Cape Cod ‘Learns To Live’ With Great White Sharks As Research Continues

In less than a decade, the town of Chatham in Cape Cod has changed; once known primarily for its beaches and quaint main street, it has now found a new level of fame thanks to the presence of an indeterminate number of great white sharks. Yet while the aquatic predators at first gave the town pause, it is slowly coming to terms with its new reputation as the summer home of the great white.

Located at the “elbow” of Cape Cod, Chatham is a place where fishermen have long reported seeing white sharks off the nearby coast. In the mid-2000s, however, the animals’ presence grew steadily more ubiquitous, as seal carcasses washed ashore, and it soon became obvious that the number of great whites was rising. As Deutsche Welle notes, marine biologist Greg Skomal recalled that it was clear by 2009 that the local shark population was growing, largely due to the presence of a nearby seal colony.

“I’m sure white sharks were starting slowly to become aware of the presence of seals… I imagine it is a slow learning experience — it’s not like they have social media to work with.”

Grey seals are a primary food source for the sharks, and while they were once hunted to near-extinction along the East Coast, their numbers have rebounded in force thanks to 1972’s Marine Mammal Protection Act. The seals’ presence has now turned Cape Cod into one of the world’s most notable great white aggregation sites, putting the area in league with locales like Western Australia and South Africa.

Predictable access to the species is difficult to achieve, and researchers have been taking advantage of the opportunity afforded them in Cape Cod. Now in the third year of a population study focused on the great whites, Dr. Skomal managed to identify over 140 distinct individuals last season, up from just 68 the year before. Last week, Dr. Skomal tagged three different white sharks off Truro, Nauset North, and Nauset Public, ranging from 12- to 15-feet-long. As Cape Cod.com points out, Skomal has so far tagged 17 white sharks this season, after tagging 24 last year.

While some in the community do not wish for Chatham to be known as a “shark town,” others have embraced the area’s new reputation. What was first expected to be a reaction of fear was, in reality, replaced by curiosity, and an associated tourist boom as beachgoers flocked to the area, hoping to spot a great white.

According to Dr. Skomal, Chatham’s ability to deal with their new visitors in a positive way has largely been the result of public awareness campaigns, in addition to the efforts of local authorities focused on keeping beachgoers safe. The town has implemented early warning measures and a communication system to alert lifeguards, swimmers, and nearby beaches of a white shark’s presence; there is even a dedicated smartphone app, Sharktivity, that allows both locals and visitors to report their own sightings, as the Inquisitr has previously noted.

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Though other white shark aggregation sites have been the scenes of dangerous, and often deadly, interactions between humans and sharks, Cape Cod has been surprisingly lucky; only one white shark bite has been reported since 1936, and it did not prove fatal. According to Dr. Skomal, however, the day will come when the cape may be faced with just such a tragedy.

“Almost anywhere in the world where you get these concentrations of white sharks, you do get interactions — you get bites. And in some cases, they are fatal. We try not to bury that fact even though we emphasize that the probability is extremely low.”

If and when the region ever faces that challenge, Skomal thinks the reaction will largely depend on the victim and their behavior. In the meantime, the area will continue to play host to a legion of great white sharks each summer, affording both the community and the researchers who reside there with a unique opportunity.

[Featured Image by Elias Levy/ Flickr]