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Levin: Jaws Revisited

08/31/10 5:55PM By Ted Levin
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(HOST)  Cape Cod is a favorite summer vacation spot for land-locked Vermonters. But this year commentator Ted Levin says that news from the Cape has begun to resemble a series of movie flashbacks.

(LEVIN)  Thirty-five years ago the movie "Jaws" set box-office records, made hundreds of millions of dollars, and forever influenced the way we feel about the ocean and the great white shark, which reaches a length of 23 feet and weighs 5,000 pounds.
    
I have a fossil great white tooth in my dining room. Four-inches long and two- inches wide, sharply pointed and serrated like a steak knife; these days it would likely be confiscated by airport security. In a shark, rows of teeth fill the mouth cavity, and are endlessly shed in a lifetime of production, wave after toothy wave, which makes fossil shark teeth fairly easy to find.

Sharks have been patrolling Earth's oceans for 400 million years, and have been terrorizing humans for the past half a million, which is why Steven Spielberg, who adapted Peter Benchly's book into the first "summer blockbuster" film, chose a big fish to summon our fears.
   
The book "Jaws" takes place on Long Island, in the fictional town of Amity, and the film on Martha's Vineyard. Both leave you with the sense that great white sharks are hardwired, mindless killing machines lurking just offshore in your subconscious, rising like nightmares whenever you enter the ocean. Not true, of course. The great white is an epic ocean traveler, whose migrations are as periodic and predicable and every bit as awesome as those of terns or shearwaters; warm-blooded and intelligent, they live birth single pups, miniature replicas.
   
Growing up on Long Island I was vaguely aware of a great white birthing zone 50 miles off Montauk Point. I recall that occasionally someone would catch or harpoon a really big one. Newsday would cover the story dockside.

Now, after years of depredation, their population in the North Atlantic is recovering. Great whites can again be spotted off Cape Cod. And as unlikely as it may sound, their return to good fortune is due to Richard Nixon.
   
In 1973, Nixon signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, ending indiscriminate slaughter of seals, the shark's preferred food - globetrotting great white sharks seasonally intercept congregations of seals: South Africa to Australia; Hawaii to California; and, once again, Florida to Massachusetts.
   
As the population of gray seals and to lesser extent harbor seals continues to rebound to historic levels in New England and Canadian waters, their principal predator follows in their wake.
   
This summer beaches from Westport to Chatham to Newburyport have been closed as itinerant sharks appear close to shore. A fourteen-footer swam into Chatham Harbor; an eighteen-footer was spotted off Truro and Provincetown. Seal kills have been witnessed off Orleans; a big shark harried a school of bluefish a mile and a half offshore in Westport. Another, to the surprise of a charter boat crowd, ripped a striped bass off the line while a fisherman played the fish.
   
Recently, fifty people gathered on the beach in Somerset, Massachusetts as a Styrofoam fin wrapped in gray duct tape and weighed down sliced through the surf. Local police were not amused.
 
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