As we drive through downtown Bethel, my wife points excitedly. “There are the sharks!” she says. “What are you talking about...?” I start to ask before seeing them — two towering, cartoonish, neon-blue sharks walking down the sidewalk, arms extended as though they are about to take flight.
The sharks, my wife tells me, had been spotted in town earlier in April and their movements are being documented on social media. They’re seen on park benches, strolling through the aisles of a local grocery store, and sometimes, upon request, they show up at kids’ birthday parties to dance on the front lawn.
“Who are they?” I ask my wife. “Nobody knows,” she says.
Part Banksy-esque anonymous street art, part Disney World characters escaped from the park, the “social distancing sharks” emerged in Bethel as a strange sign of these strange times. Like accordion players dancing on balconies in Italy, or the daily cheers for health care workers in cities across the globe, the sharks provide a much-needed sign of humanity in a troubled era. And people in Bethel nearly lost their minds when they saw them, treating them like the characters on the NBC show Parks and Recreation treat the beloved pony Li’l Sebastian.
“Some people in town were trying to figure out who they were, and [the sharks] would get in these high-speed chases trying to get back to their houses,” says Hannah Lipman, a Bethel resident who became the shark’s unofficial spokesperson after she created a Facebook group dedicated to sightings of them. The group attracted more than 2,000 members in a matter of weeks, and Lipman was able to use it to discourage people from chasing or getting too close to the sharks. It also became a vehicle for spreading shark mania.
Bethel High School music teacher Karie Landy Neville performed a parody of The Beatles song “Let It Be” to encourage people to respect social distancing around the sharks. Lipman wrote the lyrics, which include, “When I find myself on the streets of Bethel, And the Sharks come to me, Fishy wordless wisdom, LET THEM BE.”
Kids in town helped name the sharks Skipper and Sharkira, who also have a baby shark named Sea Sea. Local toy store The Toy Room organized a crowdfunding campaign where people could buy shark- and sea-themed toys for the sharks to give away when they stopped by birthday parties. Social distancing shark T-shirts were sold for charity and raised more than $900 for the Bethel Food Pantry.
Lipman’s teenage son teases her for her unabashed exuberance for the sharks, but she notes, “He was the first one to want a T-shirt.”
Throughout it all the sharks have remained anonymous.
Even Lipman has no idea of their identities and says she likes the mystery. Toy Room owner Kim Ramsey is more torn. “I’m dying to know who they are, but I don’t want to know who they are,” she says. “I’ve probably thought of about six people that they could be, and one by one those suspects have all been crossed off my list.”
Lipman communicates with the sharks through a fish-themed private email they gave her. She shared that email with me on the condition that I keep it private. Late on a Friday, I write the sharks asking for an interview. They agree to answer questions via email but decline my offer to talk on the phone with their voices disguised. They tell me they are two siblings who live in Bethel and one of them is in high school and the other in college. They had the idea to don the shark outfits after their respective schools went exclusively online. “We just thought it would be fun to order some type of inflatable costumes and walk around the neighborhood with our baby shark on a leash,” they wrote. “Everyone is out walking their dogs lately, so we thought it would give our neighborhood a good laugh and some excitement for the kids too.”
The reaction surprised them. “We absolutely could not believe how people laughed when they saw us. Our street had been so quiet, it was getting depressing. We came out as sharks and heard people hysterical, so we thought it would be fun to go downtown for just one day and try to make people laugh! From then on, it has turned into a shark frenzy here in Bethel. We are in total SHOCK!”
They’ve turned down requests to travel outside of Bethel. “We are locally grown sharks. We don't leave Bethel,” they say, and have shunned publicity opportunities that might reveal their identities. Though the sharks have appeared at events on request, they are at their best when their presence is a surprise.
The same weekend I email them, I am mowing my lawn when I see them drive by sitting in the back of a white convertible. In their wake a bewildered neighbor walks out her door and turns to me. “Did two sharks just drive by me?” she asks. “Yes,” I say. “They sure did.”