Rami Halim


Oceanography: The Bite is On

Sharks are generally the talk of the town during New England summers, sources of fear and fascination. But this year, a series of high-profile sightings sparked headlines, popular YouTube clips, and discussion about the fate of the predators in local waters.

The frenzy began at the start of August, when a white shark off Monomoy gave a curious bite to a GoPro camera used by shark researchers. It was the first time that had happened, said Greg Skomal, the state’s leading shark biologist, and it gave scientists a rare look inside the mouth of a live white shark – plus a great video clip.

Later in the month, a private whale watching charter off Provincetown was treated to the sight of two white sharks eating the carcass of a minke whale. Around that same time, a fishing charter captain captured video of a white shark fully breaching in Cape Cod Bay, unusual behavior for sharks in the Northeast. 

Other sharks made more public appearances. On August 21 a white shark attacked a seal within sight of beachgoers on Nauset Beach in Orleans. A few days later, a white shark bit the back of a man’s stand-up paddle board. The encounter took place in about three feet of water fifty to seventy-five yards offshore of Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, according to the National Park Service, and seals were nearby. The beach was closed to swimming for about a day. (The tooth-marked paddle board will be on display at the Shark Center in Chatham.)

In this, the land of Jaws, news of the incidents spread widely via a string of sensational headlines – “Shark Attack on Seal Causes Panic at Cape Cod Beach,” “Great White Shark Chomps Seal Next to Swimmers” – and prompted one official to take a page from Robert Shaw’s Quint. On the heels of the seal predation of Nauset Beach, Barnstable County commissioner Ronald Beaty called for a “shark hazard mitigation strategy,” including using baited drum lines to catch sharks near popular beaches and shooting sharks that survived being hooked.

Backlash was swift. In a statement, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy said programs to kill white sharks to improve safety have been tried elsewhere with little success, and called the proposal ill-considered and indiscriminate. “The presence of white sharks off our coast is an indication of a healthy ecosystem,” it said, adding that sharks come to waters off Cape Cod to feed on their natural prey, seals. “Shark advisory signs, flags, videos, and brochures produced by the Regional Shark Working Group provide Cape Cod beach users with information to improve public safety.”

Twelve-year-old Harwich resident Lucy Swain wrote a letter to the county commissioner that was posted on Facebook and picked up by several news outlets. “By killing the great white sharks you are destroying the ocean ecosystem around the Cape,” she wrote. “The sharks balance the ecosystem. When you kill them off you knock the ecosystem off of balance.”

Beaty later announced he was placing an interim freeze on his proposal.

Skomal, for his part, urged Cape and Island residents to remain calm in the midst of so much activity. What we’re seeing is extraordinary, he told a sell-out crowd that gathered in August at the Old Whaling Church for a talk about his ongoing research. Still, the likelihood of encountering a shark remains low. “We are collecting data and sharing with beach managers, so they can manage public safety,” he said. “I have to tell you that I’m pleasantly surprised I am not dealing with the mayor of Amity Island.”

As August turned into September and beaches emptied out, a shark seen eating a seal off Nauset Beach over Labor Day weekend made fewer headlines: the beach was closed to swimmers for about an hour.