Feeding Frenzy

September 16, 2001

Goodbye and good riddance to the Summer of the Dull-Eyed
Predator, the silent, voracious seeker of vulnerable flesh. But
enough about Congressman Condit. Let's talk about sharks. There
have been 42 attacks--two of them fatal--in the United States
this year. Both fatalities occurred over Labor Day weekend,
bringing shark phobia to a pitch not seen in this country since
1975, when Jaws hit theaters and the beaches of Amity ran red.

That those numbers--42 attacks, two fatalities--actually make
this a relatively slow year, shark-bite-wise (last year, for
example, there were at least 79 attacks worldwide, 53 in the
U.S.) has not prevented media outlets from overreacting: "The
Summer of the Shark" blared TIME's cover on July 30, even before
the two deaths. Nor has it kept politicians in Florida, Virginia
and the Carolinas from announcing measures designed to
prevent--or to at least give the appearance of trying to
prevent--their constituents from entering the aquatic food chain.

Is it all a tempest in a chum bucket? Depends on whom you ask.
George Burgess is an ichthyologist at the University of Florida,
where he also serves as director of the International Shark
Attack File. "Last year there were 10 fatalities worldwide; this
year we've only had three," he says. "Of course your heart goes
out to the victims, but if you step back for a second, you see
that we're having a pretty slow year."

Burgess was the voice of reasoned calm amid this summer's
bedlam. He was Greg Marmalard at the end of Animal House,
exhorting the rioting townsfolk to "remain calm," assuring them,
"All is well!" Still, all is not well. On Aug. 19 six surfers
were bitten by sharks off the coast of Florida. Some experts
see, in that mass attack and in the Labor Day killings, a dark
omen. Jack Rudloe is a delightfully cantankerous marine
biologist from Panacea, Fla., who runs a company called Gulf
Specimen Marine Laboratories. While Rudloe doesn't dispute
Burgess's numbers, he thinks something more profound is going on
in the water. "Many of our major fisheries have collapsed," he
says. "We've overharvested some species of sharks to the brink
of extinction. Reefs are dying all over the world. Biodiversity
is shrinking under man's impact." His conclusion?

"The shark gods are pissed off."

As well they should be, says John McCosker, senior scientist and
shark specialist at the California Academy of Sciences in San
Francisco. Citing the "shameful" and dramatic reductions in shark
populations over the last two decades, he notes that sharks have
"much more to fear from us than we do from them." After giving a
recent talk, McCosker says, he was approached by a man from the
Department of Agriculture, who confided in him that more people
are eaten by barnyard pigs every year than by sharks.

Such actuarial arguments--one is 30 times more likely to be
struck by lightning than by a shark--are cold comfort to those
who find themselves in the jaws of a great white. "It felt like
getting hit by a boat with razor blades," says Jonathan
Kathrein, who was attacked by a 12- to 14-foot great white while
boogie boarding off Northern California's Stinson Beach in 1998.
"I felt its teeth pop through my skin, then my muscle, then
clamp down on the bone."

A year later he was playing soccer for San Francisco's St.
Ignatius High. Last year, as a freshman at Berkeley, Kathrein
took an ocean geography class. The prof, after discovering that
her pupil had gained some firsthand knowledge of sharks, asked
for his help. So Kathrein stood in front of his classmates,
discussing the annual "upwelling" that brings nutrient-rich
waters--and salmon, and seals, and sharks--close to shore.
"After a half hour," says Kathrein, "I told them my story and
showed them my scar," a serrated half moon from buttock to right
knee. "People who hadn't seemed interested were suddenly very
interested."

Does Kathrein harbor any hard feelings toward sharks? "Not at
all," he says. "I mean, when I go surfing now, I'd like the
sharks to leave me alone. But I understand I'm in their
territory."

Are the sharks ticked off? Only they know. And, much like the
congressman, they're not saying.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER COSGROVE/AP

That more people get eaten by pigs than by sharks is no comfort
when you're in the jaws of a great white.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)