The shark rested on its back, its jaws parted in ecstasy, punch-drunk after feasting on a whale carcass off the coast of Nantucket, in Massachusetts.
The image, taken this month by a passing boater, was the latest to tap into the public’s fear and fascination with white sharks, an obsession that seized the American mainstream more than a century ago, during another sweltering summer. That summer in 1916 was when four people swimming near the Jersey Shore were fatally attacked by what some researchers believe may have been one, rogue white shark.
Since then, paranoia and panic have only grown, amplified by Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel “Jaws,” with its Steven Spielberg film adaptation and three sequels, and countless offerings on big and small screens, including the Discovery Channel’s relentlessly promoted “Shark Week,” a feature of beach season since 1988.
Once known as the great white shark, it is now simply called the white shark partly for the banal reason that there is no other white shark in the ocean. Researchers also reject the term “shark attack” because it implies an intentional assault. They prefer the term “bite.”
The recent rebound of white sharks off Cape Cod has put the species in closer contact with swimmers and led to tragedy and horrific attacks, including the death last month of a swimmer off the coast of Maine, that state’s first recorded fatal attack. But the rebound has also given scientists a rare opportunity to tag and follow the enigmatic creatures.
And they hope it will also give them more chances to spread the message that the white shark should remain protected, not demonized. The image of a postprandial shark lolling in the ocean hopefully makes it more relatable than fearsome, said Megan Winton, a research scientist at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in Chatham, Mass., which posted a video of the sated animal.
“It just had the best meal it’s probably had in a very long time,” she said. “It’s so full, the way we are after Thanksgiving.”
Ms. Winton added, “They’re really just big fish trying to feed on their natural prey.”
The year shark panic struck the United States
On July 6, 1916, Charles Bruder, a 27-year-old bellhop at an elegant hotel in Spring Lake, N.J., swam out to sea. A few days earlier, a 25-year-old man had been fatally attacked by a shark in nearby Beach Haven, but reports of his death had been buried deep inside newspaper pages. Mr. Bruder was most likely unaware of the danger in the water.
Suddenly, he began shrieking in pain. A woman on the beach said his red canoe must have overturned. She fainted when she learned that she was seeing blood.
Mr. Bruder was pulled out of the water, his legs bitten off at the knees. Less than a week later, an 11-year-old boy went swimming with friends in Matawan Creek, where he was dragged under water. His friends ran into town screaming that a shark was attacking him. Later that day, a 24-year-old man was fatally bitten as he tried to retrieve the child’s body.
Panic seized the East Coast.
“U.S. War on Sharks,” The Washington Post declared. Men armed with rifles patrolled the Jersey Shore in fishing boats. Along the East Coast, bathers were terrified of going into the water and many seaside hotels lost business, said Michael Capuzzo, who chronicled the attacks in his 2002 book “Close to Shore.” Eventually, a white shark was caught and human remains were found inside, he said.
Scientists still debate whether the attacks were the work of several sharks or a single white shark that had become deranged by starvation and begun attacking the one consistent food source it could find: humans. One fact is hard to dispute, researchers said.
“The summer of 1916 was the dawn of modern, urban shark panic,” Mr. Capuzzo said.
From demon of the sea to ‘golden retriever’
The 1916 attacks helped shape “Jaws” and are even referenced in the 1975 film, which set off a wave of shark hunts and renewed terror of the species. Mr. Benchley would spend years trying to atone for a book that depicted the “great white shark” as a killing machine with a hunger for human flesh.
Around the world vigilante attacks on sharks have continued and conservationists have had to implore government officials to ban the killings.
But conservationists have also persuaded many to care about the white shark, even root for it. In 2015, dozens of people tried to save a white shark that had become stranded on the beaches of Wellfleet, Mass. They dug a trench to the sea, while pouring water on the animal, which was then pulled by a rope into the ocean as beachgoers cheered.
The shark did not survive, said Gregory Skomal, a senior fisheries scientist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who was part of the failed rescue. But the moment was incredibly moving, he said.
“That was a very fascinating, amazing story,” Dr. Skomal said. Still, the shark remains polarizing.
“You get both extremes,” Dr. Skomal said. “There are people who say, ‘the only good shark is a dead shark,’ or ‘sharks are like golden retrievers.’”
He added: “Then there are people who are in the middle, looking for practical solutions, and that’s really difficult to do.”
Why do they (very, very rarely) bite people?
No one knows for sure, Chris Lowe, a professor and the director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, said. Most likely, they have mistaken a human for natural prey, such as a seal, he said, or they felt threatened.
The death last month of the Maine swimmer, Julie Dimperio Holowach, a 63-year-old former New Yorker, shocked people used to hearing about sightings farther south along the East Coast. But the range of a white shark, which can live to be 70 years old, is vast. Sharks in the Atlantic Ocean will travel from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico, and white sharks in the Pacific Ocean can travel from Mexico to Alaska.
In Southern California, swimmers and surfers have been alarmed by young white sharks in the shallow waters.
Dr. Lowe’s lab is in the second year of a five-year study that is, in part, trying to determine how much of a risk the sharks pose to people.
Not much so far, Dr. Lowe said. Researchers have hours of drone footage showing young white sharks, about six to 10 feet long, swimming lazily underneath unsuspecting surfers.
“They just ignore people,” he said, “or they get scared and you see them rapidly swim away.” The sharks are more interested in stingrays, a scourge of beachgoers that swim in abundance near the shore.
“The recovery of the shark population is probably keeping people safer because of the thinning of the stingrays,” Dr. Lowe said. “These stings are incredibly painful. I have seen the toughest super dudes weep on the beach after they were stung.”
How can you avoid a shark attack?
Besides staying out of the water? Governments around the world have spent millions on giant shark nets and drum lines, or buoys with baited hooks to ward off attacks. Those methods have been criticized as costly, not especially useful and dangerous not only to sharks but other animals that can get caught.
The California researchers hope to learn more about shark behavior to better inform swimmers on safety.
“We need to change our behavior because sharks are not going to change theirs,” Dr. Lowe said.
In Massachusetts, scientists are studying when sharks feed on seals so they can tell beachgoers the best times to avoid the water, Ms. Winton, the research scientist, said.
In the meantime, be practical, shark experts said. If you see a seal nearby, get out. If you see a shark, swim away calmly and do not thrash around. Most likely, the shark will ignore you.
If it bites, fight, Dr. Skomal said.
“Your best bet is to strike for anything you can reach,” he said. “Go for the gills, the eyes and the nose. It works for seals.”
Susan Beachy contributed research.