a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
“You sure there is no chance we’ll see a Great White Shark out where we are going?” I quizzed our tanned 30-something boat captain. After waiting at the edge of the jungle on an unmanicured beach near Port Townsend, Australia, my friend and I had climbed into the Australian’s compact boat and were heading to the outer Great Barrier Reef. “Yes,” he told me, “I’m sure,” with dismissive certainty. “You promise?” I asked, an entreaty now. I was a waitress living in a landlocked region of the United States, unaccustomed to deep ocean swimming. Again, he assured me, grinning with a bit of amusement, “No worries!”
The first full-length film I saw in a theater as a child was Jaws. The parents of my new friend in New York City took us to see it when I slept over at their house for the first time. It would not have been my mother’s choice, so I assume she wasn’t consulted. My artist parents had been of the back-to-the-land type and had built a studio at the edge of a woods opening to a prairie in Illinois where my most steady companions were my dog and the animals who lived on that land. For a long time, we carried water from a newly-drilled well for cooking and bathing. We heated with wood. We grew vegetables and raised chickens. We did not have a television. After my dad left my mother, we moved from art community to art community where my mother did residencies and studied pottery. This led us to Nyack, New York where we lived with a printer, a painter, and a weaver. The artists we lived with communicated their most important ideas with images so I was perhaps more susceptible than others might have been to the repeating image of the cinematic shark and its gaping jaws. The image did not leave me. In fact, it became an obsession. But, as it turns out, I was not the only one.
A whole generation was trained to think of the White Shark as a “mindless eating machine”—a creature, the trailer warned, that was as if “God had created the Devil and given him jaws.” G.A. Bradshaw, author and founder of Trans-Species Psychology, wrote, “There is probably no one scarier than the massive shark in the movie Jaws. White Sharks give the appearance of what has become the classic description of a dangerous psychopath: a blank, deadpan stare.” Jaws writer Peter Benchley and director Steven Spielberg created an unforgettable monster.
We didn’t stay in New York long. We moved to Massachusetts, Colorado, and Illinois. After graduating from high school, I lived in California, Nepal, Minnesota, Washington, and Iowa. And strangely in any body of water, in any landscape—shallow ocean waves, midwestern lakes, even swimming pools—I thought about sharks. When I went under water, without fail, I would open my eyes and look into the murky unknown and double check to make sure I was safe.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the surprise of radical severance from my father and my home coincided with the beginning of my unreasonable fear. I expected the unexpected. I was ready to be blindsided by the terrible and impossible. “Monsters must be creature forms and corpuscles of the unknowable, the bad numinous. A monster is somaticized sublime…” wrote China Mieville on monsters. “Jaws” became the object of all my restless dread.
In my early 20s, my friend and I decided to save our tip money from the restaurant where we worked and head to Australia. It was a dream of his, and I was psyched to explore the world. I focused my thoughts on koalas, kangaroos, kookaburras, and wombats. Sharks were not part of my fantasy, but the Great Barrier Reef was also on his list, and sharks lived there.
The Great Barrier Reef, designated by UNESCO to be a World Heritage Site, is famously home to over 400 kinds of coral, plus dolphins, sea cows, mollusks, turtles, so many tropical fish, whales, dugongs, and many kinds of sharks, including the White Shark. We had signed up for a snorkel and resort dive tour with a small outfit north of Cairns and were to meet our diving guide on a beach on Cape Tribulation in northern Queensland. A week before this, as we traveled by train up the coast, witnessing flocks of cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets and a great cloud of fruit bats while staying in hostels, we had heard from some surfers about a honeymooning couple who had been attacked by a White Shark a couple months earlier. The groom had been killed. But that was rare, they said.
The small tour boat bounced over the waves away from the mainland under partly cloudy skies. Once the captain dropped anchor and gave us a few instructions, I snapped on my snorkel mask, took a deep, shaky breath, and slipped into the water.
Beneath the choppy surface awaited a world that made the colorful paintings of Matisse and Chagall seem dull. The blues fluidly morphed from turquoise to cerulean to teal as the sunlight was broken by the waves above. Below us, the reef seemed vast and teemed with life. At that time, the effects of ocean acidification had only just begun. Bright magenta sea fans undulated next to thick branches of peach-colored coral. Parrot fish floated past us like little neon signs. Scores of humbug damselfish with their zebra stripes and lemon yellow butterfly fish zigzagged about the mounds of coral peppered with sea cucumbers and anemones. Suddenly a good-sized hawksbill turtle swam into view, and my friend and I decided with hand signals to follow it. The turtle propelled himself gracefully into deeper and deeper water, and took us further and further from the boat. The blues deepened. We followed, mesmerized, unconscious of time or distance. But then I glanced up and saw it: the Jaws poster.
Coming out of the blue gray of distance, the grimacing rows of deadly teeth, the light belly, the enormous gray snout was headed straight for me. We locked eyes.
Despite the reputation for their “blank, deadpan stare,” White Sharks have deep indigo eyes that can see well in daylight and in darkness due to extra mirrored crystals behind the retina at the back of their eyes. They see contrast well, so bright yellow or patterns like black and white are clear to them. They don’t have eyelids and will roll their eyes back in their heads before they attack. Many sharks’ faces are covered with scars from other animals scratching them. This shark did not look away or roll her eyes. Had she been watching us pawing awkwardly after the turtle?
White Sharks can smell a teaspoon of blood hundreds of meters away. Two thirds of their brain is dedicated to smell. Had I scraped my knee by accident? Was I bleeding? Or had she smelled my sunblock? I imagine these sharks encounter so many smells, the smells of gasoline, the dumping of waste from cruise ships, the dead fish returned after the fisherman’s culling, hair gel, sweat, or sometimes the body of a mate, full of sea-want.
White Sharks also have a sixth sense called electroreception because of their ampullae de Lorenzini. These cells actually pick up electrical currents which move through the salt water, giving the shark an incredibly accurate method of detecting other bodies in the water. They can literally feel the energy of another creature. They can find them in the dark. Her ampullae de Lorenzini must have pulsed along her body as she sensed the fear radiating from mine, our energies drawing together like an electric zipper closing the space between us.
I smacked my companion, sped up to the surface, sputtering, and spun to look for the boat. Was it 200 feet away or 2 miles? The waves were rough and gray. My body unequipped to outswim a shark who could move through seawater at 35 miles per hour.
As I swam, every muscle in my body coursed with adrenaline, arms pulling the water, legs slamming in scissor kicks, but not efficiently enough, not fast enough. The voice in my head: If I die right now, I’ve had a good life. If I lose a limb, I can keep swimming. Just swim, don’t look back.
White Sharks have excellent ears. What could she hear, I wonder now. Water rushing, garbled with air bubbles rising, with each thrust in and out of my limbs, similar to when a seal or a dolphin breaches, or maybe the growl of speed boats motoring through the waves, a warning. On other days, tankers, sputtering oil wells, freight-hauling ships loaded with American Girl Dolls and bike tires, explosives, the ping of sonar, the hiss of fishing nets dropping into the sea, the endless engines, but sometimes also the song of the humpbacks, the chatter of dolphins, the clack of seagull beaks fishing.
Later my friend explained how he had watched her long gray and white body drift back into the darkness. Clearly not hungry for a human snack or not interested. Just this year, due to the miracle of the internet, I found footage of a Great White Shark taken by a woman in the same area doing just what this one did, approach slowly and then turn and swim slowly away. When I hauled myself breathlessly onto the boat and screeched to the boat captain about what had happened, he was envious. He told us we were so lucky to have seen her.
For years I told this story, most often to my students. The story of how lucky I was to escape this most dreaded monster. “None of men’s fantasies of evil can compare with the reality of ‘Jaws’,” claimed the Jaws trailer. But what we make monstrous, we make murderable. Tragically, we have done this historically with those of our own species. Sharks suffered from our stories.
The revelation came finally when I was with my adult daughter, who loves oceans. I was sharing my fear with her, reminding her not to swim out too far, not to swim alone, to pass my fear onto her. It felt like my responsibility. “What about the sharks, Mum? Do you know how many are killed a year?” No, in fact, I did not. In all my environmental readings and writings and research, I had not given the lives of sharks much time. I only knew to be afraid of “Jaws.” I finally realized that what I had feared was the Hollywood image of the shark. But the reality for White Sharks was where the real evil came in.
In the years after the film Jaws was made, shark populations off the coasts of North America declined by 50 percent. “Overall shark populations plunged as thousands of fishers attempted to catch trophies; and shark populations have continued to face a steep decline. One hundred million sharks are killed each year, and more than 30 percent of shark species are considered at least “threatened,” writes Jess Romeo in “Sharks Before and After Jaws.”
Like many other charismatic top predators, the White Shark was reduced to its killing potential. In “Mind of the Predator,” in an interview with Gareth Cook, G.A. Bradshaw writes, “Carnivores battle an extra prejudice—they are woefully misunderstood. They are considered mindless, ruthless killing machines. It’s true that they eat other animals (although plants make up the majority of a grizzly bear’s diet), but they kill parsimoniously, only out of essential need. They have complex cultures and are guided by strict, prosocial moral codes. When viewed in light of modern humans, carnivores are amazingly restrained.”
White Sharks specifically exist in complex social systems. Similar to other unlikely companions like rhinos and egrets, sharks have symbiotic relationships with small prey fish. Remora fish, for example, swim with them to eat their scraps as well as groom the sharks of unwanted pests on their skin. White sharks are said to fear groups of bottlenose dolphins who can repeatedly stab the shark in her soft belly with their hard snouts until her internal organs rupture, which can lead to her death. Orcas are their enemies. And humans, of course, are terrifying.
For many people, shark fin soup is a delicacy and it is still illegally consumed in many countries. The fins of exotic sharks are the most prized. Whale Shark fin, for example, brings the excellent price of 10 to 20 thousand dollars a fin. But no shark is safe. Average shark fins can bring approximately 2000 dollars per pound. The practice of shark finning involves catching the fish, slicing off their fins off and dumping them back into the ocean where they will bleed to death or suffocate because they can no longer swim. It is easy to find a recipe for shark fin soup on the internet which in addition to 300 grams of shark fin calls for 6 chicken feet, 200 grams crab meat, and corn flour. So much death for a bowl of soup.
Can you imagine the terror of suddenly having a web of ropes tightening around you, tuna or dolphin or mackerel bodies flailing against yours, being pulled through bouquets of motor oil as you are hauled upward toward the hulk of metal where the gunfire grunts of humans, wrongly salted, heave you to the surface where the wasabi burn of air attacks you, and each fish is now only spasm and shine as the men who smell of death and rot wield knives that will mortally wound you.
So we kill over 100 million sharks a year. “In comparison, for instance, the Global Shark Attack File shows that from 725 B.C.E. to 2015 (that’s almost 3000 years) there have been a total of 1,121 shark caused human fatalities.” writes G.A. Bradshaw.
The White Shark has been on this planet for 450 million years. 90 million years before trees. 190 million before dinosaurs. Today scientists approximate that there are 3500 White Sharks left in the world.
The real fish, not the moviestar monster-fish, has been a victim of our stories. Who are the real monsters?
We seem to love to fear “Jaws.” It is clear many Americans relish fear without danger. In 2022, the horror genre accounted for around $700 million in domestic ticket sales. Fear sells. Around the world, coastal communities with white shark populations offer dive with sharks tours where one can witness a feeding frenzy created by pouring chum into the water while safe inside a cage. The operations offer the thrill of the adrenaline rush with a high likelihood of survival and the pictures you can share on social media. See the invincible predator up close! At least we want to believe they are invincible.
In an airport last month, I was surprised by how many shark images I saw. The commodification of the shark as an invincible monster is everywhere: shark stuffed animals, shark stickers, shark pencils, shark books. “Jaws” is a metaphor for power…Shark Tank, pool shark. Entrepreneurs are sharks, the apex predators of business.
The White Shark, a real life apex predator, helps the reef thrive. The White Shark does not kill for sport, but rather to stay alive. Without this predator eating smaller predators, the smallest prey fish can’t survive. Reefs would be out of balance. In Yellowstone, the world saw the healing effect the reintroduction wolves had on the whole ecosystem. White Sharks create a similar trophic cascade.
Jaws was more than a shark. “Jaws” was a monster. The etymology of “monster” includes words like “remind…admonish, warn, instruct.” China Mieville writes, “Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. All our moments are monstrous moments.”
Does “Jaws” say anything about us? From an environmental perspective we were perhaps beginning to see the terrifying power humans had over nature. In the 1970s, Americans were in the middle of the Cold War. The public was well aware of the fact that we were capable of destruction unprecedented in history after nuclear bombs were detonated. Rachel Carson had sounded the alarm bell that the pesticide DDT was destroying whole ecosystems. Humans had monstrous capabilities. In 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, to protect the environment from us. Perhaps “Jaws,” the terrible destructive monster animal, could be seen as a mirror of our own appetite for destruction.
I had to confront my own part in this. I often told this story to my students in environmental classes. A story that would make people laugh at my fear and my narrow escape. I would tell the story in classes that also looked at the result of irresponsible resource extraction, mass extinction, habitat reduction, but also wonder. I taught essays that would remind students that they were not separate from nature, that would increase their empathy, that would allow them to see how objectifying or demonizing the natural world led to disastrous consequences. How we were now in the anthropocene and needed to respond responsibly. And very frequently, I taught about strategies for hope. And yet, I was, in my funny anecdote, perpetuating Spielberg’s monster narrative that erased any possibility of connection or empathy for the shark. What made me do that?
I began to wonder if what I wanted was a souvenir of a “Wild” that was daily getting destroyed. Thoreau wrote about how we need the Wild: “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” We crave a nature that is more powerful than we are, especially, to my mind, in this moment when our own power has become so obvious and so destructive.
Was I leaning on the very nostalgia for an invincible nature that I was always critiquing? During the anthropocene when we are confronted daily with how much damage we have caused, enough to change the earth’s climate. Maybe I was leaning on my own private image of the Romantic Sublime, even as I had my students write papers about its limitations.
When I first saw the movie, my world had been shattered. I had been yanked out of a peaceful, idyllic childhood and thrust into a space of constant instability. In the past 20 years, all of us humans have been yanked out of stasis by the news of our warming planet. We are facing global uncertainty, extinction events, unpredictable weather, mayhem created by our own insatiable appetites. Our own destruction. If there is something we can learn from the monster fish, it’s about ourselves.
Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg have both apologized for their part in affecting the reality for sharks. And I want to take responsibility for my own storytelling. So here I am, years later, wanting to attempt radical empathy, wanting to connect with something so foreign, so different, so terrifying, but also something astonishing, something powerful, something that needs a new story.
Oh Big Fish, I whisper to myself, please accept my apology. You must worry about your children. You must see what we have done to the reefs. To your family. We humans are so new and not so wise. I know we may never meet again, Great Shark, and if we did I would not stay to caress your rough snout. But I know you deserve a fairer world. In my dreams now, I see you ensnared rather than stalking. May you, in all your ominous, beautiful fierceness, forever reign in the seas…
When I share my own story now, I want to say, yes, I am lucky to be alive, but also, yes, I was very lucky to come face-to-face with such an extraordinary being.
Heather Swan’s creative nonfiction has appeared in Aeon, Belt, Catapult, ISLE, Edge Effects, Emergence, and Minding Nature. Her book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field won the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. Her poems have appeared in such journals as About Place, Cold Mountain Review, The Hopper, One Art, Phoebe, Poet Lore, Midwestern Gothic, The Raleigh Review, and Terrain, and have been included in several anthologies. Her collection A Kinship with Ash (Terrapin Books) was a finalist for the ASLE Book Award and the Julie Suk Award. Her chapbook, The Edge of Damage (Parallel Press) won the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Award. She teaches writing and environmental literature in Madison, WI where she lives with her family, a German Shepherd, and about 60,000 bees.