Shark hunting without a hook
The reports of a great white shark off South Beach on July 10 evoked a powerful reaction from both visitors and residents. The initial sighting occurred at around 10 am by a team of lifeguards practicing their life saving techniques in the waters off Katama. Not long after, a pilot familiar with the outline of the aggressive hunter and flying out of the Katama airfield saw the shark. These sightings prompted a bevy of rumors and false reports from all around the Island. The Times sent two summer reporters out in the field to confirm the reports of the great white.
At 11:46 am, a text message arrived in The Times' newsroom: a shark sighting had caused the evacuation of a beach club. Could this be the next "Jaws"?
A quick phone call to the Oak Bluffs Police Department yielded few facts but hinted that the report might be more than a mere rumor. This was a story that required shoe leather, or rather sandals, not newsroom computers, the Internet, and phones. The reporters set out to find the shark.
The first stop was the Jumping Bridge off State Beach in Oak Bluffs. An Oak Bluffs police sergeant sat by the beach with his radio, ready for the call to pull beachgoers out of the water, but most had already heard the rumors and were afraid to go in. He said a fisherman claimed to have seen two great whites, but that no beaches had been closed yet. (The "fisherman's" claims would later turn out to be a hoax.)
Catching the scent of an actual beach closing down-Island at South Beach, the reporters headed to Katama, still hoping to encounter with whatever it was that was keeping hundreds of hot sunbathers out of the cool Atlantic.
No-swimming signs at every beach entrance warned of the shark sighting with a menacing drawing of an open-jawed shark. The sign attracted attention from tourists who were propping their grinning children next to the sign and taking what would inevitably be the best family picture of the summer.
The afternoon wore on, as the reporters interviewed beached bathers while keeping an eye out for a glimpse of a dorsal fin slicing through the surf. Beachgoers were generally unconcerned and would swim if they were allowed to. Without swimsuits, the two reporters called it a day.
Friday. The buzz over the shark sighting had reached a fever pitch, and the reporters needed to step up their hunt. As news junkies around the world read about the sighting on the biggest news sites on the Internet, the reporters drove to Katama Air Field to be flown above the beaches by Geof "Smitty" Smith, the same pilot who had identified the shark the day before.
Aboard The Red Baron, a 1941 Waco UPF7 open-cockpit biplane, Smitty and his passengers surveyed the clear waters off of South Beach. From the start, Smitty wasn't optimistic about seeing a shark, because the abundance of seals visible usually indicated safe waters. Still, Smitty flew low over the Bunker where he had seen a shark the day before. He then set a course to Skiff's Island, a well-known haunt for seals, a quarter mile off Wasque Point. Plenty of sunbathing and wading seals, but no signs of a shark. From a plane such as the Red Barron, it would be very easy at low altitude to spot a large shark, if there were one to be spotted.
By lunchtime at South Beach, things were almost back to normal, except for fully clothed reporters from a variety of different news outlets. Families were playing in the waves, and a few kids were surfing. Everyone seemed calm, but as the surfers made their way down the coast, most people's attention was focused on them, as if anticipating the attack they suspected was imminent.
Back at the newsroom, most of the paper's staff had left for a relaxing weekend when a call came from CNN around 5 pm. From CNN's "The Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer, a woman called who wanted to use one of the team's photographs taken on South Beach for a report on the shark sighting later that evening. The picture was of the shark warning sign and people on the beach nearby. No shark.
The shark scare inspired a worldwide response from the media, all hoping, one supposes, for a bloody attack similar to those everyone knows so well from "Jaws." The two reporters from the Times were not among those hoping for carnage. They were happy just getting out of the office for a couple of days.