Shark sightings on the Outer Cape have been keeping beachgoers on edge in recent weeks. To help people better understand what’s out there, and how to swim safely, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy has created a new program, putting what they call “Shark Ambassadors” out on beaches.
Standing at the top of the stairs at Lighthouse Beach in Chatham is shark ambassador Nikki Tenaglia. She’s wearing a neon yellow t-shirt identifying her as a volunteer with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, and she greets vacationers as they shuffle down to the beach.
Some children stop to ask her why there are so many sharks around the Cape, and adults ask if it's safe to go in the water.
The shark ambassador program is in its third week, and is part of a pilot outreach program the shark conservancy is running to educate the public around sharks, especially as fear around the animals has increased. The program is run by the conservancy’s education director, Marianne Long, who said the Conservancy wanted to start a shark ambassadors program to raise awareness, but not anxiety.
"It's still early in the season, but this season has definitely kicked off with an active start," Long said. "The research vessel was out yesterday, and they tagged four sharks. That’s a lot of sharks to tag in one day."
A number of Outer Cape beaches have already experienced closures from shark sightings, and Long said the ambassadors are there to further increase awareness.
"Especially this year, there are new signs warning people of shark activity and letting them know that you need to be aware and know your risk when you enter the water," she said. "And we have seen that’s usually what people notice when they get here, and they have questions."
Volunteers stand out with signs that say they’re part of the Shark Smart Beach Program, and they also hand out pamphlets about shark safety. Jim Kelly of Worcester was visiting Lighthouse Beach with his family, and he asked where he needed to be careful.
"Are we safe here?" he wanted to know. Tenaglia explained that though there have been sharks that have been tagged off Lighthouse Beach, because it’s in a bit of a protected cove, it isn’t a very active shark spot. Still, Kelly said he’s being vigilant.
"We have little kids," he explained. "We brought them here today, so we're just wondering how much we should let them out. I’m just telling them to just go to their knees, and that’s it."
He says he’s been bringing his family to Chatham for years, but everyone has been on high alert since a fatal shark attack last year.
"We used to bring the kids to this [beach] more often. But now we tend to just go to the little pond beach. We’ve changed our behavior," Kelly said. "Before we would let them go to chest high out there, but not anymore."
The conservancy will have shark ambassadors at Lighthouse Beach from July until August, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the morning. They hope to expand the program to other beaches next year. So far this summer, three beaches, Head of the Meadow in Truro, Coast Guard Beach in Eastham and Nauset Beach have been temporarily closed due to shark sightings.