Local businesses and tourists are embracing Cape Cod's great white shark boom

Key Points
  • Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is a Labor Day Weekend beach mecca, but this year there is an unexpected attraction: great white sharks.
  • Great white shark sightings along the Cape have soared, primarily due to the exploding gray seal population.
  • Local businesses are embracing the shark frenzy, and shoppers are buying up all things shark-related.
A sign warning swimmers of great white sharks in Cape Cod waters, at Nauset Beach in Orleans, Massachusetts, July 31, 2018.
Robert Nickelsberg | Getty Images 

Thousands of tourists are rushing to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, this Labor Day Weekend to soak up the last few days of summer along its 70-mile-long stretch of idyllic dune-lined beaches. While many hope to bask in the waters of the Atlantic, take in breathtaking sea captains' homes and soak up some peaceful tranquillity, others hope to spot something even more exhilarating: a great white shark.

Businesses are embracing the frenzy as well, as shoppers buy up all things shark related, from T-shirts and souvenirs to shark-themed ice cream. At the Chatham Orpheum Theater, "Jaws" plays nearly all summer long.

"People are falling in love with the excitement of these big animals, and it's fueling every aspect of Orleans and Chatham, said Joe Baglio, who has been summering on Cape Cod for the past 25 years. "The attention that it's brought, this new aspect of interest, wasn't really here three, four years ago. The conversation is all about the sharks."

Soaring shark sightings linked to seal population

Over the past year, great white shark sightings along the Cape have soared, primarily due to the exploding seal population. According to David W. Johnson, a professor of marine conservation ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, there are currently between 30,000 and 50,000 gray seals off the southeastern Massachusetts coast.

The exponential growth is largely due to the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Before then, gray seals were hunted for their furs and to keep them from depleting the fish stock. Massachusetts even paid a bounty of $5 per nose. While some refer to this as a "conservation success," others are growing increasingly concerned, especially Cape Cod fishermen.

"The seals are causing a lot of problems," said Doug Brown, captain of the sportfishing charter boat Jennifer Ann, which fishes the waters of Cape Cod Bay for striped bass, bluefish and bluefin tuna from Rock Harbor in Orleans. "They eat several pounds of fish each day. They eat small bait, lobsters, striped bass, fluke, flounder. They eat anything. It's going to get to the point where they are going to have to make a decision."

Brown said the seals are drawing the sharks, and while tourists are fascinated by them, they can be a challenge. "The sharks come right up out of the water to grab the bait. They are not bashful. I have been out in the bay all my life, but I've never seen great whites to this amount. They are sometimes right under my boat."

Justin Daly, an avid fisherman and summer resident of Orleans, agrees that something needs to be done to cull the seal population. In the past he often only saw seals while deep-sea fishing, but they are a common sight along the shoreline now, making it a challenge for those directly fishing off the beach, he said.

Nevertheless, it has become a boon for scientists and educators, who are benefiting as Cape Cod has evolved into a mecca for great whites. Until now, they had to go to California and other areas of the world to learn more about these legendary predators.

For the very first time, scientists have predictable access to white sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, said leading shark expert and biologist Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

"We know about white sharks in other parts of the world … but in the Atlantic, we know virtually nothing about white sharks when it comes to their basic biology and … how this animal lives. We think of the white shark as a species that is out to get us. But that is not the case. White sharks need our help. We need to collect the data that is necessary to conserve this species," said Skomal, a regular contributor to PBS, National Geographic and SharkWeek.

Shifting the perception of great white sharks

Scientists like Skomal, along with organizations such as the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a nonprofit group in Chatham, Massachusetts, are working together to shift the perception of the great white from mindless, blood-thirsty killers to a species that is a key facet of the ocean's ecosystem.

Great white sharks have led to a rise in ecotourism on Cape Cod. 
Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

The AWSC works with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to document and tag white sharks in the region, identifying each shark by its distinctive markings and coloration patterns. In 2014 Skomal and the conservancy identified 80 individual great whites swimming off the Cape. By 2016 it increased to 150. He has successfully tagged 140 white sharks since 2009. Though many, he said, are too deep to tag.

"The tags tell us some of the sharks are fairly resident and stay in Cape Cod for the summer because it provides a rich food resource. Others appear to be more transient in nature, where they move through and continue north into the gulf of Maine and off the coastline of Canada. Almost all of them will migrate to the southeastern U.S. during the winter months," he said.

Skomal said it will be another six months to a year before he will finish analyzing the data and be able to estimate what portion of the population of white sharks on the Outer Cape the 140 tagged sharks represent.

Biologist Greg Skomal tags a shark 
Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

To raise awareness of their efforts and provide information on white shark sightings and research, the AWSC, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the Cape Cod National Seashore, and officials from Cape Cod and south shore towns, developed the Sharktivity app. Users use the app to view sightings and to submit their own. They can also check out live streams of research in action.

"It's much easier to fear the unknown, so we feel that it's critical to provide the public with as much information as we can," said Cynthia Wigren, president of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. They appear to be making an impact: The conservancy's shark center, which offers an in-depth look at the great white through displays, interactive exhibits and virtual reality experiences, opened only two years ago and just surpassed 15,000 visitors this season.

The Sharktivity app alerts users to shark sightings.
Atlantic White Shark Conservancy 

"I've been doing this for 35 years," said Skomal. "I've watched the attitude toward sharks really shift and change. When I first started this, there was a lot of negativity toward sharks. There's still fear of these animals — we're never going to eradicate that. But I think there's quite a bit of intrigue and fascination that people have for sharks, and the more they learn about them, that fascination will increase."

Still, jitters remain

While many are intrigued by the iconic great white, jitters still remain. "When I go in the water, I keep my eyes open and I get out of there. Five years ago—even three, four years ago—I'd be swimming without even thinking about it. You really have to think about it now," said Baglio.

Skomal said that the white sharks have been swimming close to the shoreline for years, but the public's heightened awareness has led people to now capture the action using drones, cellphones and cameras. They then post it on social media and news outlets pick it up.

"There is heightened awareness, and that's not a bad thing; that's a good thing. And there are people with drones and they have cameras and cellphones, so everybody is paying attention. So it looks like there is more activity now, but the sharks are doing what they have been doing for a number of years, and that's hunting seals close to shore," said Skomal.

He advises that beachgoers — mostly on the Outer Cape, from Chatham to Provincetown — use good common sense. "Swim close to the shore, don't'swim alone, and avoid swimming near seals," he said. "If you look at deaths related to water, there's been several drownings but no fatalities related to sharks. So people need to use good sense, anyway."

Still, there have been incidents. On Aug. 15 William Lytton was bitten on the leg by a white shark while swimming in 8 to 10 feet of water in Truro. The 61-year-old Scarsdale, New York, neurologist instinctively punched the shark in the gills to fend him off. In 2017 a paddleboarder was about 30 yards offshore of Marconi Beach in Wellfleet when a shark took a bite out of his paddle board. The encounter took place in about 3 feet of water.

This photo of a paddle boarder, unaware that a great white shark was swimming beside him, was taken by a spotter plane just north of Nauset Beach on July 29, 2018.
Cody DeGroff

Yet of the nearly 100 shark attacks worldwide each year, only about a third to one half are from great whites. As of August 20, 2018, there have been a total of 63 shark attack bites worldwide that were publicly reported, according to Tracking Sharks, a website that reports shark attacks across the globe. Of these attacks, 23 were reported in the United States, with eight occurring in Florida and two in Hawaii. The majority of the others were in Australia.

Skomal said that he, along with the National Park Service and other organizations on Cape Cod, are staying on top of the growing white shark population. "It's something the Cape towns are struggling to deal with — what it means for the Cape and for public safety. A lot of towns 10 years ago would have wanted to ignore this issue, but we are not ignoring it. [Cape officials] are dealing with it and are confronting it and trying to figure out ways to mitigate potential impacts of these sharks on public safety. What it means 10 years from now, we don't know, but the fact that we are having the discourse is very, very important."