Great white sharks are back in Cape Cod. Du dum. Da dum. Da dum da dum… The primal fear of the toothy great white can clear a beach on the fictional Amity Island, but it can also attracts tens of thousands to get up close and personal with the shark responsible for the largest number of fatal unprovoked shark attacks on humans.
Writes The Daily Beast: “Forty years ago this month, Jaws, Peter Benchley’s best-selling fish tale, was made into an iconic movie that helped usher in a new era of blockbuster films. Set in a fictional New England town, it told the tale of a bloodthirsty great white shark that developed a taste for humans and a penchant for gory mischief. Filmed primarily on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, the irony was that while sharks such as the porbeagle, thresher, tiger, and mako were abundant, great whites were relatively a rare encounter.”
Over four decades later, and the same cannot be said. Great whites are now swarming in the waters off Cape Cod, and businesses are taking full advantage of the tourist boom – touting the fact the vicious beasts can now be seen in the Cod’s area beaches and coastlines.
“If anything I’ve noticed, among the business community of the town of Chatham, which is the epicenter of white shark activity, they’ve embraced these animals as a way to make money and draw people to the town,” commented Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior biologist with the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries. “Virtually every shop on Main Street is selling some kind of shark trinket or shirt, you name it. I think it’s been a positive response, one of people trying to embrace these animals.”
The reason the Great Whites are in town? Seals, and lots of them.
“The growing seal population is a result of the Marine Mammal Protection Act from 1972,” Skomal explains. “The seals are now rebounding, recolonizing, and becoming resident in many parts of the northeast where they previously had been wiped out. White sharks are the top predator of seals, one of their only predators, and is responding to that. So in essence you get this food source that has grown to a huge level on a relative scale and you’ve got sharks moving in closer to shore to feed on them.”
Cape Cod’s main industry is tourism, with hundreds of millions pouring in every year. While officials are using the great white increase as leverage to attract visitors, there is also the danger that an attack or killing could instantly drive people away.
To that end, the state has gone to great lengths to assure tourists and swimmers that the waters are safe, as long as they use common sense and stay away from the shark’s number one meal.
Writes Slate.com: “In an effort to educate people about shark safety, beach authorities have erected notice boards, and towns are using a $50,000 state grant to print brochures with helpful shark safety tips—chief among them, ‘Avoid swimming near seals.’ Looking to South Africa, which has been dealing with great white sharks for years, Cape Cod officials have talked about setting up a system for shark detection, perhaps by using spotter planes or installing more acoustic buoys to track tagged sharks. But so far there isn’t enough funding for a major effort.”
Keith Lincoln runs a charter boat and cruise business that specializes in seal watching.
“When the first shark hits the newspapers, we get busier earlier,” Lincoln said, adding that people are brave until they see a great white up close. “They leave here all brave, but when they see a fish that’s as big as the boat, they’re not so brave.”