It was only a matter of time. With critical masses of seals, sharks and people in the water, it couldn’t not happen. We knew this, yet somehow it was still a shock. People have a great capacity for denial, but there’s nothing like a violent death to make us sit up and take notice.
And that death happened on Saturday, September 15 at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. It could have been anyone, but it was, in fact, Arthur Medici, a Brazilian-born 26-year-old from Revere who was attacked by a great white shark while boogie-boarding and died of his wounds.
It was, of course a deep personal tragedy for Arthur’s family and friends. But what does it mean for the rest of us? Does this change the conversation about sharks, and if so, how? Among other things, I think it will force us to re-evaluate our relationship to the ocean – and by extension, the natural world at large. The thing is, we’ve always been changing our attitudes towards the ocean. 150 years ago, no Cape Codder spent time at the ocean beach except for practical purposes: salvaging shipwrecks, beachcombing, collecting driftwood, etc. The ocean was a source of living and a constant threat of death. When Thoreau visited the Cape, there was only an incipient tourist trade in P-Town. The arrival of the railroad in 1872 changed all that. After the First World War the ocean became something whose purpose was not a life or death struggle but a source of recreation. Thoreau’s “vast morgue” – as he called the Outer Beach - had become “America’s Playground.” Now we have to face the prospect that it may once again become a “morgue.”
At the same time, our attitudes towards marine life have been gradually and fundamentally changing. When I first moved to the Cape in the 1970s, I knew a man who, for his honeymoon, took his wife to Skaket beach where they shot seals, cut off their noses and brought them into town hall for a $5 bounty. As late as the 1930s, herds of pilot whales were driven ashore for their oil. In only a few decades our attitudes towards seals, whales, sea turtles and other marine creatures have changed completely.
The shark attacks are only the latest blow to our illusion that we can control nature. Change has always been the defining character of this place. The difference is that that change is accelerating, and in the future it will only change faster. Last winter storm surges turned Provincetown’s Commercial Street into a rushing river. This summer hundreds of parking spaces at the Outer Beach were closed due to erosion. These changes have spread far beyond our beaches. In the past few decades packs of coyotes have appeared in increasing numbers across our landscape. Ticks have proliferated, carrying Lyme disease and other debilitating infections. Mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus are spreading. Heat waves are growing more frequent and intense. A friend of mine who grew up on the Cape said to me recently, “When I was a boy there weren’t all these things that would bite, eat, infect, burn, drown and kill us. This has become a scary place.”
What will happen now? Hard to tell. Will the government remove federal protection from seals to allow culling of their populations? How do you cull 50,000 seals? Will we allow open hunting of sharks? Will towns turn to very expensive solutions such as shark nets, essentially cordoning off certain sections of the shore as designated “safe” beaches? Will we voluntarily give up the privilege of swimming in the ocean? Not likely.
The ocean, and by extension all of nature, has become a much less “benign” place in the last few decades. Still, we continue to hope that by using Band-Aid approaches – posting shark sightings, making aerial surveys, holding “workshops,” uttering platitudes about being “cautious” and “observant” - that we can have our cake and not be eaten, too.