If you drive around Chatham, you’ll see a lot of images of sharks. Some are goofy and cartoonish, and some are intended to strike fear. In the wake of two shark bites on Cape Cod this year, including the state’s first fatality in more than 80 years, questions have arisen whether the commercial industry around the predator may need to be reassessed.
Many of the top-selling souvenirs on the Outer Cape have sharks on them. There are shark mugs, shark neckties, and even hats that look like a shark is taking a bite out of your head.
Corey Baptist, who works at a gift shop on Route 6, said business owners aren't trying to capitalize on a fear of sharks, they’re just responding to what customers want.
“People seem to love sharks and always come in the store asking us for shark related items,” he said.
One of the best-selling items this past summer was an inflatable shark-head float. "It’s a regular tube," he said, "but you sit inside of a shark's mouth."
If you’re wondering whether it’s inappropriate to sell these kinds of souvenirs in the wake of a deadly attack, you could ask William Lytton. He was the first person bitten by a shark this year, in August, while swimming off a beach in Truro. The injuries to his left leg and torso required six surgeries, and he's currently undergoing rehabilitation.
Lytton said he’s not offended by shark items, or even a cocktail named the Shark Bite (rum, blue Curacao, and few drops of grenadine to look like blood in the water). But he did throw away a stuffed shark that his friend gave him in the hospital. "You do not send shark plush toys to recent shark attack victims," he said dryly. "It’s a point of etiquette.
Lytton said selling shark souvenirs on Cape Cod is no different from stores in Yellowstone National Park selling stuffed animal bears.
Stephen Williams, president of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, said shark merchandise has a purpose beyond sales. "People need to be made aware that they’re here, so that they’re very careful when they’re going into the local waters," Williams said. "I think a lot of the cultural impact has been educational. Everything you see on Main Street, the Sharks in the Park and these different things, are ways to raise awareness."
Wendy Northcross, of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, sais the appeal is more about human curiosity around the predators. The consumer, she said, will decide if the culture around shark-themed goods will change. "We always knew that the sharks were a plus for business," Northcross said. "And we knew that that could change in an instant. So now that we’ve have that instant come down upon us, you know, things can shift."
Baptist, at the gift shop on Route Six, said the store where he works will probably have even more shark themed floats next summer.