Why Sharks Don’t Scare Us (Much)

great white sharkPhoto via iStockphoto

It was 1976 and, thanks to cable television and lax parenting mores, I watched Jaws when I was eight and developed a fear of sharks so irrational that — this is where it gets embarrassing — I was afraid of swimming pools.

I know. I know. Sharks aren’t typically found in swimming pools, but that didn’t stop me from imagining that the one that might enjoy a chlorinated dip would somehow find the pool I was in, maybe through the filtration system or an underwater light. To be honest, I didn’t think much about how the shark would get there. I just thought about what it would do to me once it did.

Most people I knew, especially older, wizened folk like my teenage brothers, moved on from Jaws to the next terror flick, Western, or Kung Fu rerun, but I couldn’t let go. Something about the image of that shark devouring people whole — and causing darkness in the peaceful beachside town of Amity Island — shook me.

This was the mid-70s, when no-fault divorce was claiming marriages left and right (my parents’ marriage included), when the economy was tanking, gas prices were rising, and Jimmy Carter was begging us on national TV to turn off our lights to conserve energy. As much as we tried to drown out the bleakness with the soothing thrum of Chic, The BeeGees, and Donna Summer, there seemed a huge, unknowable danger lurking beneath the surface of our lives.

So, when I saw the now-famous photo of the Nauset Beach kayaker — just a dad from New Hampshire enjoying a day at the beach with his teenage daughters — being trailed by an ominous dorsal fin on Saturday, a familiar chill went up my spine. I imagined beachgoers cutting vacations short, fleeing the Cape in a tangle of afternoon traffic. I pictured beaches closing, businesses shuttered. Who in their right mind would swim with a shark that’s stalking seemingly nice fathers from New Hampshire just 50 yards offshore? There’s no question I would have planted myself firmly in the sand on Sunday, nary a toe dipping the water, if not hauled myself back up to Cambridge to spend the weekend safely at home.

And yet the next day people swarmed the Cape. No one was afraid. In a typical reaction, Sean Davan, 42, told the Globe: “I’m keeping an extra eye out, but that’s about it.”

I wondered if any of them remembered the opening scene in Jaws, when that gorgeous, naked woman, filled with the same naive joie de vivre, runs into the ocean for a moonlit skinny dip, her head silhouetted against the dark night sky, blissful, laughing, then suddenly jerking back as something in the water attacks her. Within moments she is swallowed by a force she never saw coming, but it was the first bite, when she was still conscious, aware, and terrified that got me. A lot of us kids from the seventies have spent our lives on the lookout for that first bite.

Maybe the collective shrug was a mere sign of the hearty New England spirit, of trust in the spotting planes and harbormaster’s assurances, and of people’s ability to stay alert enough to avoid seals, the likely reason the great whites are coming closer to our beaches. Or maybe, with all the other bad news out there right now — about extreme weather caused by global warming, about an economic downturn that never looks up, about a presidential race that leaves many of us cold — people just don’t have the energy to panic anymore. Maybe Sunday’s crowds were thinking, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let a great white shark ruin the one bit of respite I have from my crazy busy — or desperately out-of-work — life.” Could it be that we’re all just tired of being afraid?

If so, I applaud those beachgoers for their bravery. And I hope that New Hampshire dad keeps kayaking, if for no other reason than that his teenage daughters won’t be afraid to swim. I hail the harbormaster in all his seafaring wisdom and the tanned and toned lifeguards for their tireless efforts. I pray we’ll all make it through this summer in one piece.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going in.