1916 Shark Attacks Trip

Our 12 year old has an obsession with sharks.  This is partly because he fears them and partly because he thinks they are fantastic creatures.  This obsession has led him to becoming a bit of a mini-expert on the (in)famous 1916 shark attacks.  I appreciate that some readers might think this is a bit of a tasteless topic to allow a tween boy to become obsessed with but a) we are nerds rearing other nerds and b) we encourage our sons’ curiosity and support their interests.  After all, our kids are being raised by parents who are – among other things – interested in the American Civil War, zombies, pandemics, the history of sideshows, and true crime.  It’s how we roll.  Anyway, at the (shark) tail end of Shark Week, we decided to facilitate our little shark nerd by taking a trip to the Jersey Shore to visit sites relevant to the attacks that occurred in 1916.

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While it would have been neater to visit the sites in chronological order, other factors dictated that we actually undertake the trip in reverse order.  We, therefore, started our trip in the town of Matawan.  The final attack actually occurred at Cliffwood when 12 year old Joseph Dunn was attacked as he was clambering out of the water.  Thankfully he survived.  Matawan was the site, therefore, not of the final attack but of the final fatal attack.  One of the reasons the 1916 shark attacks are so notorious is because of the bizarre fact that the final attacks occurred in an inland creek and not in saltwater.  It was 12 July and some boys had just gotten off work from the factory where they were employed and headed to the creek to swim.  Obviously there was no way these poor kids could possibly anticipate that a shark would be present in the water and unfortunately one little boy, Lester Stillwell, was killed.  The other boys alerted the folks of Matawan and tailor Stanley Fisher leapt to action.  He dived into the creek to recover little Lester and was himself attacked.  Heroic Stanley was quickly lifted from the water, placed onto a train to get him to hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries.  My research had made it apparent that there was no way for us to access the swimming hole without committing an act of trespass and probably doing battle with poisonous plants.  Our 12 year old, therefore, made do with visiting a part of Matawan Creek that had safe public access.

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We then visited Rose Hill Cemetery, a lovely, peaceful, shady spot where both Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher are buried.  Little Lester’s grave is sited near a pond that was absolutely covered in blooming lily pads.  It was a pretty and serene spot.  Previous visitors had left little toys and trinkets for Lester so evidently we were not the only people who had undertaken this trip.  On a little grassy promontory, we located the grave of Stanley Fisher.  It seemed apt that his grave overlooked that of Lester just as, in life, he had been looking out for the boy.  We also stopped by to see a memorial that was placed in a park to commemorate the centenary of the tragedy.

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After Matawan, we went slightly off-theme.  It would be entirely off-theme except that the location is on Raritan Bay and it was in that body of water that the alleged man-eater shark was caught.  I write alleged because we cannot know for sure that they captured the correct shark or indeed that only one shark was responsible for all of the attacks that happened over the course of those 12 days in July 1916.  Anyway, since we were in the vicinity, we thought we would go and check out the National Park at Sandy Hook to see if it was worth making that the focus of a day trip at some point in the future.  The answer is “Yes” so I won’t go into too much detail in this blog post since we plan to return and visit properly at some point.  I love lighthouses so it has one of those for me and it has Fort Hancock so has some military history for Mr Pict.  For the kids, it has wide open space for them to be feral and access to beaches.

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Back on topic, our next location was in Spring Lake.  This was where, on 6 July 1916, Charles Bruder was attacked.  The poor man was so severely injured that he died on the lifeboat as it made its way back to shore.  Bruder had been employed as a bellhop at the Essex & Sussex Hotel.  The building is still standing, though it is now a condominium block, so our 12 year old was able to see where Bruder lived and worked as well as the section of shoreline where the tragedy occurred.

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Our final location for the day was Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island.  We had been to Long Beach Island previously – and even found a dead shark on the beach – but that was before our son had researched the 1916 attacks and knew of its relevance.  Beach Haven was the site of the first attack, on 1 July, when a young man from Philadelphia named Charles Vansant was attacked.  His rescuers pulled him from the water and carried him into the hotel where he was a guest but tragically he died.  The Engleside Hotel was demolished in the 1940s but we could visit the place where it once stood as it became a Veterans Memorial Park.  We then headed down to the beach.  It being the conclusion of our trip and getting near the end of the day, we opted to spend some time relaxing and having fun there.  Amazingly  – given the theme of the day – the 12 year old with the mild phobia of water went swimming in the sea and had a wonderful time.

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Next time we go to the Shore, we will commit to doing what more regular folks do.

Wild in Cape May

In the Summer months, it seems like the entire of Philly and its suburbs decamps to the Jersey Shore.  I actually know plenty of people who also head to the coast at regular periods throughout the year.  It appears that the Jersey Shore is the destination of choice for most of our neighbours.  We, however, have only been a couple of times.  This is partly because I don’t like sand and partly because we are contrary besoms.  However, it is mostly because none of us find we can relax in crowded settings.  This is even more so in beach settings because of the experience of losing our youngest child on a crowded beach several years ago.  All of which preamble is to explain why it is, over three years since moving to America, we have only been to the Jersey Shore a couple of times.  Since we had an unseasonably nice day for February last weekend, we decided we should expand our explorations of New Jersey’s coastline and head to Cape May.

Suspecting the beach would still be chilly, we made the focus of our trip the Cape May County Zoo.  The zoo is free which appeals to my thrifty nature but had me concerned about the welfare standards.  Thankfully I was wrong to be cynical as the enclosures actually seemed well designed and considered.

We headed first to the reptile and amphibian house.  The kids and I always spend a lot of time in these areas at zoos so we wanted to prioritise having enough time there.  We were pleased that so many of the snakes, lizards, and frogs were on display in their tanks as quite often they are tucked away in little hollows and can barely be seen.  There were snakes large and small from places near and far; a variety of turtles, including one who was very crinkly and spiky looking; a large alligator; brightly coloured frogs and a chubby frog squashed in the corner of its tank; axolotls and newts; and an iguana riding on a tortoise’s back.

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With the exception of the tiger, which refused to put in an appearance, the mammals too were all out and about and easy for us to see.  My 9 year old was eager to see marsupials for some reason so was delighted to see wallabies lazing around in the sun, looking like they were watching Netflix on the sofa.  We also got to see a brace of black bears.  Aside from the baby black bear that ran across the road in front of us in West Virginia last summer, it was the closest any of us had been to a black bear since one of them was walking right along the fence line.  Its companion, meanwhile, was lying on its back with one leg up in the air against a fence.  In addition to seeing the lions, we heard the male roar.  It was an incredible sound, only the second time my kids have heard a real life lion roar, though the sight of the lions lolling around like large moggies was a bit less awe-inspiring.  There were also leopards – traditional and snow varieties – and a red panda, zebra, giraffes, ostriches, lemurs, and bison.

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We didn’t see all of the animals that inhabit the zoo (there are apparently over 250 species) but because admission was free we didn’t feel like we had to push things and see every last creature.  I would have kept going but the kids were rapidly escalating their hunger levels from peckish to rampagingly hangry so we decided to leave while the going was good and go in search of food.

After a very tasty sojourn in a Mediterranean diner, we headed for the actual shore.  It would have been cruel and unusual of us parents to take the kids to the Jersey Shore for the day and not actually let them anywhere near the beach.  The coast was decidedly chiller than even a short jaunt inland and the sky was darkening quickly but the kids were still determined to have fun.  We forget sometimes that these kids were used to playing on beaches year round on the west coast of Scotland and are pretty hardy and determined as a result.  They all kicked off their shoes within minutes and, while two of them did a sort of Chariots of Fire run along the sand, two of them lifted up their trouser legs to have a bit of a paddle in the Atlantic.  A bit of a paddle, however, turned into a wade and – before we could even issue a warning they would no doubt have ignored anyway – two of them ended up soaked.  Their answer was to just peel off their sodden trousers and continue playing in the surf.  Our youngest child was, therefore, frolicking in the sea with bare legs and a winter coat.  He looked hysterically ridiculous but he was having an absolute whale of a time.  Sometimes the boys just really need to be feral in the great outdoors.

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I couldn’t come to the coast and not see a lighthouse so our final destination for the day, as day slipped into night, was the Cape May Lighthouse.   The current lighthouse was built in 1859 and is the third incarnation of a lighthouse at that spot.  I guess third time was the charm.  I arrived too late to enter the lighthouse so I just had to content myself with looking at it.  Maybe some day I will return and force myself up the claustrophobic spiral staircase in order to see the view.

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Long Beach Island, New Jersey

Every Summer there is seemingly a mass migration of the greater Philadelphia population towards the coast of New Jersey.  Most people I asked about their summer vacation plans were headed to The Shore.  As has been documented on this blog a few times before, I am not a fan of beaches because I loathe sand.  A beach based vacation, therefore, is not my idea of rest and relaxation.  However, because the rest of the Picts do enjoy the sand and surf, we do head to the beach on occasion.  We all agree, however, that we do not like crowded beaches and that rules out most of the Jersey Shore at this time of year.  Last Friday, however, we decided to experiment with a trip to Long Beach Island – or LBI as it is known.

The advantage of Long Beach Island is that, being devoid of a boardwalk, it is less touristy than many of its neighbouring beaches and is, therefore, a bit more subdued.  It was even quieter on Friday, however, because there was a damp chill in the air and a murky sea mist that never properly lifted.  As Brits brought up cowering on cold and grey beaches, however, we were unperturbed since the air temperature was perfectly pleasant for us.

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Mr Pict and the Pictlings spent a good few hours frolicking in the sea and playing on the sand.  The boys took turns burying each other, the youngest set himself a challenge of seeing how many clam shells he could find in the sea, and the middle two decided to turn seaweed into wigs.

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LBI is 18 miles long and very narrow so it is a very easy spot to explore.  After a delicious lunch at a diner and an ice cream break at Ben and Jerry’s, we went to the southern most end of the island for a snoop.  A whole fleet of heavy plant vehicles were labouring away on the wet sand to dredge and restore the sand dunes so that was interesting to watch.  The highlight of the trip, however, as far as the kids were concerned was finding the rotting carcass of a small shark.  They were even excited by the maggots wriggling beneath it.  It reeked.

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In our exploration of the island, the boys had spotted a very small amusement park type place called Fantasy Island which was opening at 4pm so we parents were persuaded to take them back there for one ride each.  There were not many rides to select from but that worked for us since we were limiting the kids.  Three of the boys elected to go on the ferris wheel accompanied by Mr Pict while the 13 year old decided to spectate with me and pocket what would have been spent on his ride.  Sensible child.

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