Oceans of Fear

by Chris Justice

13 August 2009

Robert Shaw as a freaked out Captain Quint inJaws 

Feeding Frenzy

A revengeful Jaws

A revengeful Jaws

Feeding Frenzy

This tale ends on this horrific note: sharks kill an average of four humans a year; in that same timeframe, humans kill around 40 million sharks.

The story itself, as narrated by Quint, goes like this: A Japanese submarine shot two torpedoes into the U.S.S. Indianapolis, sinking it in 12 minutes. About 1,100 men went overboard (actual reports suggest about 300 went down with the ship). Quint’s group didn’t see a shark for half an hour. The first was a 13 footer; “You measure that by judgin’ the dorsal to the tail,” Quint says.

He then describes the tragedy’s great irony: because the Indianapolis was delivering uranium for atomic bombs, it was a secret mission; no distress signals were permitted, and nobody even knew the boat sunk until days later. Quint’s most haunting delivery may be this one – “Sometimes a shark go away; sometimes he wouldn’t go away” – because he articulates his death knell so cavalierly and rhythmically.

Then he turns poetic, describing the shark’s eyes as “lifeless” and black “like a doll’s eyes”. His stoicism and self-effacing heroism are contagious. Then he turns horrific, narrating his encounter with Herbie Robinson from Cleveland, who bobbed because he had been “bitten in half beneath the waist”. Quint’s coda echoes like a historical imprint, a lasting memory reduced to numerals: “Eleven hundred of us went into that ocean—three hundred and sixteen got out. Yeah. Nineteen hundred and forty five. June the twenty-ninth.”

However, the story’s greatest impact is not what Quint narrates, but what his tale implies. Since the Indianapolis was in essence a key player that helped launch the Atomic Age, which caused profound ecological horror, implicit in Quint’s rendering of this traumatic event is that the Indianapolis’s fate was Nature’s retribution for dropping the bomb. Interestingly, his tale ends not with a reference to what happened, but with this triumphant claim about what they accomplished: “Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”

To Quint, the military’s nuclear ambitions take center stage, not the sharks or his fallen comrades. However, immediately after the story, the eerie sounds of a whale, literally the “biggest fish in the sea”, are heard to remind us that Nature will always have the final say in the epic battle pitting Man vs. the Environment.

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Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis

US DVD: 31 Jul 2007

In 1991, a made-for-TV movie titled Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis was released to commemorate the event. A good film, Mission of the Shark focuses more on military matters than on shark attacks. Starring Stacy Keach as the beleaguered Captain Charles Butler McVay and a host of talented supporting actors including David Caruso, Gordon Clapp, and Bob Gunton, viewers will not be disappointed.

The film aptly conveys the unique levels of secrecy surrounding the mission, and the bomb is described as “the deadliest damn weapon this species has come up with to date.” War film aficionados will be impressed with the special effects that dramatize the ship’s sinking. Interesting tidbits about Japan’s use of underwater kamikazes – kaitens – are offered, and the overall horror of war is vividly felt.

While floating, the surviving sailors fight amongst themselves, hallucinate regularly, mistake each other for “Japs,” and drink saltwater. Planes pass but they don’t spot the floating sailors. Amidst all this, Mission of the Shark suggests that the shark attacks – and there are a few – were only one of many life-threatening ordeals these sailors faced. Footage of tiger sharks is mostly used, and the first attack is an all-out feeding frenzy. Eventually, the sailors feed their dead comrades to the sharks.

Throughout all this is McVay’s steady hand. Serving under the shadow of his decorated father, also a celebrated naval hero, McVay’s leadership is admirable. He’s tough but respected, proud but not stubborn, idealistic yet practical. His men respect him, but his fate is mired in tragic consequences that even Sophocles would envy.

If McVay used the “zigzag” course some of his peers suggested, he could have theoretically made his ship a more difficult target. But he didn’t, and after the war he is court-martialed and accused of two acts of negligence: one for not zigzagging, the other for not abandoning ship earlier. Although he is cleared of the latter, he is guilty of the former, a charge that is solidified when, in a remarkable display of justice,
Japanese Admiral Hashimoto, his adversary, testifies in a US court how easy the Indianapolis was to hit.

Ironically, Hashimoto could have struck the ship before it delivered the bomb, but he chose not to, a tragic fate he too must accept. It’s here where the film delivers its most powerful point: history rests delicately on the decisions of individual people. In one final encounter, Hashimoto says, “You are a man who believes in faith.” McVay replies, “No, I’m a man who is trying to accept it.” Prophetically, Hashimoto states, “It’s not easy to be a survivor.” Apparently so… tragically, in 1968 McVay committed suicide.

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Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever

US DVD: 22 Jul 2008

In 2007, the Discovery Channel celebrated the 20th anniversary of its popular Shark Week series with an opening program titled Ocean of Fear: Worst Shark Attack Ever. Given its context and audience, this recreation of the Indianapolis’ tragedy is understandably all about the sharks. Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, Ocean of Fear draws an immediate link to Jaws and quickly creates suspense by explaining how sounds from the ship’s sinking attracted hundreds of sharks within minutes of the disaster.

The numerous low-angle shots from underwater, making sailors appear like wounded fish, is frighteningly effective because it’s the sharks’ perspectives we’re forced to embrace. At times Ocean of Fear is awkwardly repetitive, but overall, it complements our understanding of the Indianapolis by adding provocative details that expand our appreciation of the torturous conditions these brave sailors faced.

Adding to Dreyfuss’ narration, actors play the roles of survivors to create the impression of first-hand accounts. We learn many interesting details: how some sailors combated large air bubbles generated by the sunken ship; that the foreboding image of the Japanese submarine’s return resembled a giant shark fin; that the extreme temperatures the sailors dealt with – tropical heat during the day, surprisingly frigid air at night – decimated many; that the water was drenched in oil, and while some sailors accidentally ingested it, others used it as suntan lotion; that the opening of a can of Spam triggered a flurry of shark attacks; that the large floating pods of sailors produced shade, which attracted smaller fish, which ultimately attracted more sharks; that after drinking saltwater sailors had about five hours to live; and that some sailors felt the Navy had betrayed them.

The program also offers actual footage of the Indianapolis’s rescue in addition to good underwater footage of oceanic whitetip and mako sharks. The documentary makes clear that most of the sailors died for reasons not related to sharks, but nevertheless, the thousands of sharks under them benefited tremendously. Ocean of Fear also reminds us that in 1999 Captain McVay was cleared of his remaining charge of negligence.

From Ocean of Fear

From Ocean of Fear

Ocean of Fear ends with this horrific note: Sharks kill an average of four humans a year; in that same timeframe, humans kill around 40 million sharks. No further explanation of this data is provided, which makes these final lines seem odd for a documentary subtitled “The Worst Shark Attack Ever”. If so many sailors died of causes unrelated to shark attacks, is it fair to call this “the worst shark attack ever”? Can we ever know how many sailors died because of sharks on those dream-like summer days in 1945?

Of course not, but sharks have been sensationalized and misunderstood for centuries, a confusion greatly exacerbated ever since Spielberg and Quint articulated their masterful yarns. With Dreyfuss navigating this opening foray into Shark Week’s 20th year, perhaps a sense of remorse and regret was intentionally connoted in those final lines. Perhaps the worst shark attack ever is the one we humans have been telling about them in novels, theaters, and televisions across the globe.

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