JawsFest on Martha’s Vineyard was a sure sell to “finaddicts” – serious fans of the 1975 shark attack movie. Organizers wanted to appeal to film buffs thrilled by the ferocity of the Great White. But they also threw out some chum to shark enthusiasts trying to save the the big fish.
So, this weekend, Samantha Whitcraft—a member of the Miami–based group Shark Savers — found herself on the island where Jaws was filmed. Standing at a literature-covered table in what was once an Oak Bluffs oyster bar, she said the group’s goal is to protect the shrinking populations of at-risk sharks
About one–third of all shark species are threatened with extinction, Whitcraft said. One major culprit – Chinese chefs who offer shark fin soup. She noted that scientists estimate there are about 3,500 white sharks left on the planet — fewer than that other endangered ferocious creature, the tiger.
But, she noted that solid scientific data on sharks is lacking.
“For many species, we don’t’ even know where they pup or mate,” Whitcraft said. “No one has ever seen the birth of a white shark.”
In addition to lobbying for shark-friendly fisheries management, the group has launched a citizen science project called Sharks Count. They’ve set up a database and are asking recreations divers to log their shark sightings.
“Scientists can’t do it all,” she said. ”We need to help them. “
So, when chatting up Greg Skomal, shark expert the state Division of Marine Fisheries, she offered to share some of the group’s tracking devices.
Skomal is familiar to anyone following the recent sightings — and attack –off Cape Cod and to watchers of the Discovery Channel. The channel is now running its annual “Shark Week’ series. Skomal is the star of “Jaws Comes Home: Reloaded,” an update of a 2011 program that kicked Discovery’s series, (which airs again on Sunday) and a talking head in a program called “How Jaws Changed the World.”
While some researchers might dismiss a film that bends the scientific facts, Skomal embraces Jaws. He has said that he was inspired to go into marine biology by the character played by Richard Dreyfuss – a fictional researcher from the non-fictional Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The film, got people’s attention, he said. And, it wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Almost everything that shark did has been described or seen as behavior in this species, but it was just exagerarted for the screenplay,“ he said. “You take a shark that has been know to bite boats, and you elevate it to sinking one…that can swim fast, and you make it super fast…that can get to be 20 feet long and you make it 30 or 25 feet long.
Discovery producers have spent a lot of time on the water with Skomal, and their underwater cameras caught dramatic close-ups of Cape cod sharks, including a female dubbed “Curley” for her curved dorsal fin. The pictures make plain that while Steven Spielberg’s legendary mechanical sharks didn’t work very well, they certainly got that dead-eyed, saw-tooth likeness down. As far as the most recent, non-fatal attack goes, Skomal said he is “very sure” it was a Great White. To confirm his conclusion, he shared data about the victims leg wounds with Florida biologist George Burgess, who runs an international database of shark bites data.
And while JawsFest attendees could get autographs from the two actors whose characters were gruesomely chomped in half, it will be unlikely to see a real-live reenactment of bathers fleeing the fictional Amity Island’s surf. Skomal said he was pleasantly surprised by the low-key response to the recent attack from both town officials and residents.
“We’re not getting this craziness I thought might happened, which I think points to the fact that people are getting more educated about sharks and the ocean in general… as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago. When Jaws came out we were living in a time when the only good shark, was a dead shark. ”
That may be in the future off the coast of Australia, where a series of shark attacks have led to calls for culling, not preservation. But for now, the White Sharks that have returned to the Coast of Massachusetts are safe and according to Skomal – so are the bathers. Just don’t swim near the seals.