It was 1975 and I was 12 years old when, along with millions of other recreational swimmers, I developed a lifelong and near-paralyzing fear of sharks.

Thanks, Steven Spielberg!

The summer of 1975 was when the classic thriller Jaws surfaced in movie theaters around the country. Suddenly, the nation was terrorized by a giant mechanical shark named Bruce, who became the star of what would go on to become the first true summer blockbuster.

I had been swimming since literally before I could remember, but it only took one viewing of Jaws to convince me that the waters all around me were brimming with sharks. They were in the murky waters of Long Island Sound. They were surrounding the beaches of Block Island, where my family vacationed. Hell, if it weren’t for the fact that the water was so crystal clear, I would have been sure they infested my grandparents’ swimming pool as well.

Of course, there weren’t really sharks anywhere near me. But in the summer of ’75, a national preoccupation—a fascination, really—with sharks took root in America from sea to horrifying sea. That enthrallment with the toothy denizens of the briny deep continues next week with the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week, beginning July 5, an international celebration of all things shark-y. The week-long collection of programming has, since 1988, featured both fictional and non-fictional shows about everyone’s favorite oceanic predator.

This year, Shark Week takes place at a time when sharks have been in the news more than ever, with a recent string of shark attacks off the coast of the Carolinas focusing the nation’s attention. According to an article from NationalGeographic.com, the attacks are a part of a rising worldwide trend this century, even though the incidents of shark attacks on humans remain exceedingly rare. The chances of an ocean swimmer being bitten by a shark are one in 11.5 million, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Why are the number of attacks rising? The actual reasons are elusive, but some scientists speculate that it’s merely a matter of numbers. Rising human populations simply mean more swimmers in the water and more chances for human/shark interactions. When sharks attack people, it’s usually because the sharks themselves are being hunted or because they’ve mistaken humans for their usual prey. In fact, in most cases in which a shark bites a person, it will release its hold once it’s realized that we’re not the dinner it’s looking for.

It’s not just the news of recent attacks that have held the public’s recent attention. While millions turn to sharks for entertainment next week, more is being learned about sharks than ever before. One shark that’s providing information to researchers has become something of an Internet sensation: Mary Lee, a 16-foot, 3,500-pound great white that was “tagged” with an electronic tracker by the non-profit organization OCEARCH has picked up more than 81,000 followers on Twitter, many of whom have watched the shark swim more than 20,000 miles up and down the U.S. eastern seaboard since 2012.

OCEARCH, which collects and shares data on the habits of great whites and other apex predators, tracks dozens of sharks worldwide, but Mary Lee in particular has become popular thanks to her numerous and witty tweets to her fans. Other tagged sharks have tested the Twitter waters, too. “There’s a whole community of tweeting sharks now nowadays,” Mary Lee’s anonymous voice told the Boston Globe in a recent interview. “They’re all trying to be funny.”

 

Before his death in 2006, Peter Benchley, author of the best-selling novel Jaws, expressed regret at having written the book, saying that ignorance, fear and greed had driven humans to hunt some species of shark to near extinction. Here’s hoping that a better understanding of the mighty fish will allow us all—even me—to have a better appreciation of it. At least, from a very safe distance.

Recommended reading:

Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor (Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books, 2015)

coverFew athletic challenges can be as terrifying and rewarding as freediving—descending to great ocean depths on a single breath. In this book, journalist Nestor reminds us that the ocean is “the final unseen, untouched and undiscovered wilderness” as he swims with sharks, whales and dolphins, and explores the challenges and possibilities of the natural world.