Great Whites May Be Taking the Rap for Bull Shark Attacks

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 2, 2002

Although shark attacks are uncommon, they creep into the consciousness of many beachgoers throughout the summer season.

What most people have in mind in fears of attack is the large and powerful great white, often mischaracterized as a relentless man-eating predator that lurks near popular beaches.

Fabien Cousteau, the grandson of famed explorer Jacques, thinks he knows what's behind that thinking. "Since 1974, when Jaws came out, almost every shark attack has been pinned on a great white," he said. "Every time you ask someone about sharks, the first thing that pops into their head is the great white."

Now, some experts are suggesting that the great white may not in fact be responsible for many of the attacks pinned on the species. These people say the real culprit behind many of the reported incidents—including the famous 1916 shark attacks in New Jersey that may have served as inspiration for Jaws—may be the lesser known bull shark.

Matawan "Man-Eater"

In July 1916, it was business as usual at the New Jersey shore. The coast was booming with thousands of vacationers and locals striving to beat the heat. But the summer revelry was shockingly disrupted by a series of five shark attacks that left four people dead in 12 days.

In the days that followed, a 7.5-foot (2.3-meter) white shark was captured off the coast, reportedly with human remains still in its stomach, and many people presumed that a rogue great white was responsible for the deaths.

Nearby residents that had set out to avenge the deaths felt sure that they had their "man-eater." But some people now say that unusual circumstances behind some of the attacks suggest that the predator was a bull shark.

Three of the attacks occurred not in the ocean but in a shallow tidal river named Matawan Creek, about 40 feet (12 meters) wide and 11 miles (17 kilometers) from the open ocean.

Matawan residents were surprised in 1916 to discover the existence of a shark in such waters. Fabien Cousteau said he would be equally surprised to learn that that shark was a great white.

Cousteau believes the evidence in the historic case points to a bull shark. In Attacks of the Mystery Shark, which premiers August 4th on National Geographic EXPLORER, he sifts through some of the clues, and along the way sheds light on a fascinating but little understood shark species.

Continued on Next Page >>


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