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The Inspiration for Jaws: Science Behind the Historic 1916 Shark Attacks

Have you ever watched the movie Jaws by Steven Spielberg in disbelief with the out-of-this-world shark attacks it presents?

Have you ever watched the movie Jaws by Steven Spielberg in disbelief with the out-of-this-world shark attacks it presents? Or maybe even laugh at how unrealistic it seems? Well, it may scare you to say that the movie is based off of real-life shark attacks. The historic 1916 shark attacks that happened in New Jersey puzzle marine biologists and ichthyologists to this day.


In the summer of 1916, a large shark made five attacks on five different people, taking the lives of four of them. These gruesome attacks shocked thousands of people and only happened in a span of 12 days. On July 1st, 1916, the first shark attack happened in Beach Haven, Long Beach Island, killing 25-year old Charles Vansant. The second attack occurred only five days later on July 6th in Spring Lake, taking the life of 28-year old Charles Bruder. Eventually, the shark made its way into the Matawan Creek, a freshwater body, taking the lives of Lester Stilwell and Stanley Fisher, and taking Joseph Dunn’s leg. Obviously, these horrific attacks changed the lives of many people. But it was an alarming anomaly, as scientists of the time thought sharks were harmless to humans. The five shark attacks caused many to speculate for what pushed the shark (or sharks?) to commit such atrocities. Several weeks later, some fishermen accidently caught a great-white shark and found human remains in its stomach, causing many to believe that they had caught the “man-eating shark” terrorizing the shore weeks earlier (1).


The majority of scientists believe that the attacker was a rogue great-white shark. Ichthyologist George Burgess describes the attacks as “most unique set of shark attacks that ever have occurred” (4). However, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the attacks. Was a single shark responsible for all of the attacks? If so what was truly its species? Was the shark that was caught the shark that went on the killing spree? How did the shark get up the creek? Why did it attack humans? There are a lot of questions that still evade our understanding to this day. There is still debate on the species of the shark because even though the fisherman identified the shark as a great-white, there are no accurate records or pictures to allow modern scientists to confirm nor deny the statement. Knowledge about sharks was very limited in 1916, so many of our records could be inaccurate or just plain wrong. Many scientists, such as Richard Fernicola, are trying to answer these questions to this day. Several theories are in place, such as that the shark could have been a bull shark, which are known to be able to traverse to freshwater areas and back to saltwater for short durations (3). The driving force behind the debate over the species of the shark is the fact that great-white sharks are very intolerant to freshwater, so they then question how that shark was able to make its way up the Matawan Creek. Many postulate that a lunar eclipse that month caused the tides to be unusually large, allowing the shark to travel down the creek until the lack of saltwater made it panic and become even more hostile (2).


There are many mysteries in science even to this day, and stories like this one really show us how much left there is to discover. We may never find out why the shark behaved like it did or how such a perfect storm came to be, but we can learn many, many things by trying to figure it out.



  1. Capuzzo, M. (2003). Close to shore: The terrifying shark attacks of 1916. New York: Crown.
  2. DeMers, J. (2011, August 15). ‘Twelve Days of Terror’ by Dr. Richard Fernicola. Retrieved from https://www.chron.com/life/article/Twelve-Days-of-Terror-by-Dr-Richard-Fernicola-2023350.php
  3. Gambino, M. (2012, August 06). The Shark Attacks That Were the Inspiration for Jaws. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-shark-attacks-that-were-the-inspiration-for-jaws-15220260/
  4. Golgowski, N. (2012, August 12). Jaws: The 1916 shark attacks off the Jersey coast that was the inspiration for film. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2187103/Jaws-The-1916-shark-attacks-Jersey-coast-inspiration-film.html

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