How Shark Panic Gave Way to Protection: Photos

A look back shows how our collective fear of these apex ocean predators is evolving into awe and respect.

Human fear and fascination with sharks probably goes back to earliest days of our existence, but one of the first instances of widespread shark fear in the United States dates to 1778, according to shark expert Ryan Orgera.

Artist John Singleton Copley's paintings of a young boy being attacked by a large shark so terrified viewers in 1778 that the artworks led to widespread fear of sharks in America, an unease that has lingered ever since. Orgera, coastal community resilience project manager at Monmouth University's Urban Coast Institute, puts the moment on his top 10 list of human-shark interactions.

Orgera explained to Discovery News that the paintings were inspired by true events. "Some 30 years prior, a young deckhand named Brook Watson lost his leg to a shark while swimming in Havana's harbor," Orgera said. "Copley painted three versions of ‘Watson and the Shark,' and the international success of the paintings, now in the National Gallery (Washington, D.C.), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), and the Detroit Institutes of Art, was one of the first occurrences of a truly wide-spread fear of sharks in American history."

Number two on Orgera's list is a slew of shark attacks off the Jersey Shore that happened in 1916. The attacks, probably done by one or more bull sharks, "truly consumed American media," Orgera said.

"Over the course of two weeks in early July, four people lost their lives and one other was seriously injured. Fear spread as the attacks continued," he said. "The most frightening part, and novel in the northern U.S., is that these attacks occurred in shallow waters, including brackish creeks."

"Because of these events, and the media coverage, sea bathing became scarier and more dangerous for many Americans."

"As a result of the 1916 Jersey Man-Eater, there was intense political pressure from New Jersey (President Wilson had strong political ties to the state) to deal swiftly with the media fallout, and the widespread damage to summer beach tourism along the shore," Orgera said. "President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Navy to 'declare war' on sharks. The U.S. Navy indiscriminately shot and caught sharks from Long Island to Cape May."

"The U.S.S. Indianapolis is possibly the most infamous and terrifying shark event in modern American history," Orgera said, explaining that the heavy cruiser was sunk in 1945 by a Japanese torpedo while the ship was en route from Guam to the Philippines.

"Because the Navy believed it a trap, rescue vessels were very slow to arrive to rescue the surviving sailors," he said. "Many sailors were dying of dehydration, sun exposure, and shark attacks. The sailors had little defense against the sharks, and waited nearly a week for rescue. Those who survived the elements, returned home with tales of the shark attacks, which were widely disseminated in the media."

The International Shark Attack File, an important database that tracks and investigates shark attacks, launched in 1958. Orgera said, "The International Shark Attack File is the most important tool in understanding the patterns and validity of human-shark incidence across the globe. The ISAF is housed at the University of Florida, and is the leading source of accurate shark attack information."

Orgera credits the television series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," whose first episode ran on January 8, 1968, as helping to make people more aware of marine life, while also improving the reputation of sharks.

"Jacques Cousteau brought the ocean into Americans' living rooms," Orgera said. "He took the mystery and fear of the sea and turned them into sources of wonderment. He helped shift our understand of the shark from a purely mythical, frightening creature to one that deserved our scientific and cultural attention."

Peter Benchley's novel, "Jaws," was released in February of 1974. "This harrowing story about a rogue great white hit a cord in the American psyche," Orgera said. "The novel spent more than 40+ weeks on best seller lists."

"Benchley sold the film rights to the novel even before its publication. Benchley later became an ardent shark conservationist, regretting the negative impacts his novel and the film 'Jaws' had on sharks."

No moment in American history is more influential to shaping shark-human interactions than the 1975 release of Jaws, believes Orgera. He explained, "Steven Spielberg's film portrayed great white sharks as indiscriminate, even vindictive man-eaters. The film and Benchley's novel did so much to undo the progress that Jacques Cousteau and others had made on behalf of sharks."

"'Jaws' was the first true nationwide film release," he added. "For the first time for many viewers, especially in America's heartland, the ocean became a source of terror, and sharks became the most rueful creatures in the sea. It is hard to overstate the damage to the shark's image that 'Jaws' created."

"Shark Week began in 1987 as a celebration of the fear and science of sharks," Orgera said. "This American summer institution has single handedly made sharks a prominent part of American culture. Each summer millions of Americans from Wyoming to Florida watch as sharks leap, feed, frenzy, and recently disappear from our oceans."

"In recent years, Shark Week has begun to focus more and more on the increasingly dire situation sharks face across the globe, and is one of the most important conservation messengers for the general public about the plight of sharks."

"The United States is a global leader in the creation of Marine Protected Areas," Orgera said. "Since President Kennedy created what would become Buck Island Reef National Monument in the U.S. Virgin Islands, many others have worked to protect our oceans. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have set aside more ocean for protection than all of our previous presidents combined."

"President Johnson called for a series of ocean wilderness parks that took half a century to occur. However, we see his recommendations coming to fruition. Marine Protected Areas, along with other conservation tools, are so important to ensuring a healthy future for sharks. Only one percent of global oceans are protected; we have a long way to go yet."