It’s been the summer of the shark. In tourist-heavy North and South Carolina, 11 people have been attacked, leaving visitors concerned about swimming. Could the same thing happen here? State marine biologist Greg Skomal says, probably not.
“When we hear about a large number of shark attacks in a particular area like has happened in North Carolina and South Carolina, folks have a tendency to think that it immediately is going to start happening up here. That’s not the case," Skomal said.
Skomal heads shark science for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. He’s been researching off Chatham for six years using tracking and tagging technology on Great White sharks. Just last year, his team identified 68 sharks. But the sharks they’re finding here are Great Whites — largely migratory creatures that travel considerable distances over the course of the year.
"I think the sharks down south are species that don’t even travel this far north," Skomal said. "Having said that, the presence of white sharks off our coastline certainly can alarm folks, because white sharks have been implicated in unprovoked attacks. I would encourage people just to use common sense and be proactive in their thinking when they get into the water."
Probably the town that has most embraced the presence of shark culture is Chatham. In addition to the T-shirts and postcards being sold in tourist shops, the community recently hosted “Sharks in the Park” — an exhibit of 54 ornately-decorated sharks, each balanced on steel rods swimming in front of the Chatham Public Library.
Dan Tobin is the Director of Parks and Recreation for Chatham. His job includes staffing the beaches with lifeguards and promoting public education concerning shark safety. Tobin says the tourism industry sometimes misleads visitors. He often solicits questions from tourists asking how they can go shark watching, but has to tell them spotting a shark is a rare occurrence.
“The questions that usually come to me are usually you know, ‘where can I see one?’ And the answer to that is that it’s very difficult to do, you know," Tobin said. "It’s not an aquarium out there. There’s no place you can say, ‘Oh. there’s the white shark swimming by.’ They are elusive intentionally and hang off shore and then come in occasionally to feed."
While the tourist industry may not be the best source of information, local, state and federal officials are doing what they can to provide science-based guidance when it comes to sharing the water with sharks. Leslie Reynolds is the Chief Ranger of Cape Cod National Seashore. She says the Seashore has implemented a number of precautionary measures over the past three years to ensure greater public awareness of shark safety, including posting signs at National Seashore and town beaches. The signs include information about shark advisories and dangerous currents.
“So our message to the public is: whether we see the sharks or not, whether the fin is breaking the surface or not, the sharks are in the water and they are coming closer and they are feeding on the seals," Reynolds said. "One of our messages for them is to avoid swimming near seals. And then when they do swim in the water, to stay shallow enough that they can keep their feet on the ground.”
Things like hazardous water currents are really a greater threat to swimmer safety than white sharks, but attacks do happen. In 2012, a shark attack in Truro was the first by a Great White off the coast of Cape Cod in 76 years. Immediately following the incident, beach managers revamped shark attack policy to accommodate for the species' increasing population. State shark expert Greg Skomal works with personnel like Reynolds and Tobin, to share the information he gathers through his research.
“I see it as an opportunity. I’m hoping that we’re producing the kinds of information that is going to be useful not only for long-term conservation of the species, but also to provide beach managers with information that will be helpful for knowing when and how to open and close beaches," Skomal said. "Personally, it’s a spectacular opportunity to research these animals, but at the same time I want to make sure we are producing viable information."
Reynolds uses research from Skomal and other scientist to inform the decisions she makes managing the National Seashore. Reynolds says lifeguards have noticed a positive shift in beach-goers' behaviors in the summers after their informational signs were posted. The lifeguards told Reynolds they only had to call swimmers closer to shore once or twice the entire summer, compared to the daily warnings made just five years ago. Human behavior is difficult to measure, but Reynolds is confident that efforts are paying off.