Killer: When a Great White Shark Won’t Let a Surfer Go Home

Great white shark breaching water surface
Photo: iStock

One of my favorite movie theaters is the luxury coach of the Hampton Jitney, the Hampton Ambassador. You get on in New York City, buckle up into a comfortable seat, get rolling, and a film comes on all the movie screens that hang down from the luggage bays near and far.

Sometimes the film is something you want to watch, sometimes not. If it’s up to your high standards, you plug the audio jack into the seat back in front of you and enjoy. The attendant will ply you with snacks and beverages, which include a choice of coffee, water, soda or red or white wine. She gives you a disposable hot towel. (You don’t get this in a movie theater. Not even in a home movie theater.)

The next thing you know, you’re pulling into the Omni in Southampton.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Die Hard 2 starring Bruce Willis, which I hadn’t seen since it came out all those years ago. I loved watching it again. This trip, according to the attendant, would feature something called The Shallows, which was released in 2016. I immediately looked it up on my phone while she was handing out reading matter to the people near me. The critics gave it a 60%. Rotten Tomatoes, 78%.

“A mere 200 yards from shore, surfer Nancy (Blake Lively) is attacked by a great white shark, with her short journey to safety becoming the ultimate contest of wills.”

Another Jaws knock-off. I decided not to watch it. I had a column to write—the weekly Hamptons Subway Newsletter column—and so I didn’t plug in. Usually when I start to write one of my stories, I go off into another world, and so indeed I did this time, but nevertheless, occasionally looking up to see how far out on Long Island we had gotten, I glimpsed up at the screen.

Blake Lively, wearing a wetsuit, is an attractive, athletic young surfer riding some of the biggest waves the ocean has to offer. She’s out alone, which is never a good idea, the other two surfers she was with having gone in for the day. She’s only a couple of hundred yards out. Out of sight from her, behind one of the huge rollers, a 30-foot-long killer white shark attacks her, gashing her thigh. Amidst blood in the ocean, she swims away, but he’s chasing her. She scrambles up onto a large rock outcropping for safety and the shark can’t get her.

I go back to my writing. When I look up again, she’s taken the earrings out of her pierced ears, the thin gold chain from around her neck, and she’s gritting her teeth in pain as she stitches up her wound to stop the bleeding. The sea crashes over her little rock island from time to time. The shark fin circles around. Using her left arm and her teeth, she rips off the right arm of her wetsuit and wraps it around her thigh as a bandage.

I go back to writing the Hamptons Subway Newsletter. This is the week before Christmas. There are plans to land Santa Claus by chopper onto the roof of the Hampton Subway Building in Hampton Bays in the middle of the night. They’ve set up spotlights on the lawn all around.

The shark attacks. It has leaped up onto the rock outcropping and is floundering around awkwardly while Blake Lively hangs from the outcropping’s side, half in and half out of the water. The shark slides off and she scrambles back on, stands up and waves to a young man on shore. But he doesn’t see her. After looking at his watch, he drives off. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end.

But I soldier on. The Newsletter is just 600 words. I can get it done in a half-hour if I keep at it. But I look up again. The sun is going down in fast motion. Blake Lively is exhausted. Her face is filthy. Her hair’s a mess. She curls up in a fold of the outcropping and looks at her waterproof watch. Low tide will be in four hours. She sleeps.

What I could do is type a little, watch a little, then type a little. It’s amazing, this movie. Blake Lively is no superhero. She is going to fight. But she will need to get lucky. I don’t need any audio to see what she is up to. Indeed, I decide I will not plug in. The Newsletter will slowly unfold, and the movie will slowly unfold, both in silence.

“Wine, coffee or tea?” the attendant asks. Red wine, say I. This is scary.

As it happens, there was this terrifying incident at a rock outcropping just offshore Montauk on December 10. Groups of harp seals gather on these rocks. The cliff overlooks them. You can park there and look down. It’s a tourist attraction. The surf pounds the offshore rocks, the seals bark, off to your left is the Montauk Lighthouse.

A woman, Zara Beard, who lives nearby to that cliff, was walking her dog that morning, when she saw a gray seal swim through the whitecaps, heading for the outcropping. No seals were on the outcropping.

“All of a sudden, something came from underneath,” she told The East Hampton Star. It showed itself, something as big as a bus with a dark, black fin. And it attacked.

“[The seal’s] entire body was bumped out of the water,” Zara reported. The seal made a terrible sound, and suddenly it was gone and there was blood all over the water.

She called the authorities.

In interviews later, biologists confirmed that what she saw could have been a hungry great white, although there was no confirmation because she didn’t take any pictures. Several smaller sharks had assaulted bathers on Fire Island this past summer. There have been what are believed to be killer shark attacks on Cape Cod up further north, but nobody died.

Still, there was nothing to really worry about. Just be very careful, marine biologist Greg Metzger told the Star. “Be aware of your environment. You wouldn’t surf in an area where you see a lot of seals.”

It’s first light. Blake Lively looks at her watch. She slides into the water and begins swimming and splashing as fast as she can toward shore. But there is the fin. He’s been waiting, and he heads right for her. She turns around, and just makes it safely back, climbing up just before he chomps and misses.

I close the laptop cover. The Newsletter is half-done. The Subway Commissioner is announcing the awards given out for the best holiday decorations. I will finish it later. But I will not plug in. I watch the rest of the movie in silence.

I will not reveal the ending. But I will say that toward the end, just as you think Blake Lively is going to get through, the shark, its mouth open to show its huge white teeth, suddenly leaps out of the darkness, and in the Jitney seat behind me, a man emits a huge gasp.

Frank Mundus—a local shark fisherman in Montauk who had a gruff personality that exactly matched that of Quint, the character in Peter Benchley’s book Jaws who, along with Police Chief Brody, has the ultimate battle with a great white in shallow water—an event also in the Academy Award-winning movie. The book had the action set in the Hamptons, the movie on a non-existent island called Amity.

There has never been a proper follow-up to the movie Jaws, at least until this one. And here, this brave young woman fights her vicious killer shark to the finish, with all the cunning, strength and, in the end, luck, imaginable.

I recommend this movie. Maybe it’s even better with sound.

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