SUMMER OF THE SHARK
Updated: Nov 6, 2021
by Renea Dijab
an independent newspaper
This is the year that it seems the sharks of the world have gotten together with their PR team and said, “We need more press! Let’s go bite some people!” With ten attacks off the coast of North Carolina alone and recent dramatic live footage of a surfer being attacked during a competition in South Africa, sharks seem to be everywhere these days. This year also happens to be the 40th anniversary of JAWS. Coincidence? I’m not so sure.
Since being scarred for life as an impressionable 10-year-old that summer in 1975 when JAWS leapt onto our movie screens and changed a family fun day at the beach forever, I have been waiting for my moment. My moment to shine.
For me, 2010 was my personal summer of the shark. My husband, daughter, and I had just arrived in St. Augustine for an extended holiday weekend. We drove straight to the beach upon arrival, which happened to be around the standard dinner hour for sharks, also known as “dusk.”
Safety rule number one: never swim in the ocean at dawn or dusk. I should have known better. The sun was low in the sky. The water was gray. I stood on the sand holding our dachshund on his leash, at water’s edge, while my husband and daughter played in the surf a few feet in front of me.
The beach was deserted and only people who were apparently eager to be shark appetizers seemed to be in the water while the sun was setting. A family about thirty feet to my right came out of the water to tell me that they had just seen a shark near the shore!
I immediately called to my husband who was holding steady our three-foot-tall daughter in knee-deep water--the point being, it was shallow. “Come in! There’s a shark!” I called, gesturing urgently.
I got both of them safely out of the water, still not seeing an actual shark, and not even entirely sure that the people who warned us were not crazy and seeing things that weren’t there… and then my gaze fell closer to shore… and there it was… the telltale dorsal fin of a shark, not 20 feet in front of me, leaping in and out of the surf as it chased its dinner.
The reason I didn’t spot him before is that I was looking out to sea… and the crazy thing was swimming where the surf broke at approximately the height of my knee. I could have skipped twice and reached out and touched him.
I looked to the left as it traveled in that direction and noticed sporadic groups of people down the beach for the next mile or so. The people who warned us seemed to think their obligation was complete since they happened to mention it casually to the person standing closest to them, which thankfully was me. My husband also seemed to feel that no further action steps were needed at this point, but forgive me for being–I don’t know what you would call it–a human being? I didn’t want the folks a couple hundred yards to my left to lose a toe or a hand or a toddler to a shark bite when we, people who were in sight of them, knew a shark was in the water.
I also knew I would never hear the end of it if I pursued my natural instinct, which was to run screaming down the beach like Chief Brody yelling, “SHARK! There is a shark in the water! GET OUT of the water!” So doing my civic duty and maintaining my marital pride at the same time, I very casually told my husband that I was just going to walk the dog down the beach. He laughed knowingly. I ignored him.
I did not visibly hurry because I didn’t want to give my husband any more reason to convulse in laughter, but I moved with purpose. As I came upon each group, I casually said, “Hey, there’s a shark in the water” and then left it up to those individuals to decide what they wanted to do with that information. The first group of portly Eastern European women that I came upon seemed to ignore me when I spoke those words to them, and it occurred to me that maybe we didn’t share the same language.
I said, “Do you speak English?” as I simultaneously held up my hand sideways, waving it back and forth in the air like a swimming fish, thumb up to represent the fin. They immediately recognized the international sign of the shark and started backing out of the water speaking to each other excitedly in a tongue that was foreign to me. My heroic actions that day saved people from all over the world.
I got a surfer out and a family dipping their baby’s feet in the surf. I saw the shark once more as I walked, bobbing in and out of the waves. Its belly had to be grazing the sand. At one point, I almost panicked for the shark, thinking it was going to beach itself and I was going to have to rush in and frantically pull it out to sea. Which would have been highly ironic, I know. Just because I’m afraid of sharks doesn’t mean I want them to beach themselves and die a gruesome death any more that I want to die a gruesome death being a shark’s dinner.
This mild panic attack, for the shark, reminded me of a wildlife documentary I’d seen in which a lioness was trying to bring down a gazelle for dinner–and more importantly, her babies’ dinner–and I was in a state of panic for the prey. Run! Run! Live! And it did … then moments later, I saw footage of those poor little baby lions crying for food for the third day in a row, but Momma wasn’t able to catch their dinner, and I was devastated that they were hungry. “No, you must have something to eat!” I cried. The gazelle, perhaps? Damn you, Circle of Life!
And here I was again, decades later, not wanting the people to die and not wanting the shark to die either. I just didn’t want it to eat my dog’s feet.
I don’t mind saying I was a hero that day, as I strolled purposefully, yet casually, so as not to look like an idiot, down the beach warning people to save their lives. I had prayed for my own year-of-the-shark every day since I saw JAWS at the drive-in in 1975, and here it was, my chance to battle the ultimate predator and win. Would I do the right thing? I walked until the beach was deserted.
I endured the humiliation of my husband teasing me, and you should hear his version of this story. But I saved untold dozens that day from the possibility of an encounter with a shark that would have been a little too close and personal. They should have thanked me. But no one did.
They were too busy getting out of the water.