Great White Sharks Vacationing Off Cape Cod

Who can forget the chilling moment when Chief Brody solemnly types ‘SHARK ATTACK’ as the cause of death of a mangled summer vacationer? The clack of the typebars hitting the paper haunts me still.<br />
I am, of course, recalling a scene from the 1975 Steven Spielberg classic, Jaws. The novel of the same name, on which Spielberg based his film, was the first book I read from cover-to-cover without a break. Since then, I have chosen my summer holiday destination with shark avoidance uppermost in mind.<br />
Imagine my horror when, holidaying this summer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I saw a report in the Cape Cod Times of 31st July 2010 that the eastern shore of Chatham’s South Beach had been closed following Great White Shark sightings.<br />
“There were enough people in the water in close enough proximity to the sharks that we decided the prudent thing to do would be to close the beach,” Chatham Harbour Master Stuart Smith commented.<br />
My unease increased as I read the article. This was no isolated incident. The year’s first Great White sighting was made on 11th July. A 15-foot shark (15 feet!) was spotted attacking seals near shore about two miles south of Nauset Beach.<br />
According to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MDMF), Great White Sharks have become increasingly common in Cape Cod waters during the last ten years. Most sharks observed off the Cape have been between eight and fifteen feet long, but Great Whites can reach up to 20 feet in length and exceed two tons in weight.<br />
The majority of sightings have occurred east of Monomoy Island. This eight mile spit of sand was established in 1944 as a National Wildlife Refuge for migratory birds. Sharks are not known for their bird watching, but Monomoy’s numerous inlets and sand deposits are the perfect haven for thousands of Atlantic Grey and Harbour Seals. Fatty seals are the prey of preference for discerning Great Whites. The steadily growing seal population is the most likely reason for the increase in shark sightings around the Cape.<br />
While most shark sightings take place a quarter of a mile or more offshore, the MDMF has a caveat for swimmers.<br />
“When Great Whites are feeding they are less likely to distinguish human activity from that of their principal prey; therefore any commotion in the vicinity of their prey could provoke an attack.”<br />
All beach users should heed warnings posted by local officials. If, while swimming, you notice the seals are remaining in shallow water, this may be an indication of a shark nearby. And for all their great size, Great Whites are hard to spot. You are unlikely to see the classic image of a Great White dorsal fin cutting through the water, as it is mainly a deep water predator.<br />
Marine biologist, Dr. Greg Skomal, is head of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. He began tagging Great Whites around the Cape early in 2009. He tagged five that year and seven in Summer 2010, the most recent of which was on 1st September off Chatham.<br />
Data gathered from the tags shows that the sharks remain in the warm summer waters around Monomoy Island from May until the waters begin to cool after Labour Day in September, when they decamp for the still warm waters of Florida.<br />
Beach closures, harbour patrols and no-swim zones are a thing not just of now, but also of the foreseeable future. I won’t allow the furore to put me off, though. I hope to be back next year. I think the outer Cape is one of the most wonderful places on the planet. I won’t, however, be encouraging my young daughters to watch Jaws.<br />
As one charter yacht captain put it, “Let’s enjoy. Business is booming. People are curious. They want to see a real-life Jaws. Maybe we’ll all get rich. Problems come when tourists start getting munched.”<br />
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