They're Here: Researchers See Season's First Great White Shark Off Monomoy

By: Tim Wood

This 11 foot female great white shark was photographed Monday preying on a seal off Monomoy.  The previously unknown shark becomes part of the state Division of Marine Fisheries shark database. PHOTO COURTESY ATLANTIC WHITE SHARK CONSERVANCY/MASS. DIVISION OF MARINE FISHERIES

CHATHAM – A male great white shark named "Scratchy," tagged by researchers last year, was detected earlier this month by a receiver buoy off Monomoy, becoming the first of its species confirmed in these waters this season.

And on Monday a team from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy not only saw their first great white shark this summer, but witnessed it preying on a seal, something they've only seen first-hand a few times.

The female shark sighted Monday was about 11 feet long and was seen off Monomoy, according to the Conservancy. She was not in the DMF shark population database and becomes the first newly identified great white shark of the season.

The predation occurred just 300 yards off the beach, according to Conservancy Director Cynthia Wigren. Spotter pilot Wayne Davis witnessed the incident and took a photo which shows a huge slick of blood in the water, with the shark circling nearby. When researchers arrived on the scene, DMF shark expert Dr. Greg Skomal was able to capture underwater video of the shark with a large chunk of seal in its mouth.

Gray seals are the primary prey of great white sharks. The large population of seals on Monomoy and along the Outer Cape accounts for the presence of the apex predators. Even so, it's rare to see an attack first-hand.

“We saw two last year, and Wayne saw one when he wasn't with us,” said Wigren. “The year before we saw two.”

Scratchy, who measures about 13 feet according to the state Division of Marine Fisheries White Shark Catalog, was detected on a receiver buoy in Shark Cove, off South Monomoy Island, on June 11. When Skomal and his research team went out on their first shark population study trip of the season last Thursday, they downloaded data from the receiver and found the detection.

Scratchy was also detected on a receiver buoy just outside the Chatham Harbor inlet across from Lighthouse Beach.
Shark Cove – which is home to thousands of gray seals – is a popular spot for great whites; that's where the most detection were made last season on acoustic receiver buoys.

Named for the scratches on its body probably inflicted by seals, Scratchy was tagged by Skomal and his team last August as part of a five-year population study funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.  The shark was first photographed, identified and cataloged in 2014. He was seen again last August, when he was tagged by Skomal.

The timing of Scatchy's arrival in local waters is pretty much in line with previous years. Last year, the first detection occurred on June 13, according to Wigren. The first shark actually seen by researchers last year was on June 22, so this year is running a few days ahead on both detections and sightings.

In the past, tagged sharks have been detected as early as Memorial Day.

Skomal and his team will continue their research trips twice a week through the fall; their next trip was scheduled for either Wednesday or Friday, Wigren said. A total of 141 individual sharks have been identified using video fingerprinting techniques that involve recording the animals with a GoPro video camera and analyzing the footage to identify distinctive features on each animal.

The population study is being funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. Its latest fundraiser to support shark science happens Sunday, June 26, at Town Cove in Orleans, near the Goose Hummock Shop. The fourth annual Cape Cod Shark Paddle features a series of stand-up paddle board contests, including six-mile, two-mile and half-mile races. Registration is $30 for adults and $20 for students through June 25, $35 and $25 the day of the race. Pre-registration is available at the Conservancy website, www.atlanticwhiteshark.org/events.