For anyone that has ever been a boat captain, fishing guide, or naturalist on the water, there is always one question from passengers that ranks among the top five most asked inquiries.
“Tell us about the sharks,” the favorite but mysterious topic begins, “Have you ever seen a big shark? What kind of sharks live in these waters? Has there ever been a shark attack?”
The world changed in 1975, the year when producer and director Steven Spielberg captured Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws” on the big screen. This was the first-time audiences realized that monsters could be real. These creatures from the deep were not only real, but also relentless and ravenous creatures that could be lurking almost anywhere—day or night.
Sharks were not invading aliens from outer space, nor were they created by a mad scientist in a haunted castle or by an old witch with a gypsy curse. For the first time, Hollywood created a monster that could be real. Especially since the villainous shark in “Jaws” was 25-feet in length and the Guinness Book of World Records lists the largest great white shark ever caught was 43-feet in length when discovered on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Just like in “Jaws,” when Richard Dreyfuss playing the part of Matt Hooper exclaimed: “What we have here is a perfect eating machine. Sharks swim, eat, and make baby sharks, and that’s it. That’s all they do.”
This line from “Jaws” really struck home when my shark story began one early afternoon in June about 10 years ago. I had been sailing passengers around the Marco, Goodland, and Isles of Capri waters for over 20 years before ever seeing anything like what was about to happen on this one unforgettable day. After this adventure on the water, I had a shark story for any future passenger that chose to ask about the real monsters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The month of June for any islander brings to mind hot humid weather, very warm gulf water temperatures, and the beginning of the tropical rainy season. June also marks the time when sharks come closer to shore.
When our noontime charter began, no one aboard realized that a catamaran day sail out of Marco Island was about to turn into a version of something that has excited, terrified, and fascinated beach destination travelers ever since the debut of “Jaws” and Steven Spielberg’s first major movie.
On this particular day, once outside the boundaries of the Marco River, with the sails full, the 24-foot catamaran was making way with enough momentum to move the boat but not enough wind to whitecap the water or make any waves. With these summerlike conditions, the water was as clear as a swimming pool.
For as far as anyone could see, the gulf was flat, clear, and the heat of the warm water sluicing alongside seemed to rise up onto the boat. Without much wind, the catamaran was moving through what we jokingly call the Lake of Mexico because it was so calm.
When working on the water, and doing so for many years, it is easy to recognize animals in the water and when the water is calm, mariners can see everything. Dolphins are the most easily recognized because they are different shades of gray. Loggerhead sea turtles appear as shades of pale green and yellow and Manatees are brown.
No one can spend any time on the water without seeing a shark and I was no exception. My limited experience in viewing these predators was recognizing a not brown but kaki color and when one of the passengers called out, “Look over there,” and pointed. I knew from the kaki color that we had come upon a shark. What I did not know was how big this was going to be.
Of course, everyone since “Jaws” is really interested in sharks, and when we all saw the quite sizable creature with dorsal and tail fins awash and the massive body just inches below the surface, we knew instantly when it made a dramatic turn toward us we were not the only ones ready to check something out.
When our shark was first sighted, we turned the boat into the light wind and sat still. As soon as we were adrift and motionless, the shark reacted and began to snake over. No one said anything, but when our shark swam nearer, all four passengers on the forward trampoline instantly moved off the canvas and up onto the hard deck. Without a word, it was clear—if anyone fell overboard, they just might be eaten.
Now, in the middle of the boat, there were seven of us watching when this thing turned again and swam like a snake crossing directly in front of the catamaran. I was in the back by the tiller. The boat was 24-feet long and 16-feet wide, and from my perspective from the back looking forward to where the creature was crossing, it was clearly longer than our boat was wide. There was easily two feet of shark on either side of the hulls making this predator at least 20-feet in length. After our monster reversed course to check us out again at the bows, it then turned sharply with a splash of tailfin and swam down the side of the sailboat to reveal the true girth of the fish and the actual size.
This was a real monster and finally one of the passengers spoke, “If we are going to be out here, we had better go back and get a bigger boat.”
There was some nervous laughter as the shark swam away with everyone now chattering on about our close encounter with a real Jaws.
There was about a twenty-minute interval after we started sailing again when our villain was suddenly back—or in our case—in front. The shark had obviously been following and without warning, crossed again in front of our boat. Two feet of tail sticking out on one side and at least two feet of its massive head sticking out in front of the other bow.
No words were spoken but the motor was started—thank God—and we motored back into the Marco River while looking back most of the time. We never saw our villain again.
This is a true story. When we returned to the marina and described our adversary to local fishing captains, the explanation was clear. “That was a bull shark. They are bad sharks.”