‘Tis The (Shark) Season: Predations Outpacing Shark Sightings So Far This Summer

by Ryan Bray
With summer in full swing, town officials and officials with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy are advising people to take the proper precautions to protect themselves against sharks while in the water.  FILE PHOTO With summer in full swing, town officials and officials with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy are advising people to take the proper precautions to protect themselves against sharks while in the water. FILE PHOTO

ORLEANS – “It’s shark season.”

Those few words from Nate Sears to the select board last week said it all. As summer officially gets underway this Fourth of July weekend, the region’s focus on white shark activity in local waters continues to ramp up.

In Orleans, there have so far been two reports of predated seals that were found washed up on the shores of Nauset Beach. Sears, the town’s natural resources manager and harbormaster, told the select board June 26 that both seals were discovered with “large bites removed out of them.”

“I think the message is we manage the protected area at Nauset Beach with the assumption that the sharks are always there,” he told the board.

While the number of predated animals being reported to shark experts is so far on par this season with past years, the number of reported white shark sightings has been unusually low.

That’s according to John Chisholm, an adjunct scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston. Chisholm is contracted through the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in Chatham to vet reports of shark sightings that are logged onto the conservancy’s popular Sharktivity mobile app.

Chisholm said on June 27 that so far this season, there have been 16 confirmed shark predations along the coast from New Hampshire to the Rhode Island state line.

“I have about another half dozen that I’m still trying to confirm,” he said.

The majority of the predations have involved seals, which white sharks are known to hunt and prey upon. Chisholm said there have also been predated minke whales, and in one case a humpback whale.

“It’s tough because that’s proof that there’s white sharks around, but you don’t know if those seals were offshore and they just made it to shore where they died or if they were dead and they drifted in from somewhere else,” Chishom said, noting that photos are needed to confirm a shark predation in the absence of a confirmed sighting.

While the number of confirmed predations so far this season is comparable to those at the same time in past years, Chisholm said the number of confirmed sightings has been much lower than usual. There had been just five confirmed as of June 27, he said.

“That’s kind of low,” he said. “Usually it’s kind of even with predations and white shark confirmations. This year for some reason predations are actually three times the number of actual white shark sightings.”

Both Chisholm and Sears speculated that windy conditions could help explain why sightings and other confirmed shark activity are lagging in the early part of the season. But they’re out there, he said, and in some cases white sharks have traveled a considerable distance to arrive in Cape waters. Earlier this month, the conservancy confirmed the arrival of “LeeBeth,” a 2,600-pound white shark, in waters off the peninsula. The conservancy reported that the shark had previously been located near Matamoros, Mexico in February.

But apart from the low number of confirmed sightings, Chisholm said it’s been a fairly typical year so far in terms of shark activity. Reports coming in through Sharktivity began to pick up as usual toward the end of May, he said, while he expects to see more reports of sightings as the Fourth of July weekend nears and more boaters are out on the water.

“It’s pretty much a normal year,” he said. “The predations count as white shark activity, so we know they’re here. It’s just that little anomaly that there’s more photos of dead seals than actual photos of the sharks themselves.”

Apart from white sharks, the presence of which continues to be a topic of concern and fascination for both residents and visitors alike each summer on the Cape, Chisholm said there’s been “dozens” of reports of basking shark sightings so far this summer, some of which he said were misidentified as white sharks.

“We get basking sharks every year, but this is the biggest year, numbers wise, since probably around 2011, 2012,” he said.

July 4 marks the height of tourist season on the Cape, and with that scientists and local officials are reinforcing the importance of shark safety at area beaches. Signage and promotion is plentiful at local beaches, but Chisholm said the need to promote shark safety each year never wanes.

“We can’t slack off because we’ve thrown [rules and safety tips] out there in the past,” he said. “Every year, we get new people who might not be aware that white sharks are hunting the shore off the Cape. You can still go to the beach and have a great time and go in the water, but take the appropriate precautions and review shark safety.”

Swimmers and beachgoers are advised not to isolate themselves in the water, to avoid creating commotion in the water that might attract sharks and other predators and to avoid swimming at dawn and dusk.

Beachgoers also need to be mindful of just how close sharks can come to shore, often within 15 feet. As seals swim in shallow waters, so too do sharks in their attempt to hunt them.

At Nauset, Sears advised swimmers to stay within the designated protective swim area. If you do venture beyond that area, he said to steer clear of deep-water troughs.

“It doesn’t matter how close to shore you are,” he said. “These animals actually prefer water troughs on the inside or landward side of the sandbars, because they can ambush the seals and feel comfortable being closer to shore.”

“The eastern side of the Cape, the Atlantic-facing side of the Cape, is very unique because it drops off fairly quickly,” Chisholm said. “So big sharks can get close to shore in basically stealth mode. You can’t see them, but they’re waiting for a seal to make a mistake and swim out a little too far.”

And while there’s a heavy focus each summer on shark activity in Cape waters, Chisholm added that they’re not the only animals that swimmers need to be mindful of.

“The other thing we have to remind people of is that seals bite, too,” he said. “A lot of people try to go out and pose for pictures with the seals, but you don’t want to do that either.”