"I think we need a bigger boat!" gasped Police Chief after seeing the monster shark off the transom of Quint’s boat Orca in the movie “Jaws” in the 1970’s. The sequels to Peter Benchley’s original book kept folks out of our waters for years. Benchley’s creation was based on the adventures of Captain “Monster Hunter” Al Mundus and his boat Cricket II docked in Montauk and the 1968 Nature film by Peter Gimbel on great whites called “Blue Water-White Death”.
My first encounter with a shark came in 1968. I was a Jamaica Bay boy but my future wife, Linda, came from South Amityville. One summer day, off we go on her cousin Dave’s boat across to Gilgo Beach for “Beach Party Bingo” and swimming. (There was some drinking involved.) I was neck deep in the surf on a rather calm day when a shark’s head, then it’s body, surfaced right in my face then slowly dove down as it’s dorsal fin and tail came across my vision 3 feet in front of me! I got out of that water FAST!!! Here’s the thing. All my wife’s fifty cousins and brothers were there too. I went back to the towel and didn’t say a thing. The biggest danger was the mockery and a Queen’s boy cannot afford to be mocked!!! Besides, we never saw real sharks at Rockaway or Coney Island other than the street gang called “Beach 32nd Street Sharks”.
Linda and I married that year and moved to Merrick, south of Merrick Road in an old Sears’s beach house built in 1917. I took up surf fishing and saw a large blue shark swimming off the Jones Inlet jetty. Later I got a small clam boat and just tooled around the bay until 1984 when I bought a Wellcraft V20 Step Lift. It was the best boat I’ve ever owned and I’ve had quite a few. That small boat with its puny 115hp Evinrude Sea Drive tackled the Mudhole, Yankee, Cholera, BA buoy and beyond. No GPS, no radar, just dead reckoning and prayer if thick mists socked us in. We caught our share of sharks, mostly small to mid-range. What wasn’t to be eaten went back.
In early autumn, 1987, coming back from Cholera, we saw a ton of birds 4 miles southeast of Jones Inlet. Binoculars showed a large bulge in the water and a long milky yellow stain in the water drifting to the east. My mates and I took off to investigate. Drawing closer, the smell made us gag as we watched the water splash in turmoil. Within 200 yards we realized it was a rotting whale and with a huge great white taking refrigerator size chunks of putrid blubber out of the carcass. We watched her in awe while holding bluefish gut perfumed fishing rags to our faces to cut the stench. We remained fascinated yet uneasy for about an hour then entered the inlet to a beautiful setting sun.
That night I pulled out the book version of “Blue Water, White Death” noting the best encounters Gimbel had with great whites was between Montauk and Cape Cod. Until my encounters with the sharks and that dead whale off Jones Beach, I considered whites a rare incidental sighting. Although Al Mundus was coming back with monster world record whites, he was silent about where and how far he went to hook up. He did, however, tell a story of once jumping onto a whale carcass with a rod and reel to induce a monster to take his bait. Only Al knew the truth of his tales. In the 1970s the New York Times ran a feature article titled “Man and Shark on Long Island, An uneasy co-existence!’’ They showed photo’s of big sharks just off the surf where people were swimming on our beaches. That sort of piqued my interest even more.
After ‘Jaws” every sport fisherman was targeting great whites. Everyone wanted to be “Monster Man” or “Quint”. Boats were getting faster, bigger, and going farther. On my cousin Dave Heller’s 29 ft. Luhrs, we were at the Bacardi Wreck 65 miles out one day without hooking one tuna. Dave started the engines to return when a massive great white moved laterally from under the boat, rolled and stared at us as if saying “Did you think you would hook up with me lying under your hull? No one wanted to jimmy around the gunnels to the bow and pull the massive amount of anchor rode we had out. Peter O’ Neil and I drew the straws and Dave took the vessel in a wide arc until the ball freed the anchor up and we pulled the line. We ran miles before Pete and I had the courage to jimmy back to the aft deck. If we would have hooked that monster we definitely would have “Needed a bigger boat” that time!
Sharks bring out fascination, respect and even fear in us. This dynamic is positive for both humans and sharks, the primary predators in the oceans and “The Great White” is the apex shark. Because of all the Hollywood star studding, it didn’t take long for great white populations to plummet. Environmental advocates eventually succeeded getting the great white classified as a “protected” species. Great Whites were taken off the decks of sport fishermen and onto the computers of scientists seeking answers to mysterious questions about its range, lifespan, breeding grounds and pupping areas.
OCEARCH is one organization doing magnificent work in shark studies and many other areas of marine biology. In 2012 Ocearch caught a 3,500 lb. female great white off New Jersey. They installed a tracking device on her dorsal fin, named her ‘‘Mary Lee” and proceeded to track her. As she returned to these waters year after year they realized that something big might be happening on the mid-Atlantic Coast from New Jersey to Cape Cod. They began to fish for whites to tag and release more specimens. What has surprised biologists is the large amount of small great whites they have been catching each year, the majority being recently birthed “Pups” averaging 50 lbs. from the New York Bight to Montauk where the heaviest concentration was found and up to Cape Cod where a large juvenile population averaging 8 to 12 feet hang close to the coast attracted to growing seal populations, a major food source. There is a prevalence of larger adult females and some male sharks right offshore. They could be breeding in addition to birthing here.
Mary Lee’s tracking device went silent last summer after 5 years of continually tracking of her. Most probably the unit batteries wore out. Last summer another large great white was tagged named “Hilton” after Hilton Head, where he was caught. He swam up to Nova Scotia bypassing our areas. Scientists suspect another mating area up there. Great white shark science is in its infancy but there are certain facts concerning great whites that now cannot be challenged. They can longer be considered “Occasional Visitors” because they are here along our beaches in significant numbers. Cape Cod, Montauk, Island’s South Shore and the Jersey Coast have experienced much greater numbers since being protected. They share the ocean with us during the summer and there has rarely been an accident. This all adds up to an ecological success story and I laud it.
Please support Ocearch whose work in science and education is unparalleled by contacting them at info@ ocearch.com. There is so much more to what this organization does to protect our waters than I can possibly do justice to in a few short pages.
Now I’m getting out of the water. I think I saw a large fin!!!!