The Marconi Wireless Station on Cape Cod is famous for being the first U.S. location to receive distress calls from the Titanic. Just south of it is Marconi Beach, walled by cliffs that conceal all evidence of civilization. After you scurry down to shore it is easy to pretend you’ve time-traveled back to 1500. A sign at the entrance warns that great white sharks hunt in the shallows of the beach, and that people have been “seriously injured or killed” along the coastline. The sign features a realistic depiction of an oncoming shark and a bar graph indicating months of peak activity (September and October). I think about the bar graph whenever I surf at Marconi, bobbing among seals in a wet suit that renders me indistinct from those glossy marine mammals.
The unease is mitigated, though not fully neutralized, by nostalgia. I grew up near what is colloquially called the Red Triangle, a shark-abundant segment of ocean off Northern California. The water there was opaque, which sharpened a sense of mysterious life-forms teeming below. Later, I toyed with a theory that my eyesight had been permanently enhanced as a child by constantly scanning the horizon for dorsal fins. But I never saw any. My only unpleasant animal encounter was accidentally swallowing a jellyfish after being pitched headfirst into whitewater; the invertebrate made its high-speed entry before my brain had time to hit Command + CLOSE MOUTH.
Despite the culture’s enduring fascination with sharks — “Jaws” and its sequels, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the movie where Samuel L. Jackson gets eaten by a shark, the movie where Blake Lively almost gets eaten by a shark, the movie where Ian Ziering dives into a shark’s mouth with a chain saw and then chain saws his way out — I have shielded myself from shark information under the logic of “What I don’t know might be able to hurt me, and that’s precisely why I don’t want to know it.”
It has taken a gentle hand to guide me into unwanted territory. The hand belongs to David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, whose new book is called “Why Sharks Matter: A Deep Dive With the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator.” The book’s introduction features a photograph of Shiffman gently gripping a tiger shark in a holding pond; his expression is that of a father cradling his firstborn. It suggests that there might be ecstasy as well as agony in forging an acquaintance with these cartilaginous fishes.
(Something I learned a few pages later: Fish is plural only when you’re describing multiple members of the same species. Twenty yellowfin tuna are fish, but a group of 20 yellowfin tuna plus one skipjack tuna would be fishes. Bust that out next time you want to blow a 10-year-old’s mind.)
The argument of Shiffman’s book is that we should do a better job of protecting sharks, and his method is to dip analysis and policy recommendations in a sugar coating of cool facts. Among those facts: Sharks were around not only before dinosaurs, but before trees and the rings of Saturn. Some exhibit parthenogenesis. Some live in freshwater. One deep-sea species has bioluminescent gums to lure prey into its mouth, like a swimming version of the candy house in Hansel and Gretel. One is millennial pink. One looks like a sock puppet.
Part of the author’s outreach is devoted to debunking the content of Shark Week, a “dumpster fire of nonsense” that drives him berserk with its “horrifically inaccurate” narration. Shiffman points out that a fear of sharks is no more rational than a fear of cars, lawn mowers or toasters, all of which outperform the animals in lethality. “From the years 1990 to 2006, 11 Americans were killed by sharks, while 16 died by falling into holes on the beach,” he writes.
For Shiffman, our inability to conceptualize relative risk is both an ecological and aesthetic tragedy, undermining conservation efforts while preventing us from exulting in the glory of sharks — with their dermal denticles, their total lack of bones and their ability to hear an injured fish from a mile away. The syllogism he implies is comforting: Only idiots are afraid of sharks; you are not an idiot; therefore you are not afraid of sharks.
The plain talk stands in contrast to a best-selling book from 2005, Susan Casey’s “The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks.” That one is engineered for goose bumps. When two researchers in Casey’s book hop on a boat to observe shark activity, it isn’t long before “the dorsal fin of myth and nightmare rose from below and came tunneling toward them like a German U-boat, creating a sizable wake.” The book’s title plays on our fears too, with a piece of light misdirection; the “devil’s teeth” refers not to sharks but to the craggy Farallon Islands in California where they cluster.
The dominant shark iconography of my youth (18 miles from the Farallon Islands, incidentally) took the form of a bumper sticker from a nearby surf shop. The sticker was everywhere. It looked like a no-smoking sign, with a red circle bisected by a slash — but instead of a cigarette, the circle contained an image of a shark. Like any respectable piece of lore, this was not what it appeared to be. The idea of banning sharks the way you’d ban cigarettes or double parking was a cosmic joke. The surfers who bore the sticker were on the same page: Disguising yourself as prey and paddling into a shark habitat was equivalent to signing a release of liability waiver.
I visit Marconi less often now, but more from inaptitude than fear. The writer and naturalist Henry Beston described the area in 1928: “The peninsula stands farther out to sea than any other portion of the Atlantic coast of the United States; it is the outermost of outer shores.” Beston, who retreated to the dunes after his experiences in World War I, likened the sound of an incoming tide to “the fury of battle.” The sandbars along the coast shift on what seems like an hourly basis, resulting in waves that repel attempts at coercion. Calculating the coordinates where swell, wind, current and tide harmonize requires a granular knowledge that is reserved, as it should be, for locals.
An app called Sharktivity tracks sightings in the area, with the idea to “reduce encounters and promote safety.” Whenever a white shark sighting is confirmed near a public beach, app users receive a red alert. Some of the tagged sharks have been named. (Agnes, Big Papi, Turbo, Sean.) Occasionally I monitor the app to see where the gang is convening, though Sharktivity warns that “THE ONLY WAY TO COMPLETELY RULE OUT A CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH A SHARK IS TO STAY ON SHORE.”
From Shiffman’s book I’ve learned that death by Carcharodon carcharias and friends is far less likely than most shark media would have us believe. The haunting powers of the bar graph at Marconi have diminished. But maybe this is because death by shark no longer strikes me as the worst way to perish, compared with the alternatives. Many times since reading “Why Sharks Matter,” I’ve played out the scenario in my head. Floating in salty bliss, I sense an aberrant shift in water molecules. Along comes a statistically anomalous great white. Possibly it is Agnes. I am hit, I go into shock and I bleed out beneath a vast and uncaring sky, dying exactly as I lived: unsuspecting and engulfed.