ORLEANS — Researchers, first responders and beach managers gathered last week for their last white shark working group session before the start of the 2016 beach season. They talked about a new internal communication network that will allow officials to instantly share reports of shark sightings, and also discussed the progress on launching the new “Sharktivity” app that will allow citizens to receive and report real-time information about sharks in area waters.
Meeting last Thursday, the working group included an update by state shark biologist Greg Skomal, who said aerial surveys were expected to begin this week.
“I don't anticipate seeing many animals,” he said, given the earliness of the season. There will be weekly flights between Monomoy Point and Provincetown, and survey trips from a boat will take place twice weekly, mostly between Orleans and Monomoy Point.
Additional details are emerging about the smartphone app that will allow beachgoers and boaters to get real-time information about shark sightings.
“We're still in the beta testing stages of the app,” Cynthia Wigren, executive director of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, told other members of the working group. While the application will only be available to iPhone users, others will be able to access a real-time map of shark activity on the conservancy's website. Each Lower Cape town will designate around two key officials – beach managers or public safety officials – who will be able to instantly post shark alerts on the app.
Users of the app “will receive an alert on their phone, whether they're logged on to the app or not,” Wigren said.
The system also allows beachgoers or boaters to report shark sightings, though those reports will first be vetted by experts for validity. Citizens making reports will be required to provide their telephone number and will be encouraged to send a cell phone photo of the shark if possible.
“If someone sees a shark, or thinks they see a shark, we always err on the side of caution, but it would be 'unconfirmed,'” state shark researcher John Chisholm said. Similar apps in use in Australia post the origins of shark sightings, letting users judge the likely validity of the report.
“You don't want kids posting sharks, just having fun on the app,” Skomal added.
The possibility of hoax reports on the app is real, Truro Recreation and Beach Director Kelly Sullivan Clark said.
“Those photos from the phone could be taken anywhere,” she said.
Wigren said the app also submits the precise location of the phone where the report is being made, making it easier to identify hoax calls made away from the shoreline.
Though it is still being fine-tuned, the app remains scheduled for launch on July 1. Wigren said Apple needs to approve the application by next Monday for that to happen.
Also new this season will be a standardized system of shark warning flags that provide easy-to-understand, consistent warnings on beaches around the region. The system has been adopted so far by Chatham, Orleans and the Cape Cod National Seashore. A purple flag indicates the potential presence of dangerous marine life and will be flown all the time. If there is a confirmed sighting, a red flag will be raised and people will be asked to leave the water for an hour. Because they feature an image of a shark, the flags are expected to be popular with souvenir hunters. For that reason, organizers have printed a supply of flags to sell to the public at the Chatham Shark Center.
Orleans officials are using a new attention-grabbing sign to warn visitors to Nauset Beach about the presence of white sharks. The sign provides information about shark safety and can start a conversation about how to reduce interactions between sharks and people.
“It also makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” Orleans Natural Resources Manager Nate Sears said. The sign shows a large image of a toothy white shark under the headline, “Be Shark Smart.”
“It's going to cause a traffic jam on the boardwalk,” Orleans Fire Chief Tony Pike said.
Meanwhile, beach managers, police, firefighters and harbormasters are preparing to launch a new communication network that will allow them to instantly share shark information with one another. The system allows official users to send information about shark sightings to other working group members instantly by email, text message or telephone call.