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Fear and Fascination: 40 years after ‘Jaws’ there’s much we don’t know about the great white

Researchers with OCEARCH hauled in "Savannah," a young, 8.5 foot female great white shark on Sunday March 4, 2017, during the he research organization's Expedition Lowcountry. The team has been on the hunt for sharks since Feb 27. hoping to tag specimens to further understand their movements. Robert Snow OCEARCH
Researchers with OCEARCH hauled in "Savannah," a young, 8.5 foot female great white shark on Sunday March 4, 2017, during the he research organization's Expedition Lowcountry. The team has been on the hunt for sharks since Feb 27. hoping to tag specimens to further understand their movements. Robert Snow OCEARCH

It’s hard to think of a time when the movie theater wasn’t thought of as a destination during the summer months.

Sure, there were movies. But the term “summer blockbuster” didn’t exist.

That all changed in June 1975 when a shark ravaged a small tourist town in New England. And we’re still feeling the effects of it.

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ did more than break box office records. The film, which remains the 7th highest grossing movie in North America, cast a murderous shark as its villain, giving it an unforgettable heart-pounding musical score and even the ability to seek revenge.

‘Sharknado’ it wasn’t. This was no laughing matter.

‘Jaws’ instilled fear for the great white shark. More than 40 years later, some of us are still scared. Others are just fascinated.

Panic spurs population drop

Our fear of sharks, at least in the United States, dates back 100 years. You might be surprised to know sharks weren’t even in the public consciousness for most Americans until 1916. That was the year, as more and more people began to spend their summers at the beach, a series of shark attacks occurred off the Jersey Shore. The widespread panic was so bad that even President Woodrow Wilson held a special cabinet meeting on how to erase the shark menace. Spoiler: Nothing was done.

Was the fear valid? To put things in perspective, man’s best friend kills more humans each year than sharks do. Think of how many dogs live in your neighborhood. It’s estimated that humans kill roughly 100 million sharks each year, while shark attacks in recent years number only a few dozen. And more people die in drownings each day than have been killed by sharks in 10 years.

Wilson and his cabinet didn’t do anything about the ‘shark menace.’ But the panic of 1916 did serve as the inspiration for ‘Jaws,’ a movie franchise many say spurred on shark overfishing in the 1970s and 80s which caused population numbers to plummet.

Only in recent years, according to some sources, have populations begun to rebound. But it depends on who you ask. Much still is not known about the great white - how they travel, where they reproduce and even how they can be trained. With so much unknown, we can’t help but be fascinated.

One group looking to answer those questions, and better educate us about sharks, is OCEARCH.

The nonprofit studies and tracks great white and tiger sharks for conservation outreach and education.

They’re also creating social media superstars.

Breaking the myth of ‘Jaws’

Move over Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and even President Trump. Mary Lee, Katharine, and Genie are just a handful of sharks tagged by OCEARCH in recent years who have their own personalities - and tens of thousands of followers - on social media.

The inspiration for the names varies. Some are named after longtime supporters or family members. For others, like our own Hilton, Beaufort and Savannah, it represents the area where the shark was discovered. That, OCEARCH hopes, will give the community a sense of ownership.

It seems to be working. From New England to the Jersey Shore to the Lowcountry, OCEARCH’s efforts are spotlighting, and humanizing, the shark population.

And the sharks’ travels, tracked in real time every time the tag pings above the ocean surface, are helping researchers learn more about their behavior.

Mary Lee is wildly popular — arguably the internet’s favorite shark with more than 119,000 Twitter followers and 71,000 Facebook fans. According to OCEARCH founding chairman and expedition leader Chris Fischer, she’s paving the way for the new public image of sharks.

And, he says, she has the potential to undo everything that ‘Jaws’ did.

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