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On coastlines the world around, the cry, "Shark!" sends swimmers tumbling to shore. Voices take up the chant, and it is carried mile upon mile. The swimmers stand on the warm shoulder of the beach and stare at the water. Later, they may swim again, but not so far out as before. Children invent a game called shark and lunge at each other in the shallows. They will play it for days, and for days it will unsettle their elders.
On the high seas the cry, "Shark!" rouses the off watch, and baited lines are put over the side. If a shark is caught and hoisted aboard, writes Jan de Hartog in A Sailor's Life, "the aft deck turns into a slaughterhouse. The men go berserk in a prehistoric orgy of fury and blood and rip out the animal's stomach to see what is inside.... When the orgy is over, there is a bewildered sense of shame...."
In his fear and hatred of sharks, in his morbid curiosity about them, man tends to be more emotional than reasonable. The danger from sharks at times has been exaggerated; still, their capacity as man-killers is well documented, and has been for some time. Nineteen centuries ago, in his vast Natural History, Pliny the Elder reported shark attacks on Greek sponge divers. Anyone wanting fresher evidence need look no farther back than last spring. On May 7, in San Francisco Bay, a shark seized 18-year-old Albert Kogler. A brave girl rescued Kogler, but he died within three hours from loss of blood. From the ragged wounds on Kogler's body, Dr. W. I. Follett, Curator of Fishes at the California Academy of Sciences, identified the killer as a great white shark armed with saw teeth, like those shown life-size in the jaw that frames these pages.
Five weeks after the attack on Kogler, in La Jolla Cove north of San Diego 33-year-old Robert Pamperin, a Convair engineer, was eaten by a shark. In the last tragic moments Pamperin's diving buddy, Gerald Lehrer, saw only this: silhouetted against a bright bottom 25 feet down was a 20-foot shark, jerking its head from side to side, Pamperin's body protruding from its mouth. In mid-August an Army lieutenant, James Neal, disappeared while skin-diving off Panama City, Florida. A shark is suspect: rescuers looking for the missing lieutenant found only tooth-scarred equipment. In July and August sharks of uncommonly large size were sighted in Buzzards Bay, Long Island Sound and off the Jersey coast. At this time of year northern waters are cold and inhospitable. Most sharks have moved southward. Vacationers, like the sharks, also are headed south to the playgrounds of Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Mexico. While swimming, skin-diving or fishing in southern waters, these vacationers surely will see sharks, and with the shark attacks of last summer in mind they might justifiably wonder if sharks are invading all the favored watering places of man. Actually, the situation is more the opposite. Sharks have always been around in good numbers. People have not. It is an inescapable and somewhat chilling fact that as an exploding, pleasure-bent population takes to the sea, it is bound to meet more sharks. The skin-diver is particularly vulnerable. There are five million of him now and, professional divers of one kind or another excepted, he pokes farther and stays longer in shark country than anyone ever has by choice.
Compared to all the natural and self-made calamities that befall mankind, shark attacks are indeed rare. Every day of his life, a man is safer in water with sharks than in a motorcar on the roaring road, but that fact is no help at all to the man who suddenly sees a large fin break the water near him. Man has learned to live with the dangers of fire, flood and automobiles; he still has a profound aversion to being eaten.
Since 1900 there have been at least 70 authenticated shark attacks in continental U.S. waters, and another 20 attacks around the Hawaiian Islands. These totals are incomplete and always will be. There probably have been other attacks not witnessed—notably attacks on persons lost at sea. Dr. George Llano, a shark authority now at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, has stated the problem with cold simplicity: "When sharks are successful," he wrote in the survival manual, Airmen Against the Sea, "they leave no evidence."
Of the shark, it can be fairly said, to know him is to love him less. Though unloved (and perhaps unlovable), the shark is among evolution's most extraordinary creatures, a living relic of prehistory, simple and set in its ways, but at the same time as unpredictable as the 20th century. The shark most often moves slowly, but he can move fast. He often plays the coward, yet he can be bold. At times he seems an oafish blunderer, but actually the shark is an accomplished hunter, mindlessly lethal.
While man is barely a million years old, the shark has been around since the early Devonian period, 350 million years ago, and seems to have survived the ceaseless and brutal turmoil for food and living space by the simple process of not evolving much. The most obvious change in sharks has been in size. Fossil teeth indicate that in Eocene times there were carnivorous sharks 100 feet long. Why these behemoths slipped into oblivion, no one knows. In any case they are gone and unlamented.
Contemporary sharks are only a small part of the great, diverse class of fishes. Of the more than 30,000 known species of fish, only 300 or 400 are properly called sharks—the exact number of shark species cannot yet be fixed because the ichthyologists sorting through the shark order still do not agree which are distinct species and which are merely variants. Whatever their number, all sharks are lumped in a single zoological order, the Selachii, a word generally credited to Aristotle, although it actually pops up earlier as a word within a word in the writings of Aristophanes. Aristophanes wrote the recipe for a fish-and-meat pie as a single, tongue-tangling word that must surely be the longest word in literature. "Legadotemachoselachogaleocanio—" it begins, and then runs on for 149 additional letters.
The so-called modern sharks ("modern" is a word of considerable breadth, since it includes the Port Jackson shark of Australia, which has been around for 50 million years) are a richly varied assemblage. Most species favor the tropics and subtropics, ranging into colder latitudes only with the warming sun. Yet there is a resident shark in almost every nook and cranny of the oceans, even in arctic waters where the Greenland shark, appropriately named Somniosus microcephalus, lies drowsily under the ice floes until hunger sends it scrounging for halibut.