Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Shark Attack on Cape Cod

Chris Myers on beach after shark attack Monday
If you have even walked by a TV news broadcast, tuned into the news on your radio, or glanced at an online headline you have most likely heard that a man has most likely been attacked by a shark off Ballston Beach in Truro, Ma. This is certainly not the first shark attack to occur in New England waters. In fact, it might not even be the first in recent memory.

According to several news stories, including this one from the Huffington Post, Chris Myers was body surfing with his son about a third of a mile off Ballston Beach Monday afternoon, when he was pulled under by a shark. JJ Myers, the son of the victim, heard his father scream and saw what he described as the back of the shark and its dorsal fin. Mr. Myers and his son swam quickly back to the shore where 911 was called.
Chris Myers suffered serious wounds below the knees on both legs. After being pulled from the water Myers was transported to Mass General Hospital in Boston. Although it was originally uncertain whether this was a shark attack at all, a Massachusetts Marine biologist named Greg Skomal later stated that he believed the injuries Myers suffered could only have been caused by a Great White.

Myrers underwent surgery on Tuesday to repair a severed tendon, but felt strong enough to interview with Good Morning America, where he discussed his ordeal in detail.

The whole story seems pretty scary to me, as I grew up swimming in the waters off Cape Cod. However, it also made me curious about the history of shark attacks in New England. I was not surprised to find that several historic news sources indicate that shark attacks are not unknown in this region, but I was pleased to find that they are seemingly quite rare.

Many news stories over the past week are reporting that before Chris Myers, the most recent shark attack in New England occurred in July of 1936 in the town of Mattapoisett. In some respects this is correct. The attack that occurred in Mattapoisett in 1936 was the last reported fatal shark attack of record in New England.

According to a 1936 article in the Boston Herald, a sixteen year old boy named Joseph C. Troy was attacked by what was probably a Great White while swimming about a 100 yards off Hollywood Beach in Mattapoisett. Troy had been swimming with a friend of his uncle named Walter Stiles. Stiles reported to the Herald that he saw the fin of the shark cut through the water toward Troy. He saw Troy attempt to fight the shark off when both the boy and the shark disappeared below the water. Stiles swam toward the shark and the boy and attempted to dive in an effort to recover the child. However, Troy eventually popped up to the surface unconscious.

Boston Herald article 1934
Stiles attempted to signal fisherman who were close by, but failing to do so, began to swim toward the shore carrying Joseph Troy. Eventually the two were pulled on board a passing boat. When Joseph Troy was pulled aboard it was noticed that his left leg had been badly injured during the attack. Apparently a chunk of flesh about the size of a five pound roast beef was missing. Doctors later attempted to amputate the injured leg in an attempt to save the boy’s life at St. Luke’s Hospital. However, Joseph C. Troy died of his injuries around 8:30 that night.

According to the website New England Sharks, the animal responsible for the 1936 Massachusetts attack was reportedly 10-12 feet long. Although it was never identified officially, the descriptions of the shark given by Stiles (whose name was misspelled in the article) most closely match that of a Great White.

An additional shark attack occurred in July of 1830 in Swampscott, Ma. According to an article in the 1830 Salem Register, the victim was a 52 year old man named Joseph Blarney. Blarney was fishing in a small dorey for several hours, when he was seen waving his hat in the air and calling for help. A ship near Blarney attempted to come to his aid when the dorey and Mr. Blarney were both attacked by what was assumed to be a shark. Blarney, as well as his small boat, disappeared below the water. The boat eventually resurfaced, but Blarney never did.
1830 fatal shark attack
New England Sharks reports that there was at least one other fatal shark attack which occurred in Boston harbor around the year 1730. However, I could not find records describing this attack.

Strangely enough the Cape Cod Times reported this morning that the fatal shark attack of 1936 was potentially not the most recent attack in New England waters. The article titled, Past Cape Shark attack victim says he feels vindicated, describes the 1996 experience of James Orlowski of South Hadley. Orlowski was collecting starfish in Truro in waist deep water, when what he claims was a six foot shark attacked his leg. Apparently Orlowski needed several stitches to repair the damage to his ankle. In addition, Orlowski experienced serious infection related to the injury. However, his story was doubted by authorities at the time. Investigators informed him that sharks do not frequent the waters of Truro, which we now know is false. The article speculates that there could be several more injuries due to shark attacks that simply went unreported.

This summer there have been many sharks spotted along the shores of Cape Cod. Many people have stated that the quickly recovering Gray Seal population around the "elbow" of the Cape is now attracting Great Whites to this area. Many marine biologists like Greg Skomal are excited to have the opportunity to study Great Whites more carefully. I don’t blame them, it’s interesting. It is like getting the opportunity to study a tiger or lion up close.

It has been speculated by some biologists that Great Whites attack humans when we are mistaken for seals or sea lions. This is potentially true in the case of Chris Myers who suffered serious wounds in his attack, but exited the water with all limbs and his life intact. The shark seemingly bit him and decided to move on. However, in the historic shark attacks of New England’s past, the victims were not as lucky.

Although I live on Cape Cod, there are not many seals in my area. Nor have there been any shark sightings in my area. However, I must admit, I would rather not swim far from shore alone. Certainly when I do swim, visions of a large predatory shadow gliding my way pop into my head frequently.

As New Englanders, we have grown up with the Atlantic as our backyard. We quahog, fish, and just relax in the shores of our home towns. However, when we do this, we must also remember we are entering the fringes of another world. One we are not well adapted to surviving in. Like our Yankee ancestors must have known, entering the ocean is like walking into the dense tree line of an unexplored tropical jungle. Much like New England itself, you just never know what might be lurking in the shadows or just out of sight.

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