100 years since Jersey Shore attacks taught us to fear — and respect — sharks
Next week marks 100 years since a series of shark attacks at the Jersey Shore that left four people dead and another without a leg.
Experts say our knowledge and appreciation of the ocean's top predator has grown immensely since that bloody 12-day period in early July 1916.
Back then, sharks did not occupy the depths of the public's nightmares. Most believed they presented no harm to humans. And even though attacks had been reported in medical journals since the late 1800s, scientists tended to dismiss reports of shark bites as fishermen tales.
But those doubts quickly disappeared between July 1 and July 12 of that year when the same shark reportedly took a bite out of swimmers in Beach Haven, Spring Lake and Matawan Creek.
According to Marie Levine, executive director of the Shark Research Institute in Princeton, no specific reasons have been offered as to why that week posed a bigger danger to swimmers than any other week since.
"We do know that it was an unusually shark-y year," Levine said. "Sharks had been seen as far up the Hudson as Tarrytown, New York. But why that one year? We don't know."
Since the shark attack spree of 1916, there have been 13 additional attacks in New Jersey waters, according to the Global Shark Attack File. The most recent incident occurred in Bay Head in November 2013 when a shark took a chunk out of the swim fin of a 16-year-old body boarder.
While these attacks prove that sharks can be a danger to humans, Levine said it's important to note we are "not on their menu." Sharks have been known to mistake swimmers or surfers as marine life and let go after the initial attack — but sometimes it's too late.
"Every animal has a menu imprinted on its brain, and sharks were around long before humans were," Levine said. "We humans are carnivores and we're plant eaters, but we don't go out and chew on our own lawn."
But to stay safe, Levine said some common sense tips can help keep you out of harm's way in the ocean.
Don't swim at the mouth of a river that's emptying into the sea, she said, and don't enter the water where fishing is a common occurrence.
Two teens each lost an arm last summer off a North Carolina beach, a popular spot for fishing, where it's likely there was bait in the water that could attract sharks.
"Sharks learn and they remember," Levine said. "Food is paramount and they know where to find it, and they remember where they found it."
According to Levine, there is "very rarely" a shark threat in New Jersey waters that are typically used by vacationers, but the ocean is still not a swimming pool.
"We hope that sharks are always in our water," she said. "Sharks are absolutely vital to the health of the ocean."
The Shark Research Institute website points to "dramatic declines in shark populations" due to high catch rates for shark fin and their accidental capture while fishing boats are targeting other species.