GREAT WHITE SHARK ATTACKS IN THE UNITED STATES
Map of the 1916 New Jersey attacks Great whites are responsible for more serious shark attacks than any other species. Between 1876 and 2001, they were involved in 254 recorded unprovoked attacks, 67 of them fatal, and about a third of them in waters off California. Most of the victims were surfers or divers who were bitten in the leg or arm and had one or more arteries severed and bled to death. There might have been a lot more attacks were it not for the fact that great whites hunt in relatively cold water and rarely encounter humans.
In recent years the number of great white attacks have increased. This is partly explained by the increase in the number of people donning wet suits and entering waters with great whites. However the fatality rate has dropped from 92 percent before 1950 to 50 percent in 1950 to 15 percent today. These statistics reflect that victims are taken out of the water quickly, usually because they are with a friend and near a boat, and given timely first rate medical care. Another reason why attacks have increased is that population of elephant seals and other seals have exploded after being hunted to near extinction. A increase in seals translates to an increase in sharks in areas where the seals live.
Websites and Resources: Shark Foundation shark.swiss ; International Shark Attack Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks ; Tracking Sharks trackingsharks.com, which records all global shark attacks; Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se ; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems
1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks — the Inspiration for “Jaws”
In 1916 four swimmers died in 12 days from shark injuries off the New Jersey coast. Charles Epting Vansant, 25 of Philadelphia, was the first shark fatality on July 1. He was vacationing in Beach Haven with his family. Twenty-seven-year-old Bruder was became the second victim on July 6. ."The man was unfortunately flung out of the water and lost both his legs below the knees and had other gashes and lacerations," Richard G. Fernicola, author of "Twelve Days of Terror", a historical account of the events, told USA TODAY. After the attacks vigilantes went up and down the coast killing every shark they could find. Later a great white was caught and human remains were found inside its stomach. The event was the subject of the 2001 bestseller “Close to the Shore: A True Story of Terror in an Age of Innocence” by Michael Capuzzo.
According to Listverse: “These shark attacks took place in 1916, in a time where little was known about sharks of any kind, and some scientists even claimed that sharks were not dangerous at all. This is one of the very few cases of real “man eating sharks” known, with most shark attacks being isolated incidents. Vansant who was attacked in very shallow water while swimming with a dog; several people, including his family, witnessed the attack, and a lifeguard rushed to rescue the young man. The shark was extremely tenacious and seemingly followed the lifeguard to the shore, disappearing shortly after. The shark’s teeth had severed Vansant’s femoral arteries and one of his legs had been stripped off its flesh; he bled to death before he could be taken to a hospital. Five days later, Bruder, was attacked by the same shark while swimming away from the shore. At first it was reported by a witness that a red canoe had capsized; in reality, the “red canoe” was a giant stain of Bruder’s blood. The shark had bitten off his legs. He was dragged back to the shore, where the sight of his mangled body seemingly “caused women to faint”, but it was too late; he was dead by the time he got to the beach. [Source: TyB, Listverse, October 16, 2010]
Headlines from the 1916 New Jersey attacks “Although sharks had been seen in the area during those few days, scientists who were informed of the attacks claimed that sharks were unlikely to be responsible, and said that the culprit had probably been a killer whale or a sea turtle! The next attacks took place not in the sea, but in a creek near the town of Matawan. Again, people reported seeing a shark in the creek, but they were ignored until, on July 12, an eleven year old boy was attacked while swimming and dragged underwater. Several townspeople rushed to the creek, and a man named Stanley Fisher dove into the water to find the boy’s remains, but he too was attacked by the shark and died of his wounds. The final victim was another young boy barely 30 minutes after the attack on Stanley Fisher. Although he was severely injured, he was the only victim to survive.
“On July 14, a young female Great White Shark was captured in the Raritan Bay near the Matawan Creek. It is said that human remains were found in her stomach. But, although this shark was usually thought to be the man eater, not everyone is convinced. Today, scientists believe that, although the female Great White shark may have been responsible for the first two attacks, the Matawan creek attacks were probably the work of a Bull Shark. Unlike the Great White Shark, the Bull Shark can survive in fresh water, and is an extremely aggressive species, considered by some as even more dangerous than the Great White. Even so, this was the beginning of the Great White Shark’s terrible reputation as a man eater. Once confirmed that the Jersey attacks had been the work of a shark, there was media frenzy and a shark panic “unrivaled in American history”. The incidents inspired Peter Benchley’s most famous novel, Jaws, which would later be adapted into a movie by Steven Spielberg.
Remembering the 1916 New Jersey Great White Shark Attacks
Jerry Carino wrote: “ Howard Crawford heard the story many times. His grandmother, then 16-year-old Mabel Smith, was playing in Matawan Creek in Monmouth County, New Jersey, on July 12, 1916, when the shark attacked 11-year-old Lester Stillwell. “She remembered the shark grabbing him by the stomach,” Crawford said. “He came up from the water once, and the screams were horrific.” The other kids at the creek raced off to get help. Mabel didn’t have to go far. The creek ran behind the sprawling property owned by her father, 51-year-old farmer and carpenter Arthur Smith. Within minutes Arthur Smith plunged into the creek to look for Lester. He was joined by 24-year-old Stanley Fisher and 20-year-old George Burlew.[Source: Jerry Carino, Asbury Park Press, Neptune, N.J., USA Today Network , June 29, 2016]
The creek was deeper back then. Mabel’s brother, Robert Smith, had taken the three-man search party out in a rowboat. Fisher came across Stillwell’s body, but as he went to retrieve it, the shark ripped into his right leg. “My grandmother said the water was just solid red,” Crawford said. “They dragged (Fisher) onto the shore and you could see the bones in his leg.”“Friends tried to bandage the wound, but Fisher would bleed to death later that day. Meanwhile, as Crawford tells it, the shark headed for Arthur Smith. He got into the rowboat just in time, but not before suffering a laceration that required 14 stitches (the injury is corroborated by published reports). “He had that scar until he passed away,” Crawford said.
“That was in 1966. Smith lived until age 101. He seldom spoke of the incident, even as it became known around the globe. Mabel did speak of it, recounting the tale for local newspaper reporters who visited her home each July. “When she told it, even as an old lady, it got her worked up,” said Crawford, who lives in Jackson. “It must have been something to behold. It kept me out of the ocean.” Mabel Smith Maiola declined to see Jaws when it came out in 1976, a few years before her death. “I wanted her to see it, but she didn’t think too much of it,” Crawford recalled. “She never read the book either.”
shark caught after the 1916 New Jersey attacks “Millions of people did see Jaws, sparking a widespread renewal of interest in Matawan Creek and the other attacks along the New Jersey coast in July of 1916. There also were fatalities at Beach Haven, N.J., on July 1 and Spring Lake, N.J., on July 6. All three towns had some sort of commemoration in 2016 to mark the centennial of the event. A big reason why the Matawan attacks were so shocking is because, unlike those in Beach Haven and Spring Lake, they occurred in the townsfolks’ backyard rather than the open ocean.
In 2016, Mary Lee, a nearly 1,590 kilograms (3,500-pound great) white shark, showed up at the Jersey shore. USA TODAY reported: “After swimming off the coast at different times in 205, Mary Lee has returned to snack in the waters off Atlantic City, according to Ocearch.org, which is monitoring her movements with a global positioning system tracker. The five-meter (16-foot) shark was tagged by researchers in 2012 off Cape Cod, Mass., and since then has swum more than 21,225 kilometers (34,000) miles, according to Ocearch.org, which collects information on sharks in an effort to protect the animals. In May Mary Lee surfaced less than 65 kilometers (40 miles) off the coast of Atlantic City, according to the organization. [Source: USA Today, May 7, 2016]
Swimmer Killed by Great White Shark in Maine in 2020
In July 2020, 60-year-old Julie Dimperio Holowach, was swimming in Mackerel Cove off Bailey Island in Harpswell, Maine with her daughter when she was fatally bitten by a shark. News Center Maine reported: A tooth fragment recovered from her body was examined, and officials confirmed it belonged to a great white shark. "When we found out what happened, it was just traumatic for everybody,” Cathy Piffath said. "It was a total shock.” [Source: Alex Haskell, News Center Maine, July 27, 2022]
10 Boston reported: Holowach was attacked just before 3:30pm according to officials.The Maine Marine Patrol said a witness saw Holowach swimming off the shore of Bailey Island when she was bitten. Two kayakers helped her get to shore and an ambulance provided further assistance, but she was pronounced dead at the scene, the marine patrol said. [Source: Marc Fortier, 10 Boston, July 29, 2020]
The rescuers were a man and woman in a rented tandem kayak, said Jeff Cooper, co-owner of H2Outfitters on the island, which offers instruction, rentals and sales of kayaks. The kayakers were on the shore when one of them saw something breach, and realized something was wrong, Cooper said. “They happened to be right there at the scene. They were courageous enough to jump in and retrieve the victim,” Cooper said. One of the kayakers grabbed Holowach, and the other paddled to get her back to shore, said Cathy Piffath, the other co-owner.
Stephen Arnold said he was working inside his home in Maine on Monday afternoon and looking out his window at the time of the attack. He saw the deadly encounter as it unfolded. "I saw the two swimmers, right there at that rock ledge. They were actually splashing, and laughing, and talking with each other," he said. "And then all of a sudden, I saw the trailing swimmer being lifted somewhat out of the water,. And she started screaming." The tragic shark attack took place just 20 yards from shore. "The lady screamed, thrashed for a few seconds, and then just went limp," Arnold said. Arnold called 911 while the two kayakers brought the victim to land.
Doctor Attacked by Great White Shark at Cape Cod in 2018
In August 2018, Bill Lytton, 61-year-old neurologist from Scarsdale, New York,, was attacked by a great white shark off a Truro beach in Cape Cod. Lytton underwent six surgeries and lost nearly 12 pints of blood after the attack. "I punched [the shark] in the gills" to escape, he said. Experts weren't immediately sure what kind of shark bit Lytton. However, a CBS Boston helicopter spotted what appeared to be a great white shark in the water near where Lytton was bitten. I got a great look at him and it was terrifying’: Lytton said. “The most scary part was when I recognized the shark and realized this is real life, this is not a movie.”
Dialynn Dwyer wrote in Boston,com, September: He’d missed his daily workout the previous few days. So on August 15, while visiting Longnook Beach in Truro with his wife and two daughters, William Lytton decided it was his “chance” to get one in — a 30-minute swim. Lytton had 10 more minutes left to go in his workout, swimming in water that was about eight or 10 feet deep, when he felt an “enormous pain” in his left thigh. “The only thing I could think of at first was a jellyfish,” the doctor told Boston.com. “I’ve encountered jellyfish before and they’re a bit painful, but not that painful.” [Source: Dialynn Dwyer, Boston,com, September 20, 2018]
It was not a jellyfish. What Lytton saw instead was a shark, its teeth sunk in the upper part of his left leg, appearing to try and bring his limb up and around, as if to turn him around. Lytton said. “Immediately the first thought was, ‘This is ridiculous. This kind of thing doesn’t happen except in movies.’ The second thought is, ‘It is happening.’ So then I just kind of realized, ‘This is it. I’m going to die if I don’t do something.’”
When he was attacked, Lytton recalled — from viewing nature documentaries — that there are three vulnerable points for a shark — the gills, eyes, and snout. “The gill was very visible,” Lytton said. “It was right there in front of me. And I smashed it with my hand. And as a result, I got an enormous laceration in my hand and broke two tendons because apparently the gill is not a soft place, which is what I imagined it to be.” At the time, he didn’t even notice the injury.
He estimated that he was in the jaws of the shark — later identified by experts as a great white — for about 20 seconds. “It felt like a wrestling match,” Lytton recalled. “The animal was trying to turn me over, having this great grip on my leg. And I guess it went from wrestling to mixed martial arts because I punched it, and it let go and left. So I feel like that was the key thing.”
He was “bleeding out” in the water, he said, and couldn’t really use his legs to kick. But he was able to make it back to shore in about six strokes of his arms, letting the waves help wash him in.
He yelled for help. “Two guys came over, pulled me up the beach, so I was at least out of the water,” Lytton said. “I was bleeding a lot. And they ran and got some more help. And luckily — I think it probably saved me — there was an EMT there, a doc, two nurses, and they really all pulled together and saved me.” He recalled being conscious as a group of 12 to 15 people helped carry him up a steep dune to a waiting ambulance. From there he was driven to a waiting helicopter that rushed him to Tufts Medical Center in Boston.“They immediately intubated me and sedated me, and I was sedated for three days,” the neurologist said. “So that was the last I heard about me for a while. Then woke up and was just like, ‘What’s going on?’ And it started to come back.”
Lytton underwent eight surgeries at the hospital as doctors worked to repair the damage done by the shark — it scratched his bone — and remove teeth the animal left behind. The teeth were sent off to shark scientists for examination, which led to the discovery that it was a male shark that bit him. Lytton said he expects the teeth will be sent back to him when study of them is complete.
Man Killed by Great White Shark at Cape Cod Area in 2018
In September 2018, 26-year-old Arthur Medici of Revere, died after being bitten by a shark while boogie boarding off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. CBS News reported: The attack happened on a stretch of the Cape Cod National Seashore.At about noon on Saturday, Medici was riding the waves on a boogie board with a friend about 30 yards into the water off Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. That's when one witness says he saw what looked like a 10- to 12-foot shark attack Medici. It was the first deadly shark attack in Massachusetts in more than 80 years. [Source: CBS News, Nikki Batiste, September 17, 2018]
More than a dozen beachgoers scrambled to help carry Medici to safety after he was bitten on both legs."I sprinted back up the beach," said Joe Booth, who witnessed the attack. "Screaming like a lunatic: 'Call 911! There's been a shark attack!'""He was screaming and then I saw, like, a shark tail," Rocha said. "And I swam to him as fast as I could in that moment. I dragged him back to the shore and I got a boogie board strap and I kind of tied it around his thigh to try to stop the bleeding."
The National Park Service is warning people on Cape Cod not to swim near seals. The shark that bit Medici is believed to have been a white shark. The presence of sharks in these waters is not unusual, experts say. "We see these sharks every day along this coastline," said Greg Skomal, a marine biologist and Massachusetts Recreational Fisheries program manager. "They are there in big numbers. And people have to be vigilant and be aware of it." Skomal believes the shark likely mistook Medici for a seal, which are often close to shore along Cape Cod's beaches.
"And as result, these sharks are coming as close as they possibly can without risking their own lives to try and kill and eat these seals," Skomal said. "And that creates a bit of a problem because that's exactly where people are utilizing the shoreline. And so, you know, this is something we're looking at – it's something we're trying to advise swimmers about so that this does not happen again."
Man Attacked by Great White Shark at Cape Cod Area in 2012
In June 2012, Christopher Myers was rushed to the hospital after being bitten by a shark on both legs while bodyboarding near Cape Cod. Scientists later confirmed that the shark, which attacked him just offshore at Ballston Beach off Truro, Massachusetts, was a great white. The last shark attack in Massachusetts took place in 1936 in Buzzards Bay. Sixteen-year-old Joseph Troy Jr. died after sustaining a massive leg wound. [Source: Martine Powers and Matt Woolbright, Boston Globe, July 31, 2012]
The Boston Globe reported: The man was attacked around 3:30pm. while body surfing with his teenage son. He made it to shore and was rushed first to Cape Cod Hospital and then to Massachusetts General Hospital for treatment. “In all likelihood, these injuries can be attributed to a great white shark,’’ Greg Skomal said apress conference in Boston. “The weight of evidence — including eyewitness sighting of a fin, the presence of seals, and the extent of injury — points to a white shark.’’ Skomal, a senior scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said was “more than 90 percent’’ certain that Myers had been attacked by a great white shark. The state is tracking nine great white sharks, measuring between nine and 18 feet, Skomal said.
Twenty-five-year-old Seth Blaustein recalled how he jumped into the water after he realized that Myers had been attacked by a shark. He grabbed his boogie board and helped the injured man and his teenaged son as they struggled to swim to shore. Myers was rushed to the hospital with lacerations to both legs. Though beaches were kept open after the incident, signs posted on the sand warned potential swimmers of recent shark sightings.“I swim every day I’m here,” said Christine Blaustein, Seth’s mother. “But I’m not going in the water today.” Longtime vacationers in this town — the last before Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod — said they have seen increasing numbers of seals in the area, but had hoped that sharks would remain further south on the Cape, where they have been frequently spotted off the coasts of Chatham and Orleans.
Surfers Attacked by Great White Sharks in Oregon
In December 2005, thirty-six-year-old Brian Anderson was surfing near Tillamook Head, south of Seaside, Oregon when he felt something grab his leg. "As a surfer, it's your worst nightmare to get attacked by one of those things," he said. He punched the ten-foot shark near the eye, a tactic he says he learned by watching Shark Week on the Discovery Channel and it released him. He suffered relatively minor injuries: lacerations on his ankle and calf. [Source: AP]
In April 1998, fifty-year-old surfer John Forse was attacked by a 15-foot white shark off Gleneden Beach, 85 miles southwest of Portland. Forse was straddling his surfboard 150 yards from shore when he saw the water swirl about 20 to 30 feet away. “There are lot of seals out here, so I didn't think anything of it,'' he said. The next thing I knew I felt this pressure on my thigh. No pain, it was more like a vice grip.'' The shark pulled him down briefly, came back up, then started to dive again. [Source: AP]
“We were thrashing around down there and he came back up,'' Forse said, adding that he still was attached to his board with a quick-release cord. His dorsal fin was about a foot away, so I started beating on it,'' he said. He started down a second time and the cord snapped. He must have bitten it in half. The whole thing took, oh, 20 seconds.'' He climbed back on his board, laid down and paddled for shore. The attack left a foot-long gash and eight teeth marks. Some of the wounds were left open to drain. Several surgeries were required.
Surviving a Gruesome Great White Shark Attack in Oregon
Describing his encounter with a great white off Cannon Beach in Oregon, Kenny Doubt wrote in “Surfing with a Great White Shark”, "Suddenly I heard what sounded like a muffled roar. I felt something massive clamp across my back, a tremendous pressure on my chest, my ribs snapping, and heard a crunching sound on the underside of my board. A split second later I was dragged underwater." [Source: “Surfing with a Great White Shark” by Kenny Doubt, 1992, Shark-Bite Publishing, P.O. Box 121, Bryan Ohio 43506]
"Because my surfboard was so buoyant and the shark had me with the front of its jaws, it couldn't hold me down for long. I bobbed back to the surface. Still gripped in its mouth and totally helpless, I felt my entire body lifted high and slammed back underwater a second time."
"Turning my head, I glimpsed a five-foot-long pectoral fins, followed by a silver-gray tail fin some 15 feet behind...I struggled, trying to twist loose, pound the shark on its head with my fist, all the while expecting to see the lower half of my body rip off and float away. The shark tried a third time to drag me into the deep. Failing again, the creature hit high out of the water and shook me furiously like dog with a bone. My body whipped back and forth so hard I was sure I'd soon be dead."
"Then, just as suddenly, the pressure released, and I was floating alone in the quiet ocean...A circle of blood spread around me...Charged with adrenalin, I swam to my board and pulled myself on top of it. Looking down for the first time, I was surprised to see my legs still attached...Although I still felt no pain, blood was pouring down my arms and over my hand. I could hear my breathing through a gap in my back, a gurgling sound of air and blood.
While Doubt drifted and limply paddled into shore, half conscious, his friends ran to a house on the beach and called 911. When he floated up on shore ribs were sticking out of his flesh, organs were exposed and blood pulsated out hole in his arteries. By the time the ambulance arrived Doubt had lost four liters of blood and a surgical team of six doctors tackled his wounds at the Portland Hospital.
"The sharks' bite had smashed four of my ribs. Its teeth had punctured one lung, exposed my heart and kidneys, shredded muscles, severed nerves, I had lost more than a third of my blood...The surgical team had to stop the bleeding, rejoin the four broken ribs, re-expand the collapsed lung and sew up the massive wounds. They quit counting stitches when they reached 500."
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, You Tube
Text Sources: Mostly National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated March 2023