The Summer of Shark Politics on Cape Cod
Cape Cod life, which so often in the past, and often on the covers of this magazine, was a scene of seasonal escape, has now been reduced to an elemental battle, swimmer versus shark—with the occasional gray seal caught between, as bait for the sharks and bane for the swimmers. The outlines of this struggle are, by now, familiar to readers and to television viewers. Over the past few years, sightings of great white sharks, which are often tagged with fiendishly hardy electronic equipment, have increased along the Atlantic coast of the Cape and particularly along the “outer” edge of the peninsula, near to the Provincetown tip, where the more famous summer places are. A few tentative, toothy encounters between man and man-eater over the past decade became, last summer, newly bloody. One attack saw a New Yorker mauled at Longnook Beach, in Truro. That was followed by a tragic and fatal incident, when a swimmer on a boogie board was killed by a shark at Newcomb Hollow Beach, in Wellfleet. Overnight, beautiful Longnook became, in many minds, Blood Beach; cheerful Newcomb, Death Beach.
This summer has yet to see an attack, but it has induced the permanent jumps among the bathers. A new app called Sharktivity regularly tracks sightings along specific beaches; the signs between parking lots and beaches announce not merely that sharks might be found in these waters but, more pointedly, that sharks feed on seals here and might feed on you; and a full range of shark-repellent gear and folk practices are suddenly in play. Incurable diseases provoke more cures than curable ones: when the black plague reigned, leaves and ritual burnings proliferated to protect you, even if none could. And so, on the beaches in Wellfleet and Truro, bathers can now be seen wearing elaborate striped socks on their feet and shins, adhering to the dubious belief that, since seals are not striped, a striped bather will not easily be confused with a seal. (They look oddly like nineteenth-century baseball players, the fathers of the Red Sox.) Other swimmers assure each other that a narrow band of waves between the sand and deeper surf is safe from sharks, who are said to fear being beached more than they seek a good snack. Talk of ultrasonic beepers that would ward off sharks mid-assault is everywhere.
None of these seem to do much good, and the warnings themselves seem futile, or more reassuring than actually helpful. The sightings, specific to this beach or that—a shark seen at Ballston Beach! another at Head of the Meadow!—feel intrinsically pointless. The truth is that the great whites cruise up and down the coast for their food, racing in as shallowly as the mood takes them, and that the named beaches where they are or are not to be avoided are a purely human contrivance, designed to give local specificity to what is, from hungry nature’s point of view, merely a long and undifferentiated lunch counter. As with climate change, we are in the midst of the new normal: summers past, where children surged on their boards in the surf for hours at a time, and their parents looked up occasionally from their books beneath their umbrellas, are likely gone for good.
Needless to say, politics have descended from the crisis, not least because the economy, for the Cape locals, depends on three months of furious, waterlogged tourism. On the right-wing side, the presence of the sharks is seen as a classic example of the folly of liberal do-gooding and the boomerang absurdities of “reform.” The sharks on the Cape are here because the gray seals they dine on are here, and the gray seals are here because of the well-intended Marine Mammal Protection Act of the early seventies, which made it illegal to kill a seal. Every year, more and more seals could be seen unmolested in the Atlantic, until, as one local put it exasperatedly, “they became ocean rats.” This led the great whites in, as predictably as relentlessly.
On the left or liberal side, the claim is that climate change is responsible for the crisis, and though the mechanics of how this happened are slightly mysterious—it is certainly true that southern fish are moving northward as the oceans warm, but the great white shark, being self-regulating in temperature, seems more moved by hunger than by a will to emigrate—the conviction remains strong. What is exasperating to the locals is that the standard liberal view is now that the ocean habitat is one where the sharks are more native than the swimmers, and that the ocean must be “shared,” though, of course, one can share an ocean with a shark only as one shares a forest with a tiger. This is a case, many of the locals insist, where lease-bound American liberals will not even take the side of their own species against a shark.
On Martha’s Vineyard, where they can afford to take a more philosophical view of this, local movie theatres have, for years, been showing “Jaws,” the Steven Spielberg classic from 1975, every week, all summer long. (The film was shot on the island.) “Jaws” was a breakthrough movie of several kinds—Spielberg’s first huge hit, it was also the death knell of the golden moment of American movies in the early seventies, showing that one big hit could trounce many smaller successes. But its essential story, seen today, looks disconcertingly dated. An adaptation of “Moby Dick,” it is a classic story of a bad monster and a good man. It is taken for granted, in the film, that there is a shark—one big people-eater—and that, if it can be removed, the vacation beach will be safe again. There is not an expectation that out there lies a symphony of like-minded sharks, brought in by years of incremental passion. Robert Shaw’s character, Quint, the knowing and obsessed shark hunter, is, like Ahab, so possessed by his demon that we know the story can end only one way, with their collision and mutual annihilation. The monster, though granted the sublime energy of his appetite, is still essentially evil: we gasp when it emerges unsuspected and cheer when it is, at last, blown up. Hubris is certainly punished, in the person of Shaw, but reasonableness is also defended, in the person of Roy Scheider, and reinforced in the intellect of Richard Dreyfuss’s character. It was man against monster, back then, and, though the men were tested, as always happens in an adventure, the monster lost.
We could not, would not, tell this story now. Our sympathies have been overturned: the shark would have our hearts, or a part of them. The story would be of the human-wrought disruptions of the ecology of the ocean. The first act’s climax might end with the death of the shark, but the second act (and third) would surely involve the revenge of some other mother or mega-shark, and the lesson learned at the end would not only be not to scorn nature—a lesson already tentatively apparent in the older movie—but not to valorize the American man. Shark and shark-hunter have equal claim to the sea. (The seals caught in between would doubtless have a smaller part in the remake—unless it were a Pixar film, in which case one of them would be the sympathetic protagonist, voiced by Tom Hanks and seeking a decent peace between the warring species.)
Meanwhile, the truth is that, sharks or no sharks, the appetite of summer Americans for their familiar pleasures remains undefeatable. An hour after a shark warning on Newcomb Hollow—Death Beach itself—the lifeguard blows her whistle, and everyone troops back into the waves, jumping and body surfing and shrieking, at least for now with pleasure. “You watch everyone jump back in, unafraid,” one bemused woman said, “and you don’t know whether to exult in the human spirit or despair of the human spirit.” It seemed about all that could be said for now.
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