(LEVIN) Thirty-five years ago the movie “Jaws” set box-office records, made hundreds of millions of dollars, and forever influenced the way we feel about the ocean and the great white shark, which reaches a length of 23 feet and weighs 5,000 pounds.
I have a fossil great white tooth in my dining room. Four-inches long and two- inches wide, sharply pointed and serrated like a steak knife; these days it would likely be confiscated by airport security. In a shark, rows of teeth fill the mouth cavity, and are endlessly shed in a lifetime of production, wave after toothy wave, which makes fossil shark teeth fairly easy to find.
Sharks have been patrolling Earth’s oceans for 400 million years, and have been terrorizing humans for the past half a million, which is why Steven Spielberg, who adapted Peter Benchly’s book into the first “summer blockbuster” film, chose a big fish to summon our fears.
The book Jaws takes place on Long Island, in the fictional town of Amity, and the film on Martha’s Vineyard. Both leave you with the sense that great white sharks are hardwired, mindless killing machines lurking just offshore in your subconscious, rising like nightmares whenever you enter the ocean. Not true, of course. The great white is an epic ocean traveler, whose migrations are as periodic and predicable and every bit as awesome as those of terns or shearwaters; warm-blooded and intelligent, they live birth single pups, miniature replicas.
Growing up on Long Island I was vaguely aware of a great white birthing zone 50 miles off Montauk Point. I recall that occasionally someone would catch or harpoon a really big one. Newsday would cover the story dockside.
Now, after years of depredation, their population in the North Atlantic is recovering. Great whites can again be spotted off Cape Cod. And as unlikely as it may sound, their return to good fortune is due to Richard Nixon.
Ted Levin is the author of Backtracking, available in our bookstore.