Shark Attack in Wellfleet Spurs Officials and Researchers to Consider Changes

Sep 20, 2018

A sign at Newcomb Hollow Beach warned swimmers after the shark-related death of Arthur Medici on September 15, 2018. A memorial to him had been set up around the sign.
Credit Sarah Tan / WCAI

The death of 26-year-old Arthur Medici from shark bite wounds is the state’s first shark-related death in over 80 years. Now, researchers and policymakers are looking at ways the Cape could increase beach safety and awareness around the growing great white shark population. 

Just days after the attack, surfers and beachgoers were back at Newcomb Hollow beach in Wellfleet, enjoying the water and the sun. The only lingering evidence of the tragedy there are large billboards warning beachgoers of the presence of great white sharks in the water, and a handwritten sign saying the beach was closed until further notice.

Wellfleet's beach administrator John Ryerson said that the beach's topography of sandbars with valleys between them can bring sharks closer to shore. 

"That’s why we get the nice beach break here, you see the guy surfing right now? So the waves come and they break farther out, and surfers and boogie boarders like that," he said. "Here comes another guy right now, you can see how nice the wave is. And they haven’t paid any attention to our sign that says no swimming and surfing."

He pointed at surfers that were about the same distance as Medici had been swimming from the shore. He said the town had put out warning signs all around the entrance to the beach to discourage people from going into the water, but there’s no enforceable way to stop people from going swimming if they want to.

"There’s nothing we can do about the sharks and the seals, the only thing we can do is warn people, and that’s why we have all these signs. Then it’s really up to them," he said. 

Medici’s death is the second shark bite on the Cape this year, after a 61-year-old man was bitten in Truro last month and survived. State marine biologist and shark expert Greg Skomal said that sharks around the Cape are coming closer to the shore as they learn that’s where seals often are, and he warned that people shouldn’t become complacent in thinking that closeness to shore means safety from sharks.

"We’ve been documenting the near shore presence of white sharks for several years, so this is not a new phenomena, and I think the public tends to get hung up on distance from shore, and that’s not really important as depth," he said. 

And he added that many beaches on the Outer Cape are like Newcomb Hollow, where the sandbars and valleys can create quick drop offs into much deeper water.

"If a white shark has access to the shoreline because there’s adequate depth, so let’s say the water depth increases quickly and many of us have been to beaches like that, then distance to shore doesn’t mean anything," he said. Sharks only need about 4 feet of water to be able to swim. 

Officials are starting to have discussions around how beaches can be better prepared to handle shark bites in the future. Oftentimes there’s poor cell service which can make calling for help difficult, and in September, despite warm weather and a shoulder tourism season, no life guards are on duty.

"There are emerging technologies, balloons flown over the area, drones, underwater sonar systems, there are all kind of options, some are feasible some are not," Skomal said. 

He said it’s too soon to know what the Cape's answer will be, though he acknowledged that the increasing population of seals around the eastern shores is driving the increased number of sharks.

"The seals are close to the beach, the sharks are coming in to do what they do naturally which is attack, kill and eat a seal," he said. And humans are getting in the middle of that. 

The knee-jerk reaction for many has been to call for a culling of seals to decrease shark encounters. But Sean Hayes, a protected species specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association believes seal culling might actually increase the likelihood of shark attacks on humans. He referenced a study done in California, where despite a growing population of surfers, sharks and seals all using the same water, there’s been a levelling out of shark bites on humans, at around 7 incidences per year. He hypothesized that because sharks had an abundance of seals to eat on the west coast, they were able to better learn the differences between a seal and a human more quickly which has resulted in less mistaken attacks on humans. 

"One possibility is that on the west coast, sharks have gotten used to what a seal looks like and have gotten savvy to that and are less interested in forging on a human. My understanding is we’re not preferred prey, wrapped in neoprene with a styrofoam board probably isn’t as tasty as a seal," Hayes said. 

And while there’s no way to actually stop people from getting into the water after a shark attack, even if it’s for their own good, Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of Cape Cod’s National Seashore said the best thing people can do is to be aware.

"It's much the same as if you were going to Yellowstone, you’re hiking in grizzly bear country, well when you’re coming to Cape Cod National Seashore you’re swimming in white shark territory, so you just need to be vigilant and go out there and enjoy yourself responsibly." 

In the coming weeks, a committee of shark experts and town officials will be meeting to discuss next steps to prevent another attack like this from happening. A meeting date has not  yet been announced, though Carlstrom said the meeting could happen as early as this week.