Thousands of seals in the waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, attracted by the region’s abundance of fish, keep many a seal-watch boat captain busy during the spring, summer and fall. But the seals increasingly have drawn predators — great white sharks — and today Cape Cod’s souvenir shops are loaded with shark T-shirts, hats, beach towels and other items that show the toothy, menacing grin of the great white. Tourists happily oblige the shop owners, scooping up the merchandise as mementos of their Cape Cod vacation.
The great whites have arrived in record numbers in recent years. Earlier this month, 20 great whites were tagged in one day by scientists of the Atlantic Great White Conservancy. The great whites go where the seals are, and one of the best places to see them is off the coast of Chatham, a small town where the summer population swells with upscale visitors who rent waterview houses or book rooms at the sprawling luxury resort Chatham Bars Inn. Chatham’s business community gets in on the action, too, by sponsoring a 45-piece shark art installation at a local park.
However, aside from the souvenir shops and a heightened interest in the big fish, there’s little actual “shark tourism” on the Cape. Just one company, Cape Cod Shark Adventures, runs tours that let the curious climb into a shark cage for an underwater look-see. The company, founded in 2010 by Bryce Rohrer and also operating from Nantucket, charges $325 for a cage or free-swim experience in waters where sharks are likely to be found.
“Our professionally built shark cage is designed to get divers of all skill levels safely up close and personal with sharks. The cage offers 360 degree views, is 100 percent shark proof and easy to get in and out of. Divers can enter and exit the cage as many times as they like throughout the day,” its web site says, adding that no experience is required. Shark viewing trips, where passengers look for sharks from aboard a boat, are a bit cheaper, at $275.
But for the scientists at Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the search for great whites isn’t about tourism. It’s about research. “Despite the enormous scientific and public interest in white sharks, large gaps in our understanding of this species remain. Cape Cod has become an aggregation site for great white sharks, presenting a rare and incredible research opportunity,” the conservancy says.
It’s leading shark expert, Dr. Greg Skomal, explains further: “For the first time, modern scientists have predictable access to white sharks in the North Atlantic and the ability to study their life history and ecology.”
According to the conservancy, white sharks have been studied in California and other areas of the world for over two decades. However, on the East Coast of the United States little is known about the species. In 2009 Skomal and John Chisholm, both biologists with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, were the first to successfully tag and track great whites in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean using high tech tags. Now they track local and long range movements, and study shark behavior.
Meanwhile, swimmers at three beaches on Cape Cod were hustled out of the water by lifeguards this week due to shark sightings close to shore. The Cape Cod National Seashore, which operates several beaches on the Atlantic side of the Cape, issued its annual advisory to swimmers at the start of the summer season. Swim close to shore, in groups, and avoid swimming alone at dawn or dusk, it says. Swimmers also should limit splashing and avoid swimming near seals, it says.