I vividly remember seeing the movie Jaws in a packed theater during the summer of 1975. I’d read the Peter Benchley book the year before, so I thought I knew what to expect from the movie, but this early Spielberg thriller exceeded my teenage expectations. Not too many years later I was swimming in the ocean, and remembering the movie, I constantly scanned the waves for an ominous fin, which I never saw. But the influence of the movie put me on alert and I wondered how far I could safely go from shore.
I didn’t know it in 1975, but the movie was inspired by real events that occurred along the Jersey Shore during the summer of 1916 as chronicled in “Close to Shore” by Michael Capuzzo. During a brutally hot July, larger-than-usual crowds sought refuge from the heat at the shore. Charles Vansant was a guest at the Engleside Hotel in Beach Haven, New Jersey on July 1, 1916 when he decided to take a quick swim before dinner. The young man was attacked by a shark and was still alive when a lifeguard pulled him from the water. But his wounds were mortal and he bled to death on the hotel manager’s desk.
Sea captains entering port at Newark and New York City reported seeing numbers of large sharks offshore. But despite the Vansant attack, the warnings were ignored and the beaches remained open. Then on July 6, Charles Bruder, an employee of the Essex and Sussex Hotel in Spring Lake, New Jersey – 45 miles north of the July 1st incident – was attacked. While lifeguards were rowing him ashore, he too died from loss of blood.
This second attack garnered sensational coverage in the media, making the front pages of prominent newspapers in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington D.C. Shark hysteria set in and people stopped going to the beach, causing the resorts to suffer economically. President Woodrow Wilson even called a cabinet meeting to discuss how to deal with the crisis. But the crisis wasn’t over.
Sixty miles north of Beach Haven, Matawan Creek empties into Raritan Bay. On July 12th, retired sea captain Thomas Cottrell walked across the drawbridge at Keyport near the mouth of Matawan Creek. Something moving in the water caught his eye – it was a large shark swimming upstream. His maritime experience left no doubt about what he had seen, but what was it doing in Matawan Creek? Cottrell raised the alarm, racing upstream to warn the citizens of Matawan about the danger in their midst. But those who heard didn’t heed his warning, assuming that the old captain was just caught up in the shark hysteria sweeping the Jersey Shore of late. Ignoring Cottrell’s warning would prove costly.
About a mile and a half upstream from where Cottrell spotted the shark, 12-year old Lester Stillwell and a few of his friends were headed to Matawan Creek to swim and cool off. One of Lester’s friends saw a black streak flash past him in the water just before the shark clamped Lester in its jaws, taking him under and leaving a churning pool of blood. The remaining boys scrambled out of the water and ran for help. Now the citizenry believed Cottrell. Watson Fisher, a well-liked young man who owned a dry cleaning and tailor business, closed his shop and rushed to the creek to help.
Fisher and others dove into the creek to search for Lester Stillwell. After 30 minutes of probing, one of the searchers felt something brush past his body. Seconds later, on the far side of the creek, Fisher began screaming and thrashing in the water as the shark sank its jaws into Fisher’s thigh. Fisher put up a valiant fight, going under and resurfacing several times before he was pulled from the water. He remained conscious long enough to say that he had Lester Stillwell’s body in his arms when he was attacked. Fisher died of blood loss as he was being wheeled into the operating room.
Half a mile downstream from the site of these attacks, another group of boys was entering Matawan Creek to swim, blissfully ignorant that just upstream a shark had claimed two victims in the past hour. Someone on shore saw the boys and warned them of the danger they were in. As they were leaving the water, Joseph Dunn felt something grab his leg. As he struggled to free himself of the shark, his brother and friends came to his aid, engaging in a life-or-death tug-of-war with the shark. Dunn was rescued and became the only survivor of five shark attack victims on the Jersey Shore during the summer of 1916.
This story reveals two extremes when it comes to dealing with risk. Historically, the Thomas Cottrell’s of the world are not shown favor. They are viewed as crackpot alarmists who are simply looking to suck all fun out of life. Yet when someone has the credentials of experience, as Cottrell did, it is a serious mistake to dismiss them, often costly. Don’t live on this end of the risk spectrum unless you’re willing to lose it all.
Those who stayed completely away from the shore represent the other end of the spectrum. True, they were under no risk of shark attack at all. But they would also be wrong to assume they were completely safe. They simply faced other, unknown risks. Organizations can’t completely insulate themselves from all risk. What they can and should do is be intentional about how far from shore they will go and be honest with the stakeholders about the risks of the position they choose.
Two days after the Matawan Creek attacks, a nine-foot Great White Shark was netted in Raritan Bay. When it was cut open, it contained human remains, leading the experts of the day to conclude the attacks were the work of a single, rogue shark.