Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

So what weighs about a thousand pounds and has 230 teeth? No not the Kardashians, but that's not a bad guess. I am referring to Carcharodon carcharias, a.k.a., the great white shark. I know this because it is the 25th annual Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. I have to be honest and say that I don't watch Discovery all that often, but it seems that it is always Shark Week on Discovery. Sort of like how the History Channel is more or less the World War II Channel. Regardless, I have been pretty much glued to my TV whenever anything about the great white comes on.

I can still remember the summer of '75 - that's 1975 and not 1875, wiseguy - and the release of Jaws. Like the millions of other people who saw the film that summer, I was terrified the next time I went swimming in the ocean. But I also became fascinated with this creature that I previously hadn't ever given a thought to.

In the movie the great white is portrayed and a man-eating menace with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. This is of course not true, but made for a much better film. The fact is that humans kill way more great white sharks than the other way around. However, it is the case that great whites will from time to time attack and kill humans without provocation. This almost never involves a shark consuming a person entirely, of course. Instead, they usually take a "test bite" as it is known, and discover that we are way too boney and muscular (some of us anyway), as compared with the blubbery seals and other fish that make up the bulk of their diet. Combined with the fact that humans spend very little of their time in the ocean and that sharks don't frequent your local Walmart, any real conflict between the two species remains unlikely and totally lopsided in favor of humans.

The movie Jaws was based on the best-selling Peter Benchley novel of the same name. As you may recall, the town of Amity relies on its beaches and the tourism they bring in for its residents' livelihoods. Unfortunately, the arrival of the Fourth of July weekend has found a "rogue" great white shark on the prowl for human flesh in its waters. The mayor and others persuade the police chief to keep the initial shark attack quiet, and the rest is history. And while there is an awful lot of "poetic license" employed, Benchley based much of the premise on a series of real life shark attacks at the Jersey Shore. Unfortunately these attacks occurred in 1916 and did not involve any of the cast members of the television show with that name. Nonetheless, five people were attacked in various locations in coastal New Jersey from July 1st to July 11th, and all but one of them died. Obviously it was the work of more than one shark, but reports at the time made it seem as though a singular "killer shark" was on the loose. Steven Spielberg, who was not yet "Steven Spielberg", stayed true to this theme when he decided to make a movie based on the novel. The production was beset with troubles, most notably that the mechanical shark didn't work properly, and ran more than 100 days and $3 million dollars over budget. But as it turns out, not being able to show the shark as much as was originally intended resulted in a much more suspenseful film, and one which ended up grossing more than any other film up to that time. It was also the first of what we now think of as the summer blockbuster: an action-packed, heavily promoted, one-dimensional thriller. For better or for worse we've been stuck with it, and Steven Spielberg, ever since.

The town of Amity featured in Jaws is fictional, and the film was shot almost entirely in Martha's Vineyard on Cape Cod. Besides being home to lots of timeshares, Cape Cod was considered by the filmmakers to be more "homey" and "blue collar" than New York's Long Island, which has a town called Amityville, and seemed to be the setting of Benchley's novel. Spielberg thought it was important to have the townsfolk and their reactions to the attacks be like those of regular people, and not the champagne and caviar set. A Cape Cod summer vacation is something everyone should experience at some point, and movie buffs can seek out shooting locations from the film and hear from local residents who were cast as extras. And while Long Island was passed over as a filming destination, both Jaws and great white connections run deep in Montauk, at its eastern most tip. Montauk was home to the famous shark hunter, Frank Mundus. The Jaws character Quint was based on Mundus, and aboard his boat the Cricket II, he caught a 3,427-pound great white... with a rod and reel. Are you kidding me?! Not only is this the largest documented shark catch, it is still the largest fish ever brought in via rod and reel. In his later years, Mundus came to regret the senseless killing of sharks, and became a vocal advocate for preserving shark species. A timeshare rental at Gurney's Inn Resort & Spa will put you right in the heart of Mundus's old stomping grounds, as well as great horseback riding, bird-watching, hiking, boating, and of course swimming. Just watch the midnight skinny dipping.

Well I am off to go cage diving with some great white sharks. Seriously. For over 10 years, Shark Diver has been operating great white shark encounters at their Isla Guadalupe White Shark Cage Diving location. They are going to take me out and drop me into a shark-proof cage to get an up close look at the numerous great whites that call these waters their home. Several are such regular visitors that they have nicknames like Shredder and Bruce. I know it sounds totally crazy, but the folks at Shark Diver assure me that I have a much better chance of being killed by the ongoing drug cartel wars in the area than I do during my great white encounter. Which doesn't exactly ease my mind.


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