The shark promptly amputated the rash young man’s arm at the shoulder. And had not his companions succeeded in driving the brute off, there would have been nothing left of him. At any rate that is the way the story was, authoritatively, told to me.

THIS incident, of course, proves nothing except that if you jump on a shark’s back it will resent the familiarity. Suppose we take another case, one in which, according to the best report I could get, a shark struck without such open provocation.

On the Inlet at Palm Beach, five minutes’ walk from where I live, is a municipal dock. Last summer, the dockmaster went down to the ocean to take a dip before breakfast. He had waded out and was standing still in waist-high water, when something suddenly seized his foot.

Shouting for help, he got out of the water as fast as he could—with most of his heel ripped off. He did not see what had bitten him, but the doctor who treated his wound, and several professional fishermen who examined it, say that beyond question only a shark could have inflicted the injury.

A man who lives in West Palm Beach is minus part of his hand. Going bathing in the ocean, he ran exuberantly into the surf and dove headlong through a roller. Instantly one of his hands, he says, was seized by a small shark. He beat at it with the other hand and managed to get free.

THERE is a negro living in West Palm Beach whose scalp, he insists, bears the marks of a shark’s teeth. He is a native of the Bahamas, where his memorable adventure occurred when he was a boy. He was seized following a dive and rescued by companions just in time.

The fact that tropic and subtropic waters contain dangerous fish does not mean that it is impossible to swim in them without being attacked. It does mean, however, if these stories are true, that there is an ever present risk of attack. Some persons, confident that they have charmed lives, go for long swims off the Florida coast, firmly believing that the fish that is to attack them has not as yet been spawned.

There was one such enthusiast who used daily to swim about a mile out from shore. Having done this for some time without mishap, he pooh-poohed the suggestion that it was a hazardous pastime. One day, he felt something take a piece out of his thigh.

Swimming frantically, he made for the beach, conscious of subsequent bites en route. In the surf, he fainted from loss of blood, but was pulled to land. Those who rescued him insist that he encountered a school of small sharks, that literally fed on him as he swam. At the hospital, to which he was rushed, they despaired of saving his life; but after a year’s confinement, he recovered.

I know of another enthusiast, a close friend of many friends of mine, who also paid the price of his foolhardiness. Though warned that a shark had been seen lurking in the vicinity of the spot where he proposed to swim, he disregarded the warning. A few minutes later, he too was carried, in a fainting condition, out of the surf, with the greater part of one calf torn away, presumably by the shark. Out in California, I have four times felt earth tremors. There was no mistaking them for anything but what they were, but no mention of them appeared in the local papers. Similarly, in communities along the Caribbean, the Gulf, and that portion of the Atlantic where dangerous fish are found, there is little disposition on the part of the press to publicize events that might prejudice possible visitors. It is not difficult, however, to uncover apparently authentic cases of shark bite.

It is true that the barracuda—a slim, swift, piscine torpedo—has been responsible for many injuries and deaths. Attracted by any moving object in the water, it speeds to the attack, biting at anything, not because it is hungry, but just for the sake of biting.

DOWN around the Florida keys, where barracuda swarm, it is sometimes impossible for a fisherman to pull a whole fish into his boat. Drawn by its struggles, barracuda chop it to pieces before it can be brought to gaff.

Even when the fisherman is pulling the head of his mutilated catch overside, a barracuda will leap clear of the water in a savage attempt to get that, too. When hooked himself, he is a lusty fighter, and woe betide the inexperienced angler who neglects to club him to death before bringing him aboard.

Two men, fishing from a rowboat recently, pulled in an apparently exhausted barracuda and forgot to tap him over the head. The next moment they took to the water, and let the barracuda have the boat to himself.

Ordinarily the shark is somewhat more lethargic than the barracuda. He is attracted to his prey by scent rather than by sight. The eyes of the barracuda are large and keen-sighted. Those of the shark are relatively small and their vision is poor. Of the two, the barracuda is by far the faster swimmer, his speed having been variously estimated at from twenty-five to seventy miles an hour, as against the shark’s eight to nine.

Since no one, to my knowledge, has ever been in a position to hold a stop watch on the respective performances of either fish over a measured course, the speed of which each is capable is wholly a matter of conjecture. It would seem reasonable to suppose, however, that the known fact that the barracuda is fast and attracted by anything that makes a swirl in the water has led to the supposition that he is more dangerous to swimmers than the shark.

One factor that would appear to enhance the difficulty of identifying the miscreants in such cases is that the victims of predatory fish seldom see their assailants clearly.

NATURALLY, when a man has been bitten, his first thought is to get to shore. He does not look to see what has attacked him. If it happened to have been a shark, he might have caught a glimpse beforehand of its dorsal fin cutting through the water. But though the dangerous types of sharks are surface swimmers, they do not invariably stay on the surface. If the attacker were a barracuda, which has no large dorsal fin, it is improbable that the swimmer would see it at all.

Nevertheless, though their victims may not have seen them, it is said to be possible to tell, from an inspection of the wound, whether it was inflicted by a shark or a barracuda. The jaw formation and dental equipment of the two fish being utterly dissimilar, their bites are as unlike as those of a dog and a woodchuck. With its seven rows of thin, flat, triangular, saw-edged teeth, the shark is a ripper, a tearer of flesh. The barracuda, with long, razor-sharp fangs projecting from the roof of its mouth, and its jaws rimmed with smaller, needle-pointed teeth, is a sheer. The shark scrapes a jagged wound; the barracuda neatly cleaves.

A few varieties of the fish, it is true, can be definitely exonerated, these being the kind known as “bottom feeders,” who have either no teeth at all, like the nurse shark, or teeth too small to do any damage. With these exceptions, however, all sharks, it is assumed, are potential man-eaters. The consensus of opinion among the authorities I have talked with is that sharks that attack men probably do so without actually knowing the nature of their quarry.

Observe that I say “probably.” The truth is that compared with the mass of information available regarding the lives, habits, and so-called psychology of wild animals, there is relatively little definite knowledge concerning the equally wild denizens of the deep. Thus, for example, though we know pretty well what a lion may do under given conditions, we can’t tell much about what a shark will do.

Hunters, zoologists, and animal trainers have had opportunities to study the behavior and characteristics of lions for many years. The motion picture camera has played a large part in making these researches possible; by means of it, the animals have been studied in their natural environment, unconscious of being under observation.

Submarine photography is still in its infancy. Already, however, it has exposed one ancient theory as a fallacy by showing that a shark does not have to turn on its back in order to bite. Eventually underwater photography will expose still other fallacies. The great obstacle will be the virtual impossibility of keeping one particular fish, or group of fish, under observation in a natural state.

SHARKS have voracious appetites. Their natural food consists of small fish such as mullet, bluefish, kingfish, and jacks. Their presence or absence in any particular locality is governed largely by the presence or absence of food. They trail the big schools that criss-cross the seas, harrying them much as wolves harry a panic-stricken flock of sheep. One of their peculiarities is that normally they do not attack healthy, vigorous fish. If they did they would long ago have cleaned out the oceans.

One can sometimes see sharks gliding lazily along, right in the midst of a school of mullet, say, apparently ignoring them. Actually they are on the lookout for stragglers. Sharks have an amazing, mysterious sense that enables them to detect anything amiss with another fish, whether of a different species or one of their own kind.

Let a fish be hooked by an angler, and if there is a shark in the vicinity he will go right after it. The smell of blood attracts him, and as soon as he sees the hooked fish he can tell, by the way it swims, that something’s the matter with it. Smaller fish seem to know that sharks can’t see very clearly at any distance, and for that reason, when pursued, swim in sharp zigzags, constantly changing their courses.

THE smell and taste of blood rouse sharks to a high pitch of ferocity. One minute you may see them loafing along among a school of mullet in seeming nonchalance, and the next instant they are enacting a scene of indescribable carnage. One shark will have bitten a smaller fish in two; whereupon, together with its suddenly frenzied companions, it will try to kill everything within reach. At such times, when the water is whipped to a crimson froth and the air just above glistens with the bodies of the pursued, leaping clear in the frantic effort to escape, battles royal among the sharks themselves are a common occurrence.

If there were always schools of smaller fish to feed on, it might be that sharks would never attack men. But these schools come and go, kept ever on the move, not only by the necessity of seeking their own food, but by hosts of enemies. Deprived of their natural sustenance, sharks will eat anything they can get.

They follow ships for the garbage, enter harbors, and lurk at river mouths and inlets for such fish or other fare as may be brought down by current or ebbing tide. They lie in wait, close in along the beaches, for random fish that may come along, disporting themselves in the surf. It is these stray, hungry mavericks, who for one reason or another have become separated from the pack, that are blamed for attacks on swimmers.

Before coming to Florida, I had been led to believe that dangerous fish do not come close in for fear of being beached. The fact is that in pursuit of food, they frequently beach themselves. Captain Herb Hiscock, now retired, who has fished these waters for many years, told me he had seen sharks beach themselves by the score. In answer to my question as to which he considered more dangerous, the shark or the barracuda, he nominated the shark. So did Captain Herman Gray, whose experience in fishing tropical waters covers twenty-five years.

SHARKS and barracuda are not the only bad news to be encountered in southern seas. There are also the sting rays and the moray eels and the Spanish men-o’-war, the latter being the “chambered nautilus” of mythology, a beautiful purple and cobalt blue jellyfish, contact with which produces an effect similar to scalding.

The sting ray. is armed with a barbed bony lance near the root of its tail and, being a slimy beast, inflicts a highly poisonous wound. The moray eel lives in holes in the rocks. It is a powerful brute, sometimes attaining a length of six feet, and a big one is easily capable of severing a man’s wrist or ankle. When hooked and landed morays, unless thoroughly clubbed, are bad medicine; for they will try to sink their teeth in everything in sight. Though both can inflict serious wounds, however, neither the sting ray nor the moray is likely to molest a man unless he molests it first.

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