Sharks in New England | History, Attacks & Pop Culture

From the first recorded human fatality by a shark to Jaws and frozen sharks in the news, we’re looking back at 250 years of New England shark history. 

By Yankee Magazine

Jul 06 2020


The movie Jaws wedded sharks and New England forever in the public imagination. Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, has since expressed regret that his work perpetuated negative stereotypes about sharks.

Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Thanks to a certain blockbuster movie, sharks and New England are permanently intertwined in the public imagination. But the truth of New England’s shark history might surprise you. Here is a brief survey of the history of New England shark attacks and some key moments in the region’s shark pop culture.
Sharks, like the great white pictured here, are one of the oldest life-forms on the planet.
Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons

Sharks in New England | History, Attacks & Pop Culture

History of New England Shark Attacks

The first recorded human fatality by shark was noted as having occurred on July 12, 1771, when a fisherman was killed off the coast of Massachusetts Bay. In the 165 years that followed, there were just five more fatalities in all of New England. The last of those occurred on July 25, 1936, when 16-year-old Joseph Troy was bitten by a shark while swimming off Buzzards Bay and died of blood loss during subsequent attempts to amputate his leg. There wasn’t another shark-related fatality in New England until September 2018, when a 26-year-old college student was bitten by what was believed to be a Great White shark while body boarding off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, Mass. The man was able to make it back to shore, but succumbed to his injuries a short time later. All told, shark attacks remain a rarity in the northeast. In the years since 1771, only about two dozen nonfatal shark bites have been recorded in New England. The most recent of those occurred in August 2018, when William Lytton, a 61-year-old doctor from New York, was bitten while swimming in 8-10 feet of water off Truro, Massachusetts.
Sharks attacks are relatively uncommon in New England waters, and fatalities even more so. The most recent was the death of Joseph Troy in 1936.
Photo Credit : New Bedford Standard-Times, July 26, 1936
According to the shark research program at the University of Florida, your odds of dying in a shark attack are roughly one in 3.7 million. To put that in perspective, cows are responsible for 20 times more deaths in the U.S. each year than sharks are. In a January 2017 interview with The Cape Cod Times, however, George Burgess, director emeritus of the University of Florida program, seemingly forecasted the events of summer 2018, predicting that there would likely be a shark-caused fatality at Cape Cod soon. The issue, Burgess explained, isn’t that the sharks are becoming more dangerous, but rather that human/shark proximity is increasing. Before the middle of the 20th century, very few humans ventured into the cold, choppy waters of the outer Cape. As tourism escalated and cold-water gear improved after World War II, humans started venturing farther and staying in the water longer. And by then, coastal seal populations had been decimated. In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, paving the way for a seal comeback. But as the seals have returned, so too have the sharks that dine on them. Except now there are people in the water, too.
The return of the seals to New England’s coast is bringing sharks and humans into closer proximity.
Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons
Sharks seldom target humans, scientists believe. What happens far more often is that they mistake humans for seals or other more desirable snacks. If it doesn’t know what something is, a shark may investigate by taking a nibble. But a shark nibble is a pretty big deal if you are on the receiving end. And now, thanks to Greg Skomal, a shark researcher with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, you can see the process firsthand. In 2017, Skomal was in the water off Chatham, Massachusetts, with a GoPro camera on a pole when an 11-foot female shark came by to “investigate.”
The 1975 movie Jaws wedded sharks and New England forever in the public imagination. Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, has since expressed regret that his work perpetuated negative stereotypes about sharks.
Photo Credit : Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Jaws: The Most Famous Shark in the World

In 1975, a young movie director named Steven Spielberg transformed a novel by Peter Benchley into the film that not only launched the concept of summer blockbuster movies, but also terrified generations of beachgoers. From composer John Williams’s ominous two-note tuba theme to the classic, ad-libbed one-liners (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”), Jaws infiltrated popular culture, earned more money than any film that had come before it, and changed our feelings about sharks forever. So why was Jaws set in New England? In Benchley’s book, a great white shark terrorizes a coastal New York community. For movie purposes, the story was relocated to a fictional Cape Cod island. According to the producers, there were two main reasons for the relocation, neither of which has much to do with actual sharks. The first was that the Cape in those days was seen as “more middle class” than Long Island, and so perhaps would be more impacted by a tourism disruption. The far more important reason, though, is that the waters around Martha’s Vineyard, where primary shooting took place, are shallow for a considerable distance out from land, making the film’s mechanical sharks easier to operate farther from shore.

Recent News: Frozen Sharks on Cape Cod

In the midst of an extreme cold spell during the winter of 2017-2018, reports of frozen sharks washing up dead on Cape Cod beaches made national headlines. Four thresher sharks were found in total. Their deaths were attributed to a combination of an unusually prolonged period of cold weather, the well-known hook-shaped landmass of the Cape, and shallow water. The protrusion of Cape Cod is notorious for disrupting migrations to warmer southern waters. Sharks need to keep moving in order to breathe, so they don’t survive long if they get “hooked” by the Cape and end up trapped on a sandbar. Note: We met up with Dr. Greg Skomal in Chatham, Massachusetts, to learn more about the tagging and tracking of great white sharks along the Atlantic coast in a season 2 episode of Weekends with Yankee, our public television show in collaboration with WGBH. Check the Weekends with Yankee site to learn more about the series, plus when and where to catch episodes. This post was first published in 2018 and has been updated.

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