"You were probably within 20 feet of a shark when you went into the water today."
With those comforting words, my older son (Jake Sperling, 2007 graduate of Ridge High School) and I considered the question whether the sunny and sparsely populated beaches on Ocracoke Island (on the southern portion of North Carolina's Outer Banks), with their 80-degree waters, were safe for swimming.
At that point, in late June, there had already been about three shark attacks off the ocean beaches of North Carolina. In fact, those attacks were part of the reason that we had revised our original plans to go to the string of beaches heading south of Wilmington, NC. Instead, we recalculated our route to vacation briefly at Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, more than 100 miles north of the spots near where the shark encounters had already taken place.
As many have pointed out, those shark bites (none fatal) also just happened to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the release of the movie "Jaws."
The film's famous advertisement tormented 1975's summer beachgoers with the thought, "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water..." And I had grown to feel relatively safe at my favorite beaches in North and South Carolina.
Of course, I already knew there were sharks swimming off the Outer Banks. We had taken many family vacations on OBX, starting about a dozen years ago. One summer, I wandered into a fresh seafood store in Buxton, and was informed that most, but not all, of the types of fish available had just been freshly caught off local beaches.
"What about the shark?" I asked.
"Yes, of course," the owner said proudly.
I didn't bring home shark for our dinner that night - who needs to tempt karma? But that "fresh" shark meat was the final proof of what I'd known all along.
Nevertheless, in recent years, we've all been reading more and more about how sharks really aren't such dangerous creatures, after all. In fact, sharks are said to seldom attack humans without being provoked. Most shark encounters are thought to be more often accidental bumping intos - although their version of "Excuse me" might be delivered with a mouth of sharp teeth.
I was even aware that there are sharks up along the New Jersey and New York beaches. While living on Long Island, I stumbled over a beached sand shark - a smaller species of shark, but this one was still an impressive three feet long. And just a few weeks ago, I saw a fisherman hook a smaller sand shark at the canal inlet between Belmar and Avon-by-the-Sea at the Jersey shore.
Yeah, I knew they were there - all those genial, neighborly sharks.
Except, once in a blue moon, human beach lovers could meet up with one of those famous "rogue sharks."
Initially (although the author has since denied it), "Jaws" was believed to have been inspired by the true story of an outlaw shark which in the summer of 1916 terrorized the Jersey Shore, where shark attacks are even rarer than down in the Carolinas.
That shark seemed to pursue humans - even making its way inland up the Matawan Creek, where it chomped on two more people. Four of that summer's five attacks were fatal.
My own personal theory was that the North Carolina "encounters" were the work of one of these rogue sharks. And he appeared to be chugging north.
I calculated we had about a week before the toothsome terror reached the Outer Banks - if I was right.
Unfortunately, my predicted timing proved accurate. Just days after we left the Outer Banks - and I returned to Basking Ridge - ocean bathers at two towns on Hatteras Island experienced shark attacks on June 26 and June 27.
Then on July 1, a man who was about chest-high in water (hey, that could be me!) suffered several several shark bites at the one beach on Ocracoke Island with lifeguards (fortunately!)
"We were just at that beach!" my son said.
Despite the North Carolina attacks, Jake (who has been living in Raleigh, NC) took another Ridge alumni further south to one of his favorite beaches at Hunting Island in South Carolina. They made it back in one piece - unaware there had also been a shark attack, although less serious, at Hunting Island just before they arrived.
By now, even he was nervously swearing off the beaches, texting me that he was grateful to have survived his mini-vacations "with all my limbs." He is moving out of state - although not because of the sharks.
As for me, I'm hoping that the North Carolina shark, if indeed there is a rogue out there, heads out to sea, or at least abandons his northward path. Even so, the pools in Basking Ridge have never seemed more appealing.