This Week in Block Island's history, late-September 1974: Sharks off Block Island!
This week in history 38 years ago, in late-September 1974, little-known Steven Spielberg finished five months of filming on a low-budget movie at nearby Martha’s Vineyard. Having taken nearly three times the amount of time that Universal Studios had allocated to make the movie, the young director feared his career might be over.
The movie was titled “Jaws,” and it was about a shark.
Unwittingly, for several years Block Islanders had been in the thick of this entire “Jaws affair,” but no one here, or anywhere, suspected a billion dollars of newly created wealth would be the result.
And it was all because of a few great white sharks swimming between Montauk Point, 14 miles away at the eastern end of Long Island, and Block Island.
More on that later.
Mention a particular fish to a fisherman and he is bound to fire another fish story right back at you.
Here’s a shark story, for instance — but don’t read further if you feel you might be deterred from bathing in the island’s warm ocean water of September.
In the summer of 1937, the prolific author and fisherman Kip Farrington wrote about mako sharks off Montauk and Block Island, considering them the “only desirable member of the shark family” and “one of the four finest game fish” of all.
Farrington told more of mako, which is reputed to jump higher than any other fish — able to “clear the water by at least fifteen feet” — “Savage as a tiger, the mako shark will strike at anything in the water... My largest catch weighed 220 pounds and jumped seventeen times in an hour and twenty minutes. It is said that while hooked this fish will bite the heaviest airplane wire leader in half and I believe this. Few other fish have such sets of teeth... The meat has a delicious flavor and I doubt where it can be distinguished from swordfish.”
Shark fishing in nearby waters changed in the 1950s when charterboat captains from nearby Montauk sought adventure by hunting down sharks, the bigger the better. One fisherman in particular, Frank Mundus, who occasionally put into Old Harbor, targeted the nearly non-edible great white shark, which had long been known in popular lore as the largest and most violent of the species.
What do you use as bait for a great white shark? The answer — “a whale” — sounds plenty macho too, if not a little hokey. But it’s true, the greatest successes in capturing great white sharks are when a fisherman finds a dead carcass of a whale floating in the ocean. If you hang around long enough, the great whites will track down the drifting smorgasbord, perhaps from hundreds of miles away.
In four decades, Mundus captured “about” seven great whites. Some were harpooned, such as his largest of 4,500 pounds. And some were reeled in, such as the most famous, the 3,427-pounder caught from his boat in 1986 by Donnie Braddock, the largest fish of any type ever captured with a rod and reel.
In early summer of 1960, after chumming with chunks of a 3,000-pound blackfish whale he had brought back to shore the day before, Mundus caught a great white shark just four miles off the Amagansett beach, right next to Montauk. He threw four harpoons in the course of an hour, with the shark succumbing after towing four barrels through the water. The 3,000-pound shark was displayed in Montauk, attracting the public, as well as reporters. Sound vaguely like a movie plot?
By chance, just three weeks later, on July 4, 1960, another charter captain mentioned to Mundus that the Coast Guard had pulled a dead whale off a beach and “dumped him off 20 miles southeast of Block Island.” When Mundus got there, he saw a great white shark “bigger than the 3,000 pounder... pushing a piece of blubber the size of a 55-gallon fuel drum in front of him.”
There were three big great whites feeding on the whale carcass. After having a doubled-up wire leader bit through, Mundus gave up trying to reel a shark in, instead harpooning the largest one, with five harpoons over a five-hour period. This shark weighed 3,500 pounds, was displayed for three days on the Montauk docks, and cemented Mundus’s fame and fortune.
In June 1964, eight to 10 miles south of Block Island, Mundus got lucky again by tossing out whale meat for chum, and caught a 4,500-pound great white, throwing four harpoons, with the attendant four barrels. The news had spread to shore by radio, and the beaches and docks were covered with people to see his latest conquest. It was the largest shark ever caught in the century, and Mundus was featured in numerous magazine articles, which totaled several dozen during his career.
A few years later a writer named Peter Benchley wrote a fictional account of a great white shark that terrorized a beach community, only to be finally harpooned off the coast by a grizzled and proficient charterboat captain. The title of the book was “Jaws,” and the author became famous.
The fictional resort was named Amityville, and was located near the eastern end of Long Island — just to the west of Block Island.
The movie that Steven Spielberg finished filming in September 1974 on Martha’s Vineyard, 40 miles to the east of Block Island, brought ever-lasting fame to the young director.
Someday, someone might think of drawing a line from the site of the filming of Jaws on Martha’s Vineyard, over to the spot south of Block Island where the world record 4,500 great white was harpooned and the world record 3,427-pounder was reeled in, over to Montauk where Frank Mundus kept his boat, then up to the waters near Pt. Judith, where the state record 2,909-pounder was caught in 1991. The lines make a rough triangle, and the only land inside it is Block Island.
Are we at the center of the worst shark territory in the entire world?
Well, great white sharks can live to be 100 years old. And the senses of the great white are more highly developed than almost any other creature, including other sharks. Pores in its head, filled with a substance resembling jelly, detect prey by the minute electrical impulses — only .005 microvolts — made by moving gills or a beating heart.
Keep in mind the next time you decide to swim at night off Crescent Beach, and you wade out, then lift your feet off the unseen bottom. Make sure your movements are smooth. The theory is that frenetic motion of the limbs, as when you decide to get out of the water in a hurry, might help you appear to be frightened bait. Don’t let your heartbeat increase. Preferably don’t let it beat at all.
And from the opening minutes of “Jaws,” remember that when you feel a brush against your leg and find yourself in the darkness swirled out off Old Harbor near one of the large navigation buoys, holding on to it will not help you one single bit.