A Shark Drops By

It didn’t take much. A large shark was sighted on the morning of July tenth off South Beach in Edgartown. Within twenty-four hours, three Island beaches had been closed and reopened, a false sighting hoax at Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach had been perpetrated, and media around the world had picked up the story.

The shark probably still doesn’t know all the fuss it caused.

The fish was doing what other sharks have been doing for millennia — swimming in the waters off the Island that explorer Bartholomew Gosnold named Martha’s Vineyard in sixteen hundred two. In this instance, the shark likely was drawn to the waters off South Beach not by the humans splashing in the surf, but by the presence of seals, a favorite food, on and near the Vineyard.

Edgartown lifeguards acted promptly and properly to get bathers out of the water. So too did the Tisbury director of public works, who closed the ocean side of Tashmoo just to be on the safe side. The following morning, with the shark no longer in evidence, the beaches reopened.

Yet news of this one sighting raced and was disseminated across the country and around the world. By early the following week, journalists in far-off Belfast and Glasgow were calling the Gazette for comment. Millions of people heard and were talking about the shark.

The reason, of course, lay not in the Vineyard’s actual history with sharks, but in a blockbuster movie made thirty-four years ago. Stephen Spielberg mostly filmed Jaws on the Vineyard, and the Island ever since has been linked with sharks, especially those that devour young bathers and salty fishermen.

In contrast, an exploration of the Gazette news archives reveals one shark bite of a human on the Vineyard, and no fatalities. In nineteen eighty-nine, at Wasque, a brown shark being reeled in by a fishermen bit a man wading nearby in the leg. He lived and was sewn up at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

If anything, sharks have far more to fear from people, who hunt and kill them. This weekend, Oak Bluffs once again will serve as the site of an annual tournament based on finding and catching sharks.

The danger to swimmers, surfers and fishermen from a shark swimming nearby should not be downplayed. With seals becoming more prevalent in Vineyard waters, more caution is warranted.

Irrational dread, however, does little good. Far better to learn about sharks, their habits, and the important role they play in the ocean’s ecosystem than fall prey to misunderstanding and fear.