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Goodbye and good riddance to the Summer of the Dull-Eyed Predator, the silent, voracious seeker of vulnerable flesh. But enough about Congressman Condit. Let's talk about sharks. There have been 42 attacks-two of them fatal—in the United States this year. Both fatalities occurred over Labor Day weekend, bringing shark phobia to a pitch not seen in this country since 1975, when Jaws hit theaters and the beaches of Amity ran red.
That those numbers—42 attacks, two fatalities—actually make this a relatively slow year, shark-bite-wise (last year, for example, there were at least 79 attacks worldwide, 53 in the U.S.) has not prevented media outlets from overreacting: "The Summer of the Shark" blared TIME'S cover on July 30, even before the two deaths. Nor has it kept politicians in Florida, Virginia and the Carolinas from announcing measures designed to prevent—or to at least give the appearance of trying to prevent—their constituents from entering the aquatic food chain.
Is it all a tempest in a chum bucket? Depends on whom you ask. George Burgess is an ichthyologist at the University of Florida, where he also serves as director of the International Shark Attack File. "Last year there were 10 fatalities worldwide; this year we've only had three," he says. "Of course your heart goes out to the victims, but if you step back for a second, you see that we're having a pretty slow year."
Burgess was the voice of reasoned calm amid this summer's bedlam. He was Greg Marmalard at the end of Animal House, exhorting the rioting townsfolk to "remain calm," assuring them, "All is well!" Still, all is not well. On Aug. 19 six surfers were bitten by sharks off the coast of Florida. Some experts see, in that mass attack and in the Labor Day killings, a dark omen. Jack Rudloe is a delightfully cantankerous marine biologist from Panacea, Fla., who runs a company called Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratories. While Rudloe doesn't dispute Burgess's numbers, he thinks something more profound is going on in the water. "Many of our major fisheries have collapsed," he says. "We've overharvested some species of sharks to the brink of extinction. Reefs are dying all over the world. Biodiversity is shrinking under man's impact." His conclusion?
"The shark gods are pissed off."
As well they should be, says John McCosker, senior scientist and shark specialist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. Citing the "shameful" and dramatic reductions in shark populations over the last two decades, he notes that sharks have "much more to fear from us than we do from them." After giving a recent talk, McCosker says, he was approached by a man from the Department of Agriculture, who confided in him that more people are eaten by barnyard pigs every year than by sharks.
Such actuarial arguments—one is 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning than by a shark—are cold comfort to those who find themselves in the jaws of a great white. "It felt like getting hit by a boat with razor blades," says Jonathan Kathrein, who was attacked by a 12-to 14-foot great white while boogie boarding off Northern California's Stinson Beach in 1998. "I felt its teeth pop through my skin, then my muscle, then clamp down on the bone."
A year later he was playing soccer for San Francisco's St. Ignatius High. Last year, as a freshman at Berkeley, Kathrein took an ocean geography class. The prof, after discovering that her pupil had gained some firsthand knowledge of sharks, asked for his help. So Kathrein stood in front of his classmates, discussing the annual "upwelling" that brings nutrient-rich waters—and salmon, and seals, and sharks—close to shore. "After a half hour," says Kathrein, "I told them my story and showed them my scar," a serrated half moon from buttock to right knee. "People who hadn't seemed interested were suddenly very interested."
Does Kathrein harbor any hard feelings toward sharks? "Not at all," he says. "I mean, when I go surfing now, I'd like the sharks to leave me alone. But I understand I'm in their territory."
Are the sharks ticked off? Only they know. And, much like the congressman, they're not saying.