This is the first summer since a shark attacked and killed boogie-boarder Arthur Medici at a Wellfleet Beach last September. Now, as great white sharks and tourists begin their yearly return to Cape Cod, many Outer Cape towns have been looking at what they can do to increase the safety of swimmers.
On a recent overcast day, fire chief Geof Deering and EMT Henry Rex were starting their morning patrol at Nauset Beach. They were riding in an all-terrain vehicle, or ATV, to cover plenty of beach quickly.
"It's not the nicest day," Rex said, as the dune-buggy vehicle rolled along. "It's a little cloudy out, it could be warmer. But we've got a few people who are out here."
The mobile team – a group of EMTs on ATVs – are an integral part of the town of Orleans’s shark safety program. On weekends during the summer, Rex says, the town will have four ATVs patrolling different parts of the beach. On weekdays, there are two vehicles.
"We monitor all the sections of the beach, and we work with the lifeguards," Rex explained over the buzz of the engine. "We patrol around... make sure everyone's doing good."
The ATVs they're driving are equipped with a large plastic box and a duffel bag that contain first aid equipment. There are items like Narcan, an oxygen tank and a stethoscope. And this year, there's been the addition of more items to deal with shark bites.
"We've upgraded our equipment a little. We have a lot more trauma dressings and hemostatic dressings," Rex said.
Chief Deering added that the mobile EMT team allows for a faster response if someone gets hurt on the beach.
"The driving reason [for the mobile teams] was to close that response time of an ambulance coming down from the center of town to the beach. We could have someone there in two minutes or less, versus six or eight minutes," Deering said.
But the biggest challenge, Deering said, is that nobody can predict when or where the next shark attack will happen. Deering said that they simply advise people to use caution at all times when in the water.
It’s just those questions—where are the sharks, and when are they likely to be hunting?—that state shark researcher Greg Skomal seeking to answer. Over the past five years, he’s been tagging sharks and shooting video of them off the Outer Cape. At the Division of Marine Fisheries office in New Bedford, he and his team have been scouring through hours of video to identify specific sharks.
Skomal said that by analyzing markings and behavior, he can tell a lot about a shark.
"Number one, we'll hopefully get the gender of the shark, and based on individual markings along the body of that shark, we'll be able to determine who that shark is," he said. "So we think of it kind of as video fingerprinting."
He pointed out a young female shark with scratches around its gills, indicating that that shark has been a successful hunter. So far, he and his team have identified over 300 individual great white sharks that visit the Cape, and they’re starting to tease out some behavioral trends.
"It appears that larger females are moving in later in the season, and what's driving that?" He asked. "Of course, it begs the question, are these larger females coming in to mate, or are they coming in to take advantage of the robust number of seals?"
Skomal and his team hope this research can help shape some of the safety measures towns are putting in place on their beaches. Currently, only two Outer Cape towns have a mobile EMT program, but all towns have updated signs, call boxes, and Stop the Bleed first aid kits on site.
Chatham Selectboard member Shareen Davis acknowledged that she’s heard of proposals for more proactive shark-prevention measures.
"There've been calls for putting shark barriers up, and pingers," Davis said. "That would be great, but those are costly, and I don't know if the technology is even there yet."
For this shark season, she said that just educating the public about the risk sharks pose was the town's immediate goal.
"We're trying to create the awareness around the issue," she said. "What we have to think of as a community is, 'what can we do right now, based on the resources we have?' For right now, this summer, education is really key."
A multi-town study by the Woods Hole Group is running through the summer, examining technology-based solutions that could protect the public from sharks. But for the coming months, beachgoers will need to look out for themselves—and they can keep an eye out for new signs, first aid kits, and EMTs on ATVs patrolling the dunes.