(Check out Chris Reed’s After the Bite movie review. The doc is stereaming now on HBO. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
We humans are a notoriously greedy species. Enough is never enough, whether it be in matters of consumption or recreation. The fact that other creatures—or even fellow people—may also have need of that which we crave has little bearing on our own appetites. Sometimes, however, the universe strikes back. Or is that … “bites” back?
In her latest documentary, After the Bite, director Ivy Meeropol (Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn) explores the increasing clashes between sharks and residents of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. Though prior to 2018 the large predators mostly seemed to leave humans alone, increasing populations of seals, along with a changing climate, have brought the potential killers much closer to shore. It’s a fish-eat-person world now.
Or not. How dangerous is the new reality? And what is the true cause of the more frequent sightings? These are the questions, among others, that Meeropol examines. There is tension between those who believe that it’s entirely the fault of seals—safeguarded by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)—and those who think that maybe, just maybe, the sea belongs as much, if not more, to its rightful denizens than to bathers and surfers.
And so the director follows a diverse array of characters, some of whom research shark movements and provide useful tracking information to the public, via (of course, in our modern world) smartphone apps. Others mobilize to try to amend the MMPA to remove seals from its protections. It would certainly take more than a local council meeting to make such changes, however.
Poor seals. It’s bad enough that they are the preferred meal of a great white shark. They also happen to resemble humans aboard surf and boogie boards, making them not only food but easy scapegoats (or its marine equivalent) for the rise in attacks, ostensibly responsible for luring sharks into the shallows.
Fortunately, they are also adorable, and Meeropol treats us to plenty of footage of them on land and in water. My favorite moment is when one is pounced on by a scientist who wishes to test him/her for influenza. The sense of righteous indignation the animal gives off after the fact is both merited and endearing.
About that test. After the Bite takes a long, hard look at how climate change is leading to altered migration patterns, meaning that diseases could more easily pass between animals that never used to come in contact with each other. There is also the question of whether or not seals are responsible for diminished fish supplies, or whether that is also part of climate change, or a result of overfishing, or both of these last two.
There are plenty of scientists beyond the virus-tester, including Meg Winton of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, whose crew tags sharks for ongoing research. We also meet the lifeguards of Wellfleet, among them Suzy Blake, trained to watch for telltale fins in the water. And then there is John Kartsounis, member of the group that wants to go back to culling seals. All have a voice here, as do their peers.
At the center of the rising hysteria is the September 15, 2018, fatal mauling of Arthur Medici off of Wellfleet’s Newcomb Hollow Beach, which followed another serious (but not fatal) attack in 2018. There have been no deaths since then but the panic remains. This has not stopped folks from getting I the water, but they are wary.
There’s a lot more here, but the joy of the film is in watching the pieces come together in a coherent argument. What’s missing, if anything, is some shark footage to rival the gorgeous shots of seals, though since so many of the complaints—right or wrong—center around them, perhaps that’s appropriate. By the end, though we ourselves hope to never become food, we at least have food for thought.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
HBO; Ivy Meeropol; After the Bite movie review