Modern history

Alien World

Barely two years old, the young shark was at the beginning of an epic growth spurt. At nearly eight feet and four hundred pounds, it was a seed of what it would become. How large white sharks grow is unknown, but the largest documented was almost twenty feet and several tons. Numerous reports of larger whites—as big as twenty-nine feet, five tons—have been debunked, but some shark biologists believe the goliaths are out there, at twenty-five, even thirty feet, so big no man-made gear or boat could land them. The young shark would simply grow as long as it lived, and no human knew what gigantism it could attain. Its life would be lengthy, half a century or more, and remarkably hardy. It would be free of cancer, infections, circulatory diseases, competition. Its wounds would heal themselves with a speed people associate with science fiction. If the law of nature was competition, it would operate above the law. But there were limits to the great white's power, and in July 1916, the young white moved like a creature raging against those limits.

After days of swimming north along the shore, it came to the northernmost tip of the Jersey coast, the Sandy Hook peninsula. Sandy Hook—with the Rockaways and Coney Island six miles north across the lower New York bays—framed the ocean's door to New York Harbor.

The shark rounded False Channel at the tip of the peninsula. To the east was the open ocean bounded by the fertile southern coast of Long Island, where—unknown to men at the time—dwelled some of the largest great white sharks in the world, and plenty of prey to nourish them. Passenger steamers plied up the Narrows to Ellis Island, passing the Statue of Liberty and its beacon torch, lit by electricity for the first time in 1916. Following its instinct to hug the coast, the shark cruised around the tip of Sandy Hook and left the ocean for good, curling into Sandy Hook Bay. From the deep clean currents of the Atlantic, the big fish now wallowed in five and six and eight feet of bay water. The great white was on a path away from the ocean, toward a coast lined with brackish waterways.

Of the more than four hundred species of sharks, only a few can pass from salt- to freshwater, and only one is a large predator, the bull shark, Carcharhinus leucas. The bull, along with the tiger shark and great white, is part of the “unholy trinity” of proven man-eaters. In the 980 shark attacks on humans and boats recorded by the International Shark Attack File between the year 1580 and October 2000, more than half of the attacks were attributed to only three species of shark: great white (348), tiger (116), and bull (82). The bull shark possesses a unique ability to cross into rivers and lakes. It has been recorded 1,750 miles up the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, and 2,500 miles up the Amazon in Peru. It devours the dead laid to rest in the Ganges River in India. The great white could survive in brackish water, but only temporarily. This is one of the few limits of the apex predator, a niche filled by another species. In brackish water a great white loses the salt balance between its body and the water. To restore the equilibrium, the shark's flesh loses salt to the water, and slowly its basic physiological functions shut down. For a short time only, the shark's huge mass would protect it from feeling the deadly effects.

The young white meandered west, winding around the mouths of creeks and rivers and harbors, hugging the tortuous shore, traveling farther from the life-giving sea. Familiar prey was gone, and the shark became further weakened. Sluggishness heightened its urgency to feed. Confusion or sluggishness was certain death.

The shark was neither the first nor last sea creature to become disoriented on the labyrinthine shore of Sandy Hook Bay. Seventy-eight summers later, in 1994, a pod of dolphins left the Atlantic side of Sandy Hook just as the shark had done, and, rounding into Sandy Hook Bay, instinctively following the coast, swam up the Shrewsbury River. All summer they frolicked and fed in the shallow waters of the river, but come January, as temperatures dropped to freezing on the Shrewsbury, three of the dolphins were trapped, desperately hurtling their gleaming gray bodies through the ice to make breathing holes. At last a Coast Guard vessel enticed them to swim to within two miles of the mouth of the river that led to the bay and then to the freedom of the sea. But the dolphins circled in confusion and, instinctively heading south, turned back up the ice-choked river, where they perished.

The great white swam west, instinctively trying to find its way back to the sea but traveling ever more distant from it. It passed the Shrewsbury River, the dolphin's downfall, and then Ware Creek and Belford Harbor and Pewes Creek as it sluiced from the marsh. The coast was swampy and quiet and strung with the small towns of Atlantic Highlands, Port Monmouth, and Keansburg. Two hundred feet above sea level, at Atlantic Highlands, shone the double lights of the Twin Light of Navesink, the country's most powerful lighthouse, beaming twenty miles across the bay.

Around the promontory of Point Comfort, the shark dropped south into a broad natural harbor of windswept marshland, climbed northerly out of the harbor past tiny Flat Creek and East Creek, and swam around another promontory, Conaskonk Point, into Raritan Bay. Conaskonk Point opened wide to Keyport Harbor approximately half a mile across, and the shark followed the line of the harbor south, past the town of Keyport, following the coast. But the coastline of Keyport Harbor did not sweep around seamlessly back to Raritan Bay. Keyport Harbor funneled into a cut some seven hundred and fifty feet wide, narrowing again to the mouth of Matawan Creek, a wide tidal creek, two hundred feet across. Matawan Creek was wide enough for a fish inclined to follow the coast to mistake it for the shoreline, and so on that morning, the great white shark hewed to the coast and turned into the creek, surely unaware it had left Raritan Bay.

The shark swept into the creek on the high tide, surging in on currents of saltwater. Yet not far from the mouth of the creek, the inland waterway dramatically narrowed like an inverted telescope, tapering down from two hundred feet across to a hundred to fifty to barely twenty. Within a few sweeps of its powerful tail the shark entered a diminishing world, murky and sluicing with fresh water, and it grew unsettled.

The big fish was forced to swim in the deeper middle of the creek, a narrow navigable channel, a tighter trap. The creek was only eight feet deep at high tide and sank to one foot at low tide, when the local farmers and fishermen went clamming. This was a situation it had never encountered before. The world it was born into had no walls or edges. The sea was forever. There were only two corners, two boundaries: the beach and the bottom. In brackish water, with the bottom and sides closing in, the shark may have experienced a kind of claustrophobia, shark biologists speculate. By the time the shark became aware of its mistake, it found it difficult to escape the small waterway. Perhaps it tried, and failed to return to the sea, redoubling its frustration. In alien environments, sharks become weakened, desperate, highly agitated.

South African researcher Campbell has suggested “petulance, possibly induced by environmental conditions” as a leading cause of shark attack. But Campbell's theory refers to a normal shark exposed to stress. The big fish that entered Matawan Creek was profoundly disturbed before it became trapped, already on a rare and fragile edge of violence, even for its species—“like a person,” ichthyologist George Burgess says, “who goes off the deep end and starts shooting.” Yet as it swam with slackening thrusts of its tail, the shark detected signals that washed about its lateral line through the brown and clouded water, signals of interest, thrumming with sonic and then olfactory cues and then explosions, signals of prey. A mile and a half ahead, as the creek wended in a lazy S shape through the sedge marshes, lay the town of Matawan.

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