Episode 25: Do shark stories help sharks?

From Greek mythology to Jaws to Shark Week, sharks have always made for good stories. But is this perennial season of attention-grabbing coverage helping or hurting shark conservation?

The crew of the Dawn Renee, Jay Langham and Hugh Innes-Brown, pull open the mouth of a 15-foot great white shark harpooned 10 miles off of Santa Catalina Island, near Los Angeles, California. This photo was taken in August 1976, about a year after Jaws opened nationwide.
Art Rogers, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA

Our obsession with sharks has generated folklore around the world for thousands of years. But a series of attacks at the Jersey shore in 1916 would forever change the way we tell stories about sharks. We trace how attitudes toward sharks shifted in the past century—from stoking our fears to emboldening some to ride on their backs—which directly affects the future of one of the most evolved species on the planet.

Listen on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music. 


AMY BRIGGS (Host): Oh, my God. It smells so good. Mmm. That was the thing when you were driving down the shore as a kid and you had the windows down. You could smell the salt water.

I’m standing on a beach at the Jersey Shore, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. So on a typical summer day, this place is packed with people. They’re making sandcastles. They’re digging giant holes with giant shovels.

And then the water. The water’s packed too, with surfers and swimmers, people who seem to enjoy just getting knocked over by the waves.

But there probably isn’t a person on this beach who doesn’t have something nagging at them in the back of their mind.

What’s swimming out there under the waves?

RICHARD FERNICOLA (Shark expert): They certainly didn’t want to conceive of a man-eating shark actually causing this horrible death.

BRIGGS: I grew up going down the shore every summer. It was everything. But I can still remember wading out into that water and trying to get a certain movie out of my mind.

FERNICOLA: He was ferociously struck on the right side. He was spun around twice, taken up, pulled down, kicking, punching, in full view of everyone. His buddy actually saw the entire contour of the shark.

BRIGGS: Stories about sharks. They’re usually terrifying, right?

FERNICOLA: I am Richard Fernicola. I’m a New Jersey physician, and I have researched the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks fairly extensively over the last 30 or more years.

BRIGGS: Before 1916, the general population wasn’t afraid of sharks like people are today. Sharks were considered nonthreatening if they were even considered at all.

FERNICOLA: And that’s essentially how people felt about the threat from sharks—to be a rarity, if not an impossibility. Something of only myth, so much so that the experts of the day, even up until spring of 1916, they felt that shark attacks against a live man just simply do not happen.

BRIGGS: But after what happened on this shore, perceptions about sharks began to change.

FERNICOLA: I consider it the Titanic of shark-attack clusters. And it truly did have an impact. And it was always referenced for its uniqueness.

BRIGGS: But how do these types of stories impact the way we view sharks and ultimately how we work toward their conservation? The story of what happened on these beaches and north of here in Matawan Creek would find its way into our cultural consciousness. A new folklore was born here on the Jersey Shore, one with sharks as the central character—the villain, to be precise.

FERNICOLA: It certainly opened people’s eyes up to the fact that we do have an apex predator more or less right on our doorstep.

BRIGGS: I mean, once sharks were typecast as ruthless killers, it would take decades to undo the irresistible lore surrounding their lives and their seemingly bloodthirsty motives. And that’s because everybody, but mostly the media, can’t quite get away from what happened more than a hundred years ago on this beautiful beach.

BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine. And this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at National Geographic and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

Sorry, guys.

On today’s episode, we’re looking at shark lore to understand how it impacts the fate of sharks. That lore, by the way, would include this very episode.

More after the break.

But before that, if you like what you hear, please consider a National Geographic subscription.

That’s the best way to support Overheard and to ensure we keep providing you with stories from the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.

There’s a seal. Look by the shore right there! Oh, my God. Its little head popped up. There it is!

In the span of just a few decades, sharks went from overlooked denizen of the ocean—completely unimportant to most inland dwellers—to global media phenomenon.

Oh, my God. I’ve never seen a seal at the Jersey Shore before.

But after a series of shocking attacks off the Jersey Shore in July 1916, sharks began to expand their territory beyond the ocean and into our imaginations.

I’m so sorry to interrupt, but oh, my God!

So give us a thumbnail of what was happening in the world as the summer of 1916 starts.

FERNICOLA: Even though World War I was raging in Europe, America was still neutral in the conflict and very much hoping that they could stay out of it. We were still emerging, so to speak, from those innocent years of the Victorian period where leisure time was actually becoming more, more popular and doable.

And then during the summer months of 1916, the polio epidemic started to rear its head in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, as well.

People were flocking down the shore, where they wore long, black bathing costumes in the sweltering heat. One of the pastimes here was something called “fanny dunking,” which was when … well … I think you get the idea. But other people, they would go swimming in the ocean.

BRIGGS: So let’s talk about the first attack, the one that’s in Beach Haven on Charles Vansant.

FERNICOLA: Charles Vansant left the other swimmers near shore and ventured out beyond the breakers. The people on the boardwalk actually saw a large, dark, triangular fin slicing toward him. And as he was facing shore, perhaps just touching the sand with his feet, the shark gouged out a portion of his right upper thigh and then came back around and clenched onto his inner upper-thigh area. But essentially, his leg was virtually gone. They got him to the hotel manager’s desk, and he died by about 6:45 that evening.

BRIGGS: Oh, wow. So I’m shocked, hearing about it now. What was the local reaction?

FERNICOLA: Regionally the South Jersey mayors and beach managers, they were all obviously in an uproar. It was an obviously horrifying accident. So they needed to do much work rapidly to try to salvage the Independence Day weekend.

BRIGGS: The Fourth of July was a few days away. And back then—just as now—every day of the summer season had to count.

FERNICOLA: It was so new and so unusual that no one really had an answer for any of it.

BRIGGS: But then, there was a second attack five days later in Spring Lake, north of Beach Haven, and not too far from where Dr. Fernicola and I were talking.

FERNICOLA: Charles Bruder was a 28-year-old, stocky Swiss bellhop from the Essex and Sussex Hotel.

BRIGGS: Bruder went for a swim almost every afternoon. And July 6 was no different.

FERNICOLA: A woman up in the balcony of the Essex and Sussex, through her field spectacles, saw a shark fin dart toward Bruder, turn away, turn around, go back multiple times. And he shouted, “A shark bit me, bit my legs off!” They got him into the bottom of the boat, but he succumbed to shock within minutes.

BRIGGS: So what was the reaction after the second attack?

FERNICOLA: This time it was front-page news on the New York Times and other national papers that a bellboy lost his legs to a shark on the Jersey Shore.

BRIGGS: And then, no one wanted to go fanny dunking or even put their toes in the water.

So how are the sharks being characterized now?

FERNICOLA: So, unfortunately, the shark was immediately painted as a devilish-type creature, which was difficult to control and which was assaulting the Jersey coast.

BRIGGS: But it wasn’t over yet. SIx days later, on July 12, about 30 miles north of where Charles Bruder was killed, there were three more attacks in one day. But this time, the attacks were 11 miles from the open ocean, in Matawan—where an unknown number of sharks had swum up the brackish Matawan Creek.

FERNICOLA: Sharks had never been reported in the Matawan Creek prior to 1916.

BRIGGS: A group of boys were cooling off there on that hot July day, including an 11-year-old kid named Lester Stillwell, who was attacked in front of his friends. They ran to get help from a man named Stanley Fisher—who dove in to find Lester’s body. But Fisher was also attacked.

FERNICOLA: He looked down, grabbed his right leg, and when he looked down, he purely said, “Oh, my God.”

BRIGGS: Fisher would die hours later. But the mayhem was not over yet. A little farther along the creek, another boy named Joseph Dunn was pulled under. This time, his brother and two friends went to battle against the shark themselves.

FERNICOLA: And they actually pulled the kid away from the shark.

BRIGGS: Joseph Dunn lived. But after five attacks and four deaths in 12 days, what happened next would set a precedent for decades to come: According to Dr. Fernicola, it was one of the biggest concentrated, large-scale animal hunts in history. President Wilson himself weighed in on the response.

FERNICOLA: Because you didn’t have a singular man-eater, you had multiple man-eaters. There were rewards, just like Jaws, being advertised for any proven man-eater. So it ended up into an inhumane cull.

BRIGGS: At the Jersey Shore that year, the previously harmless shark had become something to fear. And so, they became the enemy.

But this mysterious creature, about which little was known, also became the object of our fascination.

NARRATOR (National Geographic video)Somewhere in the vast oceans, beginning more than 300 million years ago, primitive sharks first appeared. They continued to evolve when dinosaurs ruled the Earth.

MICHAELA THOMPSON (Shark scholar): Like a lot of shark people that are out there, I have been thinking and dreaming and basically obsessed about sharks my entire life.

BRIGGS: You could call Dr. Michaela Thompson a “shark person,” but she’s a lot more than that.

THOMPSON: I am a historian and anthropologist of science and the environment who currently teaches in Harvard’s Environmental Science and Public Policy program.

BRIGGS: When she was a kid, Dr. Thompson was obsessed with this one Nat Geo special—the one you’re hearing right now—called simply “The Sharks.” She watched it on VHS over and over and over again.

NARRATOR: The shark is seen as a living symbol of terror. The nightmare is reenacted time and time again. The remorseless killer, the helpless victim.

THOMPSON: All I can remember is that I just drove my parents nuts because I wouldn’t stop asking to watch it.

BRIGGS: And like many people who are fascinated by sharks, part of her obsession grew out of fear.

THOMPSON: I was afraid of sharks. And in fact, memorably, I went through a period of time when I was little where I wouldn’t go in the bathtub because the sharks were going to come up the drain.

BRIGGS: But instead of shutting her eyes, she couldn’t turn away.

THOMPSON: Seeing them up close through the medium of the screen and seeing these animals that I’d been so fixated on made flesh, you know, it ramped my fascination with them up to a whole nother level. So this fear and fascination were really in some ways inextricably linked, and I just could not leave them alone.

BRIGGS: Fear and fascination. That’s an accurate description of the shark frenzy that started in 1916 and continues to this day. But now, unfortunately, the strong feelings that the nonscientific community has about sharks could be standing in the way of their survival.

DAVID SHIFFMAN (Shark scientist and conservationist): If you talk to the so-called regular joe on the street and you say sharks are endangered, they’ll say, Why should I care? Isn’t that good? Aren’t sharks bad?

BRIGGS: Dr. David Shiffman is a marine conservation biologist who studies threatened shark species and how to protect them. A major focus of his work includes understanding what people know about sharks—and how that impacts public attitudes toward protecting them.

SHIFFMAN: And it turns out that sharks are not bad. And it is bad that sharks are endangered.

BRIGGS: There’s no question that sharks are in trouble. In the past 50 years, shark populations have declined by at least 71 percent, leaving one-third of sharks threatened with extinction— globally. And this isn’t just bad news for sharks.

SHIFFMAN: Predators help keep the food chain in balance. And when we’re talking about marine and coastal ecosystems, the food webs there provide billions of humans with food and jobs, as well as recreation and cultural value. So we very, very much want there to be healthy oceans and coasts. And a big part of that is making sure that the food chain is intact and in balance. And a big part of that is protecting sharks.

BRIGGS: For both Dr. Shiffman and Dr. Thompson, looking at perceptions of sharks—and more deeply at why we fear them—reveals a lot about why sharks face an unknown future.

You know, sharks have been a part of human history, human consciousness for thousands of years. You know, they’re in our folklore mythology. But it’s so interesting to think about just the last hundred years or so. There’s this explosion of shark lore and fear. What’s happened to accelerate both the interaction between sharks and humans and this sense of overwhelming fear?

THOMPSON: So when you have the rise of ocean spaces as a place for leisure and recreation, suddenly there are more people in the water, and more people in the water means that there’s more of a chance for a shark and a human to come into violent conflict. So it’s really just a numbers game.

BRIGGS: After the 1916 summer of the “Matawan Man-Eater” on the Jersey Shore, the seasons changed, and soon, so did the rest of the world. The U.S. entered a world war, and then another. People were preoccupied by events unrelated to sharks.

Then, in 1945, a Navy cruiser called the U.S.S. Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine. During the four days that the survivors awaited rescue in the water, as many as 600 U.S. sailors died. An untold number of them were attacked by sharks. Now, that story wouldn’t take hold in the public’s imagination until it appeared as a bone-chilling monologue in the film version of Jaws about 30 years later.

But the U.S. Navy knew about it the day they began pulling those sailors out of the water.

THOMPSON: You have U.S. and British naval sailors basically coming into contact with sharks because their ships or their planes get downed. And so it suddenly becomes, to some degree, a matter of military security to make sure that these folks feel safe. And it begins the professionalization and the funding of shark science.

BRIGGS: In the late 1950s and early ’60s, beach culture as we know it today got under way— without the long, black bathing costumes this time around. Popular movies—think Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo—and the Beach Boys singing about surfing brought the public’s imagination to the ocean.

And soon enough, the public followed.

THOMPSON: It’s not that sharks suddenly got like superhungry for people in the 1950s, but it was because people were, you know, going in the water.

So, in 1957 and 1958, in South Africa, you have something called Black December, where you have a series of shark attacks that take place. And that becomes highly publicized, to the point that you have the South African government sending out, you know, naval ships to bomb the sharks. In 1959 in San Francisco, you have a shark attack that becomes incredibly famous in which a young woman pulls her friend to shore after he’s bitten by a white shark, and he dies on the sand and she baptizes him. And it’s very dramatic. You know, she’s a hero. The shark is framed as this kind of like demonic force that she’s fought against.

BRIGGS: And here we are again with the shark cast in the role of ruthless killer. Remember, it had only taken about 50 years for sharks to go from “harmless” to “mindless murderers.” But soon, their maniacal reputation would be sealed in the minds of the public.

And I’m not talking about the YouTube earworm that people can’t get out of their heads about a certain baby shark. I’m not singing it.

After Peter Benchley sat down to write his first novel in the early 1970s, everything changed for sharks. Benchley—who had been working as a freelance journalist for National Geographic and other publications—rented an office in a furnace factory near his home in New Jersey.

There, he wrote a book about a great white shark who menaced a coastal town. Before it was published in 1974, he had already sold the film rights. And a year later, it became the first blockbuster ever. The book has sold over 20 million copies, and the movie lives on as one of the top-grossing films in history.

Since then, going in the water has never been the same.

THOMPSON: Jaws is not the kind of stand-alone catalyst of shark fears. Benchley, you know, is drawing upon trends that are happening in the decades before it.

BRIGGS: What actual 20th-century shark-bite stories is he weaving into his book?

THOMPSON: There’s one particular one that I think inspires the Alex Kintner attack. So that’s the young boy who gets pulled off of the air mattress. And so in 1958, you have a boy in Hawaii named Billy Weaver, who’s similarly pulled off an air mattress when he’s out with his friends and killed. The opening attack where you have Chrissie Watkins, which is incredibly sexualized, you know, that is certainly drawing, I think, partially on the Kogler attack from 1959.

BRIGGS: The Kogler attack was the one in San Francisco where the young woman attempted to save—but then baptized—18-year-old Albert Kogler as he died. Her name was Shirley O’Neill, and she was given the Young American Medal for Bravery by John F. Kennedy. This story really struck a chord around the country. Dramas like these would prove to be irresistible grist for Benchley’s novel.

THOMPSON: You know, the initial victims of the shark in Jaws are people that we are primed to be upset about because they are vulnerable. It’s women and children.

BRIGGS: You’ve got to hand it to them. Peter Benchley wrote a thriller, and Steven Spielberg made a blockbuster out of it. And after that—people were afraid to go back in the water.

THOMPSON: Once Jaws hits, I mean, then it brings sharks into the consciousness of people who’ve never even thought about them.

SHIFFMAN: People thought, “Wait, I’ve been in the ocean,” or “My friends or family have been in the ocean.” Suddenly there’s something scary in here that I haven’t really thought about before. And Jaws did have more of an effect on this because more people saw that movie than heard about this real story behind it.

BRIGGS: The fear generated from the earlier attacks was magnified through the lens of the big screen. It definitely had an impact on me.

Like I think about that: that opening scene in Jaws where the woman’s treading water and you’re looking at her from the bottom and her feet can’t touch the bottom. And that to me is scarier than the shark or what might be looming. The fact that she’s in water over her head, you don’t know what’s down there. You know, I don’t like to be in water over my head. I’m also very short.

The impact on me was limited to my own dark fears. But the impact of the fear on some people was to attempt to dominate sharks.

THOMPSON: It definitely led to an uptick in sharks being killed either because people wanted the trophies of having shark jaws or they just wanted to kind of have this moment of conquering this feared sea beast.

BRIGGS: In all of the lore created around sharks, there is something deeper that all these stories touch upon. Which is perhaps why lore is so powerful in the first place: It’s our way of trying to make sense of the world.

What do you think it is about the ocean that makes us feel so vulnerable, both psychically, physically?

THOMPSON: It is an alien world where we are very much not at home. We are very much not the master of that environment. And I think, you know, sharks both embody that in some senses and then heighten it in other senses. The ways in which we write and talk about that and the theories that we come up around that are so linked to where we see ourselves in the kind of grand scheme of things, you know. Are we comfortable thinking of ourselves as meat for other animals? No, we’re really not.

BRIGGS: No, we most certainly are not comfortable thinking of ourselves as meat.

But—going back to the idea of fear and fascination—that discomfort hasn’t stopped us from obsessively thinking about it. Perhaps much more than we should.

Case in point: Shark Week.

Every summer for the past 34 years, weeks of shark shows have dominated TV. The OG is Shark Week, started by the Discovery Channel back in 1988.

National Geographic has jumped in the water too, with its own summer SharkFest. This very episode is effectively an offshoot of this annual programming. These weeks-long events feature hours and hours of programming dedicated to sharks. And now it lives on as a whole new era of shark lore, which reaches new generations each year.

This lore, however, continues to look and feel a lot like the reactions to the shark attacks all those years ago on the Jersey Shore. It highlights the animal’s power and stokes human fears.

SHIFFMAN: It is the biggest stage in marine biology in the world. Millions of people will see a scientist featured there. And what Shark Week chooses to focus on or not focus on affects people’s perceptions.

BRIGGS: David Shiffman isn’t just a shark scientist. He has also become something of a scientist of Shark Week. Actually—let’s be honest—he’s known as one of the most outspoken Shark Week critics around.

SHIFFMAN: I have been a thorn in Shark Week’s side for 10 years now.

BRIGGS: That’s because Dr. Shiffman studied every episode from 32 years of the annual event on Discovery. From 1988 to 2020. And why does he study it? To understand where people’s attitudes about sharks come from—and how those attitudes translate (or not) into advocacy on behalf of sharks.

SHIFFMAN: There’s, I believe, fewer than 10 specific mentions of anything that anyone can actually do ever in the 30-plus-year history of Shark Week. And most of those are not especially helpful.

BRIGGS: But in case anyone is thinking, “It’s Shark Week! It’s meant to be entertaining!” Shiffman would remind us that sharks are in trouble. And stories that misrepresent the species matter.

SHIFFMAN: It matters if they’re wrong. It matters if wrong information is shared. Because we’re talking about the conservation of ecologically important threatened species.

BRIGGS: Since 1970, the biggest predator that sharks face is us.

SHIFFMAN: The biggest threat to sharks by far, unquestionably, unequivocally is unsustainable overfishing. That includes but is not limited to fishing to supply the shark fin trade. But the problem here, notably, is not that we’re killing sharks; it’s that we’re killing too many sharks.

BRIGGS: Anywhere between 60 and 200 million sharks are killed each year. By even the most conservative estimate, that is devastating the shark population.

Which brings us back to the phrase that Dr. Fernicola mentioned while we were looking out at the Atlantic Ocean.

FERNICOLA: So it ended up into an inhumane cull.

BRIGGS: “Inhumane cull.” It jumped out when he said it—and it is a consistent factor where sharks and humans are concerned. It played out after the attacks in 1916, it played out after attacks near beaches in the 1950s and ’60s. And now, post-Jaws, well into the era of Shark Week, we continue to see a kind of inhumane cull on a major scale. Our collective indifference is no match for the massive overfishing that sharks face.

SHIFFMAN: A reason why sharks are in such trouble is that people don’t understand that sharks are not a huge threat to you, that people don’t understand that sharks are ecologically important.

BRIGGS: After decades of intense attention, sharks have gained the possibly dubious distinction of “charismatic megafauna,” which means that practically everyone knows—or thinks they know—who and what they are. They have become complicated celebrities and are everywhere. They’re used to sell every kind of merchandise—from baby onesies to television shows featuring cutthroat investors. Sharks have become the generator of real income for real industries. And a good number of those industries may not have sharks’ best interests in mind.

SHIFFMAN: And now the pendulum has swung almost too far in the other direction. And you have some people saying not only are sharks not mindless killing machines, but they’re cute, adorable, innocent puppy dogs, and they just need love and hugs and kisses—and they literally try to hug and kiss wild sharks. And some of them have been bitten, and some of the other people in their tour groups have been killed.

BRIGGS: There are any number of self-described shark conservationists who attract millions of followers on social media by filming themselves swimming alongside—and touching—great white sharks and other shark species.

This is big business, and while it might call itself a misnomer like “ecotourism,” which would lead you to believe it’s environmentally conscientious, it’s more likely to be categorized as “wildlife tourism” or “encounter tourism.” And that should raise some alarms—because it doesn’t always end well for the divers or the sharks.

THOMPSON: When you grow up watching Shark Week every year, you are to some degree going to love these beasts, even if they’re presented as scary. In some ways, it may be even just the transgression of loving this animal that also kills people.

SHIFFMAN: There’s a middle ground here. No, sharks are not mindless killing machines, but you wouldn’t walk up to a grizzly bear and give it a hug. Respect wild animals. That doesn’t mean fear them. That doesn’t mean try to wipe them out, but give them some respect.

THOMPSON: I think one of the things we need to get away from are these binaries that we create about sharks. They’re beautiful, or they’re scary. You know, they’re ferocious, or they’re cuddly. I think these narratives where we try and defang them are just as pernicious as these narratives in which we make them out to be monsters.

BRIGGS: Peter Benchley would eventually regret his portrayal of a rogue, murderous shark; but it’s impossible to un-tell a story. So how do we start over? How do we recast the shark and learn to tell—and interpret—shark stories with their future in mind? Dr. Thompson believes we start by understanding what they are not.

THOMPSON: They’re not our friends. They’re not our enemies. They’re just sharks. They’re living their shark lives.

BRIGGS: So, sharks were not put on this planet for our entertainment. But according to Dr. Thompson, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn everything we can about each one of the more than 500 species out there.

THOMPSON: I think a really good way to change our narratives around them would be producing more knowledge about sharks, more scientific knowledge about sharks. So we understand, you know, where they are and what they’re doing, you know, and why they do what they do so that we can save them.

BRIGGS: David Shiffman agrees, and sees Shark Week as a missed opportunity.

SHIFFMAN: Imagine what Shark Week can do with this massive audience of millions of people. If one percent of them really cared and really wanted to help and Shark Week actually gave them useful information, it could change the world of shark conservation and ocean policy.

BRIGGS: There’s an important—if small—upside to all the negative attention that sharks receive. As stories about sharks have steamrolled into the public consciousness, they have also reached an extremely important subset of that general audience: future scientists.

NARRATOR: More and more, we are invading the domain of sharks. By accident and by design, we are encountering them eye to eye.

THOMPSON: It’s “The Sharks”! Oh, wow. The sound of my childhood.

NARRATOR: It is a meeting fraught with both fear and fascination.

THOMPSON: Incredible. It’s even better than I remembered. How much did that influence me?

NARRATOR: To know these creatures is to go where few have gone before, to do what few have dared. We invite you to join our exploration of a forbidden domain: the undersea world of … the sharks.

BRIGGS: The way that Dr. Thompson’s face lit up when she saw this doc again was priceless. Her fear and fascination seemed as palpable now as it was when she was a kid, watching it over and over and over again.

THOMPSON: Now I can stop looking on eBay for old VHS tapes of it.

BRIGGS: Believe it or not, the movie Jaws had a similar impact on future marine biologists.

SHIFFMAN: Jaws made people terrified of sharks, but it also inspired a generation of scientists. Richard Dreyfuss’s character, Hooper, was the first time a scientist was the hero of a major blockbuster movie, partially because Jaws was the first major blockbuster movie. But still, people had never seen a scientist presented as the hero before.

THOMPSON: Certainly I’ve heard from some of my shark scientists that Hooper was the first time they were aware that being somebody who studied sharks was a thing you could do.

BRIGGS: While most of the people here on the Jersey Shore aren’t really aware of what happened on this beach 106 summers ago, a good number of them still wonder, What’s out there? as they step into the surf.

The truth is, on a hot summer day, these waves are just too hard to resist.

So, just remember, as you muster up the courage to put your toes in, that fear and fascination you’re feeling most likely got its start right on this beach—where people like me have been swimming, quite happily, for a very long time.

I have shoes on on the beach, which is like not allowed. You can’t wear shoes on the beach. What am I doing?

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/explore more to subscribe.

You’ll be happy to know that SharkFest returns July 10 on National Geographic and Disney Plus.

Dr. Richard Fernicola’s book, Twelve Days of Terror, will give you the full analysis of the New Jersey shark attacks in 1916. You will be amazed at how much the Jersey Shore has changed in 106 years. But I’m dying to know if they still had funnel cake back then.

There’s a lot of information about sharks out there … and unfortunately, it’s not all accurate. To form a solid understanding of the dangers that sharks face, check out the work of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in particular, their shark specialist group.

Dr. David Shiffman would also deepen your shark knowledge in his newly released book, Why Sharks Matter, from Johns Hopkins Press. You can also follow him on Instagram and Twitter under that same title.

All of this information is linked in our show notes. You can check it out in your podcast app.


This week’s Overheard episode was produced by Marcy Thompson.

Overheard is produced by Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior producers are Brian Gutierrez and Jacob Pinter.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who also edited this episode.

Ted Woods sound-designed this episode; Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m Amy Briggs. Thanks so much for listening, and see you next time.


Want More?

SharkFest returns! For more great stories on sharks and for our programming schedule, check out natgeo.com/sharkfest.

This month, there are amazing stories about sharks appearing on natgeo.com; from camo sharks that change the color of their skin, to the use of drones to expand our understanding of shark behavior, to discovering more about the shark superpowers of speed and bite force.

You don’t have to watch 32 years of Shark Week episodes to learn about what they contain. This preprint, “Sharks, Lies, and Videotape,” by David Shiffman, Lisa Whitenack, Julia Saltzman, Stephen Kajiura, and Catherine McDonald will reveal the depths—and shallows—of shark storytelling.

Also Explore

The attacks on the Jersey Shore in 1916 were captured in the newspapers at the time; the fear generated was instantaneous. Read more about that here.

“Sharkzilla” was not a thing. But that didn’t stop many people from believing in it. What was the real story behind the Carcharocles megalodon? Read about it here.