Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review of Close to Shore

I read Close to Shore:  The Terrifying Shark Attacks of 1916, by Michael Capuzzo to gear up for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Shark Week that aired on the Discovery Channel last week.  An approximately eight-foot-long juvenile Great White shark, the author says, terrorized the New Jersey and Long Island coastal areas during the summer of 1916, killing four people and wounding one.  Incredibly, it even made its way--and survived--from the ocean to a creek.  This summer of localized attacks by an apparently lone shark inspired Peter Benchley to write the book Jaws--which Stephen Spielberg then made into the summer blockbuster movie of 1975.

Before 1916, the prevailing opinion in the United States was that sharks would not attack a living person in the country's temperate waters without provocation.  After the attacks, leading authorities admitted that their perceptions about sharks had changed.

The book's strength actually lies largely in describing the historical setting and certain cultural changes that were occurring during this period.  Ocean swimming was just becoming popular and New Jersey resorts were sought-after by the leisure class.  Capuzzo also does a good job of noting some interesting facts about sharks and the history of our perception and study of these animals.  The author takes his time with all of this context before getting into the attacks.

There are a couple of loose ends the author does not tie up.  Was the shark that killed those people during the summer of 1916 ever captured?  The author leaves this question unanswered, although it seems likely that the shark was caught.

Capuzzo seems to subscribe to the theory of a rogue shark--one that strays from its usual food source and hunts humans because of illness, injury, or some other factor that makes it difficult for it to get its usual prey.  Yet at the end of the book he talks about how the theory of rogue sharks has fallen out of favor in recent years.  Throughout the book, however, he never offers as a possibility that multiple sharks could have been involved.  Why does he subscribe to the rogue shark theory in this case?  His argument would have been more convincing if he had offered definitive evidence to support his point of view.

Despite these points left up in the air, the book offers a lot to make it a good read:  a thrilling story reconstructed from true events, some colorful characters, fascinating information about sharks, and thought-provoking reflections about changes in American culture.