Where the Bracing Atlantic Bites Back
As another summer approaches, we check-in with shark expert Greg Skomal to gain a greater understanding of one of our most powerful neighbors.
Ask anyone to describe summer on the Cape, and whether they hail from Hyannis or Halifax, odds are they’ll mention the beach. This flexed arm sticking out into the Atlantic is hardly more than a sandbar, so what else is there to do but play in the ocean? Ever since the tourist and summer economies took root, we’ve come to take the beach for granted. And yet the postcard seascapes are all relatively new, and the relationships among people and the ocean are complex. Are the shorelines here for recreation and the pursuit of good health or do they represent something ominous, what Herman Melville called “the malignity of the sea”? According to the Plimoth-Patuxet Museums, the area’s original inhabitants enjoyed the water, for “As small children, Wampanoag boys and girls were taught to swim. They would practice diving and swimming underwater, and how to be still in the water.” The Pilgrims, by contrast, refused to set foot in the water. History.com notes that, “Tisquantum even tried and failed to convince them to start washing themselves.” Most sailors famously had never learned to swim. In a 2015 article for New York Academy of Medicine, librarian Johanna Goldberg writes, “It was not until the mid-1800s—the age of a growing fitness movement—that upper and middle-class Americans turned to swimming as recreation at seaside destinations and private fitness clubs.” Thus, throughout the initial English settlement of Massachusetts and all the way up until around the Civil War, the beach scene and “hashtag surflife” weren’t really “things” on the Cape. Then, relatively suddenly, they were, and this idea and picture of the beach as an idyllic playground persisted for over a century.
And then came the sharks—returning in large numbers along outer shores of the Cape some thirty years after Steven Spielberg prophesied with Jaws: “You’ll never go in the water again.”
Anyone who has been paying attention to great white shark activity along the Cape coastline knows the basic story: when the gray seals arrived in large numbers, their predators got wise and set up their dining tables, often mere feet from dry sand. Sightings have abounded, and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) along with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) have, according to the AWSC, cataloged “over 600 tagged and untagged individual Northwest Atlantic white sharks.” Cottage industries have sprung up, and those peaceful beachscape souvenirs hang side-by-side with shark t-shirts, hats, and paintings. Around these parts, it’s more common now to see the Cape Shark logo of Brendan Stearn and Kristina Manter than it is to spot the once-popular “No Fear” and “Fear This” window decals on local pick-up trucks. Villages from Chatham all the way up and around Race Point have adopted the moniker of “Sharktown.” In 2014, The Christian Science Monitor reported that the Orpheum Theater in Chatham played Jaws all summer long, and it was “one of its highest-grossing films.” But what does this all mean? We’ve been living with the imminent threat of potentially fatal encounters with apex predators for nearly 15 years now. Every time someone spots a gray seal in an inlet or harbor, alarm bells go off, and people wonder, “Are the great whites in here now?” The odds of a shark attacking a swimmer remain statistically very low—it’s far more likely that a dog will kill you than a shark, for instance—but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to swim in certain areas. Since 2012, there have been six great white shark attacks on the Cape, including one fatality in 2018. And this is where the AWSC and DMF come in. By studying the behavior and habits of these powerful fish, the organizations have been working to educate the public and to develop techniques that will increase safety. People will never be able to coexist with great white sharks the way we do with, say, turtles, but knowledge is power, and the Cape is learning.
At the forefront of great white shark research is marine biologist Dr. Greg Skomal, longtime head of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program (MSRP) at the DMF. If you’ve tuned into Shark Week or watched documentaries about the great white over the past decade, you’ve most-likely encountered Skomal’s work. His most recent book, Chasing Shadows is slated for release in July. Skomal began studying sharks in 1983 when he was working for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Apex Predators Program, and he launched the MSRP in 1989. “I’ve always been fascinated by sharks,” he says. “And I’ve always, since I came to the DMF, been studying sharks. Most people identify me as a white shark person, but I still have a number of ongoing studies with other species, mostly through the talents of my students, graduates, and collaborations with others, like the with the New England Aquarium.”
Currently, Skomal and his colleagues at the AWSC are conducting conducting a number of projects, including cataloging and calculating the number sharks and investigating their “fine scale behavior.” He says, “One big question we are trying to answer is when, where and how do white sharks naturally attack and kill their prey. And the idea being, is if we can pin that down, and find patterns in behavior, ranging from things as simple as are the sharks here at high tide? Or primarily during the day? Those kinds of environmental correlations, then I think we’ll be in a position to be to be able to forecast areas, locations, times, where people might be more at risk. And so that’s been our focus the last couple of years, using new technologies. We’re making some progress.” Much of the data that they’ve gathered is accessible at the AWSC website, atlanticwhiteshark.org. Here, one can visit the White Shark Logbook and stalk the movements of more than 300 sharks. From 2010-2021, 177 receivers have been deployed in local waters to capture the activity of these tagged individuals. The AWSC has named each shark and has detected more than 750,000 movements. The leader in detections is a 14-foot male named James, first tagged in 2014. He popped up 28,861 times by the close of 2021 in locations from Chatham all the way up to Provincetown. And such information has been key to the creation of AWSC’s app: Sharktivity. While the app is far from foolproof, neither is a wind or weather forecast in New England, and those can still be helpful and potentially lifesaving. As the AWSC explains of the app, “Our goal is to raise awareness and help facilitate the peaceful coexistence between humans and white sharks.”
While increasing the number of receivers and the percentage of great whites with tags should help with accuracy regarding when and where the sharks are operating and feeding, “finer scale parameters” will help broaden understanding and narrow uncertainty. Skomal says, “We know water temperature dictates their movements. We’re going to be producing some heat maps that demonstrate areas based on water temperature, where white sharks are more likely to be, and we’re also working with the Center for Coastal Studies to map a lot of Cape Cod and get a sense of how these animals are using the habitat to their advantage. Because like any predator-prey relationship, it’s far more complex than, you know, a shark just trying to eat a seal. There are lots of factors at play, and the seal doesn’t want to be eaten. We sometimes forget that. So it’s cat and mouse. The seals have to change their behavior in response to the sharks’ tactics. The great white really has to be an ambush predator, and to be effective, it’s best not to be seen, right?” In other parts of the world, Skomal says, they’ll lurk in the deep, in darker water, and they’ll be able to strike with speed. “But we’re dealing with them on Cape Cod, where these animals might be hunting in less than 20 feet of water.”
“When we talk about probabilities of attacks, they really are area and species specific,” says Skomal. “So if someone says to me, I’m going to be swimming off of Virginia Beach, is it safe for me to swim?’ I look at what incidents have occurred there, what species have been implicated. I do the same when I think about Cape Cod, a place where sharks are feeding in close proximity to human activities. And that inherently bumps up the probability of a white shark attack.” Although the sharks arrive as early as May, peak season begins a bit later. Skomal says, “It’s August through October when we have the most white sharks, specifically off the Outer Cape. So you know, we’ve pinned down the when, we’ve wired up the coastline of Massachusetts with our technology, and we can tell you that the beaches with the highest risk, on a relative scale, are the Outer Cape. There’s such a high density of sharks—and they’re hunting in shallow water—that my recommendation for many years has been, if you are in any way nervous, don’t go in over your waist. Because you’re dealing with an animal that’s in hunting mode. The probability is low, but the possibility is there.”
As for the impact of the “Sharktown” tourist focus, Skomal sees a net positive, saying, “For me, it raises public awareness. Coexistence is really based on healthy education of individuals, and if somebody is drawn to a shop and buys a t-shirt with a shark on it, I don’t know if that makes them less afraid of sharks, but it certainly makes them aware of them. What hurts the sharks is when they bite someone. They’re just doing what they naturally do and they make mistakes, but they’re their own worst enemies, unfortunately.” Luckily, there were no shark attacks over the past three summers, but not due to a decline in numbers. Skomal says, “A lot of people have changed their behavior, but some groups don’t. The most obvious being the surfers—and I don’t fault them. They’re doing what they love to do. And they’re accepting the risk.” Skomal himself has grown more cautious, however. “From what I’ve seen and experienced with this species, I probably couldn’t do that. I think I’ve developed a healthy respect for this species and a bit of fear.”
Chris White is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.