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Jaws

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

― H.P. Lovecraft

It was a weekend night, I had been up way too late as it was, and I must have only been about seven years old. I remember being sent to bed as my parents and their friends prepared to watch a movie, a movie that I was too young and fragile minded to watch. I wanted to stay up as this movie was the story of legend on the bus and in the neighborhood. The name of the movie was “Jaws”. If you hadn’t seen “Jaws” you were one of two things in my neighborhood: a mamma’s boy or just too afraid. To be blunt, the kids on the bus and in the streets were calling me a pussy on the daily. I was probably a little bit of all those things, but my curiosity was starting to get the best of me. I needed to see this film.

As my parents popped the movie into the beta max player, yes, I said beta max friends, I could hear the mechanical noises as the movie geared up to play. I ever so sneakily crept out of my bed, bracing myself against my wall, and reached my head around the corner of my doorway. The television was in a straight eye shot, as my parents and their friends sat with their backs to me. My heart was beating through my chest, each beat felt like a loud thump that echoed throughout my entire body. It was like a fist was punching me from the inside. As I watched with my eyes glued to the screen I could see teenagers on the beach surrounding a campfire and then a boy and girl ran off towards the ocean in the pitch black night. The girl quickly took off her clothing as she reached the shoreline, EUREKA! I saw my first glimpse of the holy grail of all boys dreams, a nice pair of perfect naked breasts. The girl swam out into the blackened ocean, as her male counterpart fell down drunk in the sand. Classic move.

What followed in this opening scene would haunt me for years to come. As the girl swam around in the night  ocean she was jolted by a force that seemed both horrific, powerful, and magnificent. She screamed in gut wrenching terror as she was dragged back and forth through the water, eventually being pulled below the surface, eaten alive. I quickly got back in my bed in a state of ultimate fear, I didn’t wish to watch another second. I had seen the power of a monster that night on the television screen and it had a name, the great white shark.

“Jaws” had an element of modern-day folklore. Although the movie itself is fictitious, it was inspired by true events that took place in my home state of New Jersey many decades earlier. The brutal summer shark attacks that took place in 1916 for over a week, from Beach Haven to the Matawan Creek, left four dead and one injured. These attacks had been shrouded in mystery for many years and I imagine, most likely, intentionally so. Much of the economy in the coastal towns along the New Jersey shore is supported from summer vacationing dollars that come pouring in for a ten week period during summer break. Those dollars can make or break people that live along these coastal areas in New Jersey, as some make up to 70% of their yearly income in that short period of time . I never knew about the attacks of 1916, not many people did, not until the veil was somewhat lifted by Steven Spielberg and his sensationalization of the incident in his film “Jaws”.

As a surfer and someone who spends a greater part of their free time in the water, sharks are certainly entities that swim throughout my brainwaves. I feel that I always keep a keen watch when in the water or on the shore, for when we enter the ocean, we are in their realm. I feel I have a healthy amount of both respect and fear for these great predators of the oceanic domain.

Mick Fanning and The Great White

Mick Fanning and The Great White

When various social media feeds started blowing up on Sunday afternoon, blasting my eyes with photos and footage of a world champion professional surfer’s tangle with a great white shark during the J Bay contest surfing final, like most people, I was pulled in. This was some legitimate heavy shit, plain and simple. Mick Fanning is sitting in the line up at J Bay with one other surfer and a 10-12 foot great white creeps up behind him, it was surreal to watch it go down. It all happened so fast, it was very primal, visceral, as Mick Fanning scrambled for his life trying to stay atop his board, as one of the shark’s fins smacked him hard in the face. Next a wave rolled through so the struggle was obscured, in this brief time Mick said he had punched the shark, as the great white pulled on his leg rope until it snapped. With the snapping of the leg rope, Mick had enough time to break free, and by this time the WSL ocean team was at his rescue. While all this was going down his fellow competitor, Julian Wilson, did not paddle away for his life, instead he heroically paddled to the aid of Fanning.

The stories continued to pop up from all the big and small online surf media outlets out there, the top trending story on Facebook was Mick Fanning’s escape from a great white shark. By Monday morning it had hit all the mainstream news outlets and today as I’m writing this, it’s all over the place. Mick Fanning could escape the great white shark, but there’s no way anyone with a computer can escape the story. At first I thought there was no point in my writing anything about the event. I never do any writing on professional competitive surfing, I’m not a news journalistic-style surf writer, and honestly, I was in somewhat of a state of shock from being bombarded with the whole event. Then I had a change of heart. This wasn’t simply another professional surfing news story, this was an event that in some way, shape, and form will have an impact on every surfer who witnessed it.

The ocean is a mystical, powerful, and mysterious place. I feel there are numerous reasons human beings are drawn to the sea, in the case of being relevant to the story at hand. I imagine one of them is our deep desire to once again feel at one with the natural order of things. On the land, man has subdued and oppressed nature to the point of setting things dangerously out of balance. Our fear of and subsequent attack on nature has put our species at a turning point. It becomes more and more apparent each year that we must either change our course or suffer possible extinction. As a species we’ve done a great deal of damage not only to the land but to the ocean as well, yet the power of the ocean is still an untamed realm that human beings have much to learn about. I only hope we decide to learn, instead of taking the destructive course we’ve started. The planet does not belong to us. We are but a part of the planet, and until we come to this full understanding, we have ourselves in a dangerous set of circumstances.

Sharks are at home in the ocean and when we enter the water to surf, we have come into their domain. I would much rather never have to think about sharks or the possibility of having a life threatening or fatal encounter with one. Yet the fact of the matter is, they, sharks, are out there. So when surfing it’s best to be aware, as much as our senses allow, to what is going on all around us. Surfing is no joke, as the incident with Mick Fanning has quickly proven to the entire world. When we are surfing, we are swiftly brought down off our high horse and we gain some perspective on our actual place in the “circle of life”.

Wrapping up my thoughts here, this has been a rough summer for shark and human interface. I’m hoping we have a safe run ahead of us. My heart goes out to those who have been injured in shark attacks, as well as their friends and family. To those who have ever lost a loved one to a shark attack, I cannot and do not want to  imagine the feeling of horror and loss, my heart goes out to you as well. To Mick Fanning, you’re a trooper my brother! I think I speak for the entire surf community when I say I’m grateful you are safe and healthy. I need to give a much earned shout out to Julian Wilson, who, like a true brother in arms, did not cower in the face of fear, but paddled to his friend’s aid. That is heroism at its best. Finally, big ups to the WSL water team with a quick response and keeping both surfers out of harm’s way.

I think there are many lessons to be learned from what happened at J Bay, most of which I’m hoping will be less of a fear of nature and more of a humble respect that it deserves.

Stay safe, stay aware, and keep surfing.

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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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