Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Great Long Beach Island Shark Kill of 1982

I don't often devote this space to anything other than American whiskey, so I like to warn readers when I do. This is one of those times.

My family on my mother's side has a long relationship with Long Beach Island, New Jersey (LBI). I don't get out there as often as I'd like but I'm going in a few weeks. That and the recent shark-related media frenzy have me thinking about something I saw there 30 years ago.

A brief digression. The photograph above was taken at LBI in 1959, not 1982. My dad took it but I'm sure it was at the insistence of myself and my three brothers, who thought it was just about the coolest thing we'd ever seen, being as we lived in Ohio and were all younger than eight.

One nice feature of LBI is that its southern end is completely undeveloped and preserved in its natural state. You can walk on it--at least you could in 1982--but that's it. There are no roads, no buildings, nothing but ocean, sand, dune grass, some other plants, and whatever can live there.

The Jersey Shore is highly developed, so something like this is pretty rare and special. My wife and I planned to walk down to the inlet and back, a trek of about four miles. We expected a quiet, private, relaxing, and maybe romantic experience.

We were far enough for Holgate to be out of sight when we saw the first one, then the second, then another and another, every few feet for as far as we could see. Sharks. Hundreds of them, washed up onto the beach. Head first, every single one. Like sardines in a can. They were small, two-and-a-half to six feet in length, and a harmless species, based on what someone told us later. All dead, of course, and killed the same way. Each body had a deep slash at what I would call the throat, if sharks have throats, all on the right side.

It must have been done earlier that day. All of the shark bodies were whole, unmarked except for the slits, and none had started to decay. They didn't smell.

After the initial shock, they seemed more eerie than horrifying. They didn't go all the way to the inlet but we did. The boiling waters between the two islands had their own wild thrill. Then we back-tracked, walking past the sharks again, and that was it.

Later we asked around and no one could explain what we saw, though no one suggested it was normal or common. The consensus was that it was somebody killing sharks for sport. I have since read about the 'Jaws effect,' in which the movie allegedly inspired "legions of fishermen [who] piled into boats and killed thousands of the ocean predators in shark-fishing tournaments." Maybe we saw an example of that.

The dead sharks are long gone. So is the wife. But I'll always have this peculiar memory about a walk that didn't turn out quite as we expected.


John Hansell said...

September is my favorite month to be at the Jersey Shore, Chuck. The weather and water are still warm and summer-like, and nearly all the tourists are gone. Enjoy!

Unknown said...

Meant to leave a comment on this when I first read it. That was a beautiful little story, Chuck.