Close to Shore

Bookshelf: Close to Shore

Close to Shore: The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916 – Michael Capuzzo

Close to Shore
Close to Shore

My first exposure to the series of shark attacks that took place on the New Jersey coast of the USA in 1916 was in a made-for-television movie that forms part of the Shark Week featuring Mythbusters – Jaws Special. The film, Blood in the Water, was somewhat sensational with very graphic re-enactments of the attacks. I hoped that this book (upon which the film was based) would be more factual and scientific.

Alas, it is not. Capuzzo clearly steeped himself in the culture of the time, and his descriptions of dress, manners, habits and the ethos of the era are detailed, lengthy, and form the bulk of the book. I was interested to discover that swimming in the sea is a relatively modern pursuit.

Strangely, Capuzzo does not seem to be much interested in why the attacks happened. He does not even entertain the possiblity that more than one shark was responsible for the attacks, and he does not even question whether a shark other than a white shark (such as a bull shark, which has a high tolerance for fresh water) was involved. This is odd, since three of the attacks took place in a freshwater creek near New York, at high tide!

When he does speak about the shark, Capuzzo’s descriptions are heavily anthropomorphic, and he ascribes motives and feelings to it that are completely unsupported by any scientific research. He speaks of it having “acquired the taste for human flesh”, when there is no evidence that this occurs in sharks. He describes the protective membrane rolling over the shark’s eye when it attacks – great white sharks do not have such a membrane, a fact which explains their “bite once and wait” attack style! It’s almost as if he wore himself out researching the era, and ran out of steam when it came to the sharks!

My overall impression was that this book is an unfortunate addition to the body of literature and films that vilify and demonise sharks as single-minded killing machines. While it may contribute to our understanding of the Victorian age (though I doubt that Capuzzo is particularly well-placed to shed light on that already exhaustively-researched period of history), it contributes less than nothing to our understanding of the five 1916 attacks, or of sharks in general.

You can buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise from here. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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