Modern history

A Long-Range Cruising Rogue

As the motorboats rumbled and bloodied the waters of Spring Lake, not far offshore the great white swam with growing urgency. Never straying more than a half mile from shore, it swept north and south, fronting the coast, stalking the two-mile-long beach of Spring Lake and the coastline a few miles north toward Asbury Park. The shark moved with increasing expectancy, for it had hunted with success, and prey was very close now, abundant prey; it could sense it with numerous electrical, sonic, and olfactory systems. Wary of boats and oars, the shark safely tracked its prey from a distance, with no need to approach the shore. Its lateral lines tingled with the distant vibration of motorboat engines. Gasoline engines for boats were a new invention, and men then could not have known the acoustic chorus they sang over time and space for sharks. The shark detected the sonic pulses of swimmers under and beyond the blockade of the boats like a submersible receiving coded signals beneath an antiquated navy. Molecules of blood in the water, carried on currents from miles away, moved in and out of the shark's flapped nostrils, firing its cerebellum to adjust its fins for a new direction. As the shark haunted the coast that afternoon, the men of New Jersey were growing edgy enough to shoot at anything that swam. It is likely the rogue great white was among the targets that the Spring Lake patrol fired at, for there is compelling evidence that it remained in the area after killing Bruder. The shark, like its pursuers, was growing increasingly edgy, attacking oars and boats and anything that moved.

There is scant science on the matter of a rogue shark, a deliberate man-eater, while skepticism persists that such a creature exists. As people are not a regular prey for sharks, a purposeful hunter of humans like a rogue lion or elephant must be injured, crazed, aberrant. Furthermore an oceanic “serial killer” is nearly impossible to catch and convict, its work concealed, the evidence eradicated by the enclosing sea. But the late Dr. Sir Victor Coppleson, a distinguished Australian surgeon knighted by the queen, tracked the global movements of rogues across the twentieth century, beginning in 1922, when he began treating shark bites as a young doctor at St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney. In 1933, Coppleson coined the term “rogue shark” in the Medical Journal of Australia. “A rogue shark,” he wrote, “if the theory is correct, and evidence appears to prove it to the hilt—like the man-eating tiger, is a killer which, having experienced the deadly sport of killing or mauling a human, goes in search of similar game. The theory is supported by the pattern and frequency of many attacks.”

Rogue attacks began, Coppleson believed, with the rising popularity of beaches for recreational use at the turn of the century. Coppleson's ground zero for investigation was Sydney, where rogue attacks were unknown until the sport of surfing arrived in 1919. Then, on February 4, 1922, Milton Coughlan, a surfman, was “cracking a few waves” on Coogee Beach when a large shark “struck with such terrific force that he was lifted from the water,” whereupon a crowd watched a large pair of jaws snap off Coughlan's arm. He died shortly afterward at a local hospital. Coppleson suspected a pattern when, less than a month later, twenty-one-year-old Mervyn Gannon was struck and killed at the same beach. During the next three years, Nita Derritt, a saleswoman, lost both legs in a shark attack, and Jack Dagworthy, sixteen, lost a leg when a shark leapt out of the water at him, mouth agape. The work of a single deranged shark, Coppleson concluded in such cases, was the only logical explanation. It seemed to him far-fetched to believe that a beach swimming area, free from shark attack for decades, would suddenly be invaded by groups of man-eating sharks, then, just as suddenly, be free of attack for years to come. Often, the “rogue series”—a reign of terror lasting several days or years—ended when a single man-eater was captured.

In a pattern eerily similar to that of great whites in California observed hunting sea lions on or near anniversary days, the rogue sharks in Australia often took human victims in the same area near the one-year anniversary of an earlier killing. What Coppleson considered “the most spine-chilling . . . attack known in Sydney waters” was part of an “anniversary” pattern. Zita Steadman, twenty-eight, was swimming with friends near Bantry Bay in January 1942, standing in waist-deep water, when a friend named Burns warned her not to go too far. Zita had just turned to go back, when she suddenly shrieked, and a huge shark was clearly visible to her friends, mauling the young woman. Burns grabbed an oar from their rowboat and began smashing at the attacker, but to no avail. Burns then rammed the shark, which shrugged off the boat and kept attacking. The shark struck Steadman “with such ferocity that it was throwing itself into the air” and began to draw its prey into deeper water. In desperation, Burns pulled Zita Steadman away from the shark by grabbing her long, dark hair; Steadman had been bitten in two. Less than a year later, while standing in the same waters, fifteen-year-old Denise Burch was torn apart by the same shark that killed Zita Steadman, Coppleson believed.

In twenty-five years, Coppleson discovered the work of rogue sharks all over the world. In December 1957, in Durban, South Africa, during the three weeks known as “Black December,” three swimmers were killed, one was severely mauled, and another lost a leg. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the 1920s, he investigated five attacks on the same beach during three years, including that of an American schoolteacher who died almost instantly as a shark removed most of her hip, thigh, and related bones in a single bite, and that of a Professor Winslow, found with both arms and legs almost severed from his body, his hands gone. In Africa and Australia in the 1950s, Coppleson's theory was useful to people seeking an understanding of shark attacks, and led to the erection of shark nets to combat rogues. Only in the United States, where “writers for many years . . . have labeled most stories of shark attacks on humans as ‘fish yarns,' were scientists skeptical,” Coppleson found. Such skepticism was ironic, since in Coppleson's research, the United States trailed only Australia and Africa in shark attacks and “one of the most remarkable series of shark attacks in world history” occurred on its Atlantic coast, in New Jersey, in 1916. The New Jersey case was one of a number that supported Coppleson's contention, “as fantastic as it may seem,” that a rogue shark can strike at distances of sixty to eighty miles apart over several days or weeks. In fact, the Jersey shark was “the classic example of . . . a long-range cruising rogue.”

Coppleson believed that he was so expert in profiling the tendencies of rogue sharks that he was able to predict days in advance when a man-eater would strike. When a shark attacking dogs near Botany Bay was mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald in early January 1940, Coppleson later regretted not writing a letter to the editor that it fit the profile of a rogue. A large shark that appeared near a beach or harbor deeply agitated, “acting savagely, snapping fish from lines, tearing nets, and attacking dogs,” charging boats or attacking anything in sight, was an incipient man-eater. On January 23, a thirteen-year-old boy, Maxwell Farrin, was killed by a shark near Botany Bay. The next day, Coppleson published his letter, advising capture of the shark and warning swimmers to be cautious, for “on the rogue shark theory it would strike again.” John William Eke, fifty-five, didn't heed the warning, and eleven days later, four hundred yards from the Farrin attack, he lost his life to a shark.

Scientists in 1916 were ignorant of Coppleson's theory (it was not published for another forty years). By the twenty-first century, Coppleson's theory was widely dismissed by scientists. Yet the rogue theory gave shark-stricken coasts in the mid– twentieth century some grasp, some understanding, of the apex predator. Cluster attacks can now sometimes be explained by coastal water-temperature changes that draw sharks to beach areas when swimmers are in the water. In 1916, there was no such awareness. As the shark moved off the coast of Spring Lake and Asbury Park on July 7, 1916, there was no clue that it was escalating toward a series of attacks unprecedented in two thousand years of shark attacks on man. Many years later, Coppleson, in his exhaustive if anecdotal survey, concluded with some surprise that none of the fabled, huge “white pointers” of Australia had ever traveled as widely to kill as many human beings, nor had any “ever shown the ferocity of the ‘mad shark' of New Jersey in July 1916.”

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