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Twenty-five years ago, in the waters off Sydney, Australia, a 14-foot tiger shark ate its way into an even more spectacular court case. In the spring of 1935 a fisherman who found the big tiger tangled in his set lines gave his captive to Sydney's Coogee Aquarium. Eight days later the shark languished and regurgitated a whole human arm. In the opinion of a surgical expert, Dr. V. M. Coppleson, who happens also to be Australia's foremost authority on shark attacks, the arm had been cut off too cleanly to be the work of the tiger shark. There was a short length of rope tied to the arm. The forearm bore a tattoo of two boxers facing off, a sure clue that the arm belonged to 45-year-old James Smith, a billiard maker and onetime amateur boxer whom the police suspected had been murdered by partners in crime. One of Smith's cronies recently had bought a mattress (conceivably to replace one bloodied in Smith's murder) and also a tin trunk (large enough to accommodate most of a body). When the shark gruesomely delivered up Smith's arm, the crown had a clincher for its case. But defense counsel reached far back into history to fetch the crown a terrific counterblow. By an ancient British law, de officio coronatoris of the year 1276, a single arm is not enough to establish corpus delicti. The big tiger shark was cut open, but its stomach yielded nothing more. The case was dropped. The rest of James Smith is still missing.
The earliest records of man's difficulties with sharks are sketchy. Ancient mariners—and ancient historians—called large fishes "monsters" and let it go at that. Thus when Herodotus wrote that sea monsters attacked sailors of the foundering Persian fleet off the Thessalian coast in 492 B.C., it is a fair assumption, but only an assumption, that the attackers were sharks.
Since Aristotle's day there has been some learning for the sake of learning, but most of what is known about sharks has been learned of necessity. It was not until the era of exploration, when so-called civilized men sailed all the warm seas, that the shark came to be well known, fairly well misunderstood and totally disliked. In 1569, Captain John Hawkins, a freebooter specializing in the rascally business of pirating slaves, exhibited a large shark in London. It is believed Hawkins' men originated the word "sharks" from the German Schurke, meaning villain.
Early sailors, finding human remains in many species of large sharks, hung the charge of man-killer on the whole lot. Because they eat the dead, sharks take many bum raps. The worst part many sharks ever play is that of a garbage collector cleaning up some sorry mess created by man. However, from attacks reliably documented, there are known to be at least a dozen species of man-killers. By their makeup and behavior, several dozen other species are strongly suspect. Unquestionably the No. 1 killer is the great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, a strong, fast and intemperate fish that at times attacks small boats seemingly out of pure whimsy. The great white is found almost everywhere but, as sharks go, it is not abundant—and that is a blessing. A white shark matures at about 14 feet and 1,500 pounds. The largest gamefish ever caught on rod and reel was a 16-foot, 10-inch, 2,664-pound white shark taken by Alf Dean in Denial Bay, Australia—a record not likely to stand forever, for white sharks are known to run over 20 feet.
The Pacific mako, I surus glaucus, a near relation of the great white, is a killer, but an infrequent one that rarely invades the shallows used by man. At least one species of the hammerhead family, probably the common species Sphyrna zygaena, has attacked men occasionally. The Carcharhinidae, the largest family of sharks, contains a number of bad actors. The worst of the carcharhinid family is the tiger, Galeocerdo cuvier, which, because of its abundance over a vast range, actually causes more trouble than the great white shark. The tiger feeds by day or night in the shallows and out to 200 fathoms, just about everywhere in temperate and tropic waters. In the Atlantic the lemon shark, Negaprion brevirostris, like the tiger, is often found inshore, in shallow guts and estuaries, uncomfortably close to boating and bathing areas. In the carcharhinid family, one genus, Carcharhinus, includes at the very least three certified killers. One of these is the fresh-water shark, nicaraguensis. Another, gangeticus, ranges the Indian Ocean and far up into the sweet water of rivers. The white-tip shark, longimanus, of the same genus is a particular worry to castaways on the open waters. The white-tip rarely visits inside the 100-fathom curve, but in the tropics it pretty much has the open ocean to itself, investigating, bumping every floating object and taking whatever is reasonably digestible. "White-tip sharks are not easily driven off," reports Stewart Springer, a veteran sharker now with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "In fact, I do not know anything except a beaker of Formalin poured down the gullet that elicits a very strong reaction. They continue a slow and persistent attack despite nonmortal bullet holes." Very probably the genus Carcharhinus includes other killers—possibly the bay shark, of the Pacific coast, and the dusky and cub sharks of the Caribbean and U.S. East Coast. The various species of the genus look much alike, and in the murk and swirl of an attack not even an expert can be sure of the exact species.
Of all the popular coastlines, none is so grievously plagued by large tiger and white sharks as eastern Australia. As if these worldly killers were not enough, in Australia other species of the carcharhinid family, commonly called whaler sharks, add to the toll. The beautiful Australian coast seems to bring out the worst in sharks. For example, the Australian sand shark, Carchariasarenarius, commonly known as the grey nurse, has been charged with a number of crimes. In contrast, the grey nurse's near twin, the American sand shark, Carcharias taurus, prowls off popular Long Island beaches armed with the same rakelike teeth, but has never been known to take the fatted leg of man.
In their effort to cope with sharks men have tried a wild variety of devices and ruses. Some Japanese divers wear red sashes to dissuade attackers, and Ceylonese divers still put more faith than they should in shark charms. California tuna fishermen capitalize on the sharks' interest in bright objects by punching holes in cans of Drano and dropping them overboard. The lye and magnesium in Drano, combining with digestive juices, play hob with the shark's insides, which ordinarily seem as indestructible as an acid vat. Eighteenth-century Mediterranean sailors thought they could forestall attacks by feeding the sharks loaves of bread. When that did not work, a man was hung over the side to make faces at the shark. Such futile antics point up the biggest flaw in early attempts to thwart sharks: nobody knew enough about the creatures or how they behaved. Casting bread on sharky waters happens to be a waste of time, and when sharks are in a feeding frenzy, the man who hangs too close to the surface to grimace, may lose his head—face, grimace and all.
By the end of the era of exploration the sea world was pretty well known. By the 19th century there were better sailors, much better ships, relatively less contact with sharks and thus less need to know them. The world's navies were doing their hardest fighting in cooler waters, where castaways ran far greater risk of death from exposure than from sharks. The pendulum, in effect, swung back. There were fewer lurid accounts of attacks and an increasing number of debunkers—both men of knowledge and men with big mouths—pooh-poohing the threat of sharks.
Near the close of the last century, Hermann Oelrichs, heir to the North German Lloyd shipping fortune and a sea lover, offered a $500 reward for sure evidence of a shark attack north of Cape Hatteras. Oelrichs' offer presumably expired with his death in 1906. The evidence came too late, but when it came, Oelrichs' $500 would scarcely have covered the funeral expenses. On July 2, 1916, a shark killed Charles Vansant in shoulder-deep water off Beach Haven, New Jersey. Four days later, a shark killed Charles Bruder at Spring Lake 35 miles north. And, despite assurances of several authorities that there was little to fear, six days later in Matawan Creek, inside the sweeping arm of Sandy Hook, a shark killed 10-year-old Lester Stilwell and his unsuccessful rescuer, Stanley Fisher, and so badly mauled 12-year-old John Dunn that his left leg had to come off. The five attacks probably were the work of a single raider, an immature white shark a scant 9 feet long. The 9-foot killer was caught two days later near the sites of the last three attacks; in its stomach a taxidermist found human bones implicating it in one of the two earlier attacks farther south.
The Australians have been real believers in the shark menace since the turn of this century, when they cast off Victorian prudery and headed for the water en masse. In his book Shark Attack, published last year, Dr. Coppleson of Sydney lists 147 attacks in Australian waters over the past 40 years. Since 1937 many of the popular Australian beaches have been protected by meshing. In the Australian system a pair of 500-foot nets are set off the beach at night, then picked up in the morning, and the snared sharks removed. This mobile type of meshing has virtually canceled out shark attacks on popular beaches. South African beaches in the Durban area adopted a system of permanent meshing, successful so long as the netting is maintained. The trouble with either system is the expense: Dr. Coppleson estimates the cost of each meshed shark at about $32. The obvious alternative to such mass protection is some sort of portable, personal shark deterrent.