Steve "Tuna" Tornovish Column: Jaws Vs. Feathers

Steve Tornovish •

Jaws vs Feathers

All right, folks, hop on into the wayback machine with me. Let’s travel back in time some 48 years to the summer of 1975 when I was just a 14-year-old island kid. Life was so much simpler in those ancient days, right? I know that it’s nostalgic to say that things were better once upon a time, but that sentiment might need a little examination. For example, in 1975, most families cruised around in station wagons with wood grain decals plastered down the side. Today, they’re driving over the cobblestones in 4-door Jeep Wranglers that all seem to be the color of wet cement. Let’s call that one a draw.

Communication in 1975 was via telephones tethered to a wall by a long stretchy cord or took place in tiny little shelters called “phone booths” where you were required to deposit small metal units of currency known as dimes into a collection device. Contrast that with everyone glued incessantly to their cell phones – yeah, another tie.

The song topping the Billboard charts in June of 1975 was the earworm “Love Will Keep Us Together” by The Captain and Tennille. Ouch. The number one song today is some bro-country ditty by Morgan Wallen called “Last Night.” Looks like another toss-up. Am I wrong?

But there are two things that 1975 Nantucket had that were far superior to the modern day. The first is a biggie, but here goes: the Nantucket beaches were open! I know, this is something that might be hard for us stuck in 2023 to imagine, but yes, they were, open and accessible for one and all. Sweet freedom – can you even imagine it? Those were glorious days indeed.

Families would pack up their Wagoneers, complete with charcoal grills, and head over the dunes for a full day of fun, fishing, and relaxation on the beautiful Nantucket beaches. The entire stretch of 40th Pole was open and available to one and all. The place was packed on every nice day. True story – no one was allowed to close off large swaths of God’s designated recreational zones. Smith’s Point was also open, even though Esther’s Island was, well, still an island at that time. Great Point was filled with fishermen, not seals. Yes, fishermen and families alike were free to traverse the beautiful beaches of Nantucket and enjoy life to the fullest! Sadly, such a time is hard for us to imagine these days.

So what was the other big 1975 advantage over the modern day, you ask? Jaws. That most amazing movie. This monumental cinematic masterpiece hit the big screen on June 20, 1975, and scared the snot out of my entire generation.

Set on our mythical sister island of Amity, Jaws had it all. A skinny dipper who starts things off by getting chomped in half. A cheesy Madras sports coat-wearing politician who wished to ignore the occasional constituent being devoured by some prehistoric beast in the waters off the Amity shores. A couple hundred local chowderheads who took to the ocean in quasi-seaworthy vessels, loaded down with all the shark fishing gear they could muster, to try to slay the giant toothy critter. (It’s interesting that even back then the islanders were portrayed with much comedic effect, a similar but nicer take than the contempt directed at us by our billionaire betters of today.) The flawed hero was an Ahab-like old salt whose life mission was to do battle with the evil creatures of the seas. And, of course, there was poor Alex Kintner, the little kid victim who was unceremoniously munched while rafting in the water that looked oh so much like Jetties Beach. Yes, the summer of 1975 was all about Jaws. That film posted the highest box office receipts of all time and ruined ocean swimming for so many of us. I watched it at the old Dreamland Theater. You older islanders will remember the movie screen with the badly patched hole in the lower right quadrant, I’m sure. Good times, good times…

So if the monster of 1975 was a terrifying great white shark with an eating disorder, what horrific beasts are forcing the closure of the majority of Nantucket beaches as we head into our crucial 2023 summer season, you ask? Plovers. Piping plovers. Charadrius melodus. Tiny little shorebirds about the size of a pickleball. Not terrifying, not life-threatening. Heck, unless you really knew what you were looking for, you’d never even notice those little tweety birds. 

Say what you want about giant people-eating, beach-closing sharks – at least the shark was cool, right? And it certainly was a legitimate threat to humanity that needed to be addressed, a valid reason to temporarily close the beaches on a tourist-driven island such as Amity. But these little birds? Oh man, what has happened to us?

I decided to reach out to the proper town official to learn more about this beach closure situation. I really wanted to know two things:

1.) What is the best estimate for the timing of opening the beach at 40th Pole?

2.) Same question for Madaket Beach.

So who is the proper town official to reach out to? In Amity, it would have been Mayor Larry Vaughn, of course. (As an aside, Mayor Vaughn was played by the actor, Murray Hamilton. Don’t you think that the mayor should have been named Murray Hamilton? Yeah, me too!) Nantucket doesn’t have a Madras coat-wearing mayor. We may have a Lily Pulitzer-wearing pseudo-mayor, but I didn’t think that reaching out to someone at that lofty position was a great starting point.

So I went with my logical choice - the Beach Manager for the Town of Nantucket. He replied to me in a relatively prompt manner, saying that I needed to contact Mr. Jeff Carlson, head of the Natural Resources Department. I reached out to Mr. Carlson. He replied as follows:

1) Based on regular observations and hatch dates these birds are estimated to fledge within the next 7-10 days. The state and federal guidelines require the chicks to be able to fly 15m in a sustained manner prior to restrictions changing. We are observing these birds on a regular basis in hopes to be able to look at altering the restrictions as soon as possible. It looks like this could be soon if things continue to go well.

2) Smith’s Point has multiple nests and is a more complicated site. Our staff is on-site 3-5 times a week at a minimum to keep restrictions to a minimum. We are happy to provide updates on this site as the season progresses and we do try to at least get partial openings if possible, in an effort to minimize restrictions.

Ok, so the State and Federal regulations are driving this bus. Now that makes total sense – the government is involved, which means that you and I have no say. Awesome. Now don’t get me wrong - I appreciate Mr. Carlson’s reply. And I was overjoyed to learn from a little birdie that the concrete barriers blocking 40th Pole were being removed on, Monday, June 26. It’s a good start. Perhaps the tweety birds got some flying lessons over the weekend. A cynic might wonder if the heat from the people of Nantucket was getting to be too much. Who knows? Regardless, there’s still a ton of questions to be asked. Madaket Beach remains completely blocked – minimum restrictions, I suppose. A third of the 40th Pole beach has signs that advise the great unwashed (you and me, of course) to keep out. Yeah, there’s a lot of questions still to be asked and answered. But those are important questions.

Why is beach access not a priority for our elected officials? Between the elites, the politicians, the tweety birds and the seals, it’s becoming much easier to root for the sharks. What’s happening now is that our rights are being devoured much like the wayward swimmers were on Amity Island. Modern-day Nantucket is in dire need of a Chief Brody, a Hooper and a Cap’n Quint.

Happy Independence Day.

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