CHATHAM – On their first trip of the season, shark researchers were off Nauset Beach last Thursday when they got a call from spotter pilot Wayne Davis. He'd seen the first shark of the season, swimming just off the shore of Monomoy Island.
Unfortunately, in the 15 minutes it took the research vessel to motor south, the shark had moved into deeper water and was lost. Davis said the shark appeared to be a small animal, probably not one previously tagged by researchers.
That was the closest Dr. Greg Skomal and his team came to a shark in the first voyage of the fourth year of his five-year shark population study. But the day wasn't a total loss; while they were out the team downloaded data from several buoy-mounted receivers – off the north inlet, east of the 1987 inlet, and off South Beach – and discovered that a previously tagged shark had been detected on June 2.
“Some of [the receivers] had detections from that day,” said Cynthia Wigren, executive director of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the non-profit shark research and education organization that is funding Skomal's study.
That's confirmation that shark season 2017 has officially begun. Researchers expect the number of great white sharks off Chatham's east coast to steadily increase, which may be borne out by the Conservancy's Sharktivity smartphone app. It shows Hunter, tagged with satellite-tracked Smart Position and Temperature (SPOT) tag off South Carolina in March, steadily moving northward. As of Tuesday, Hunter was nearing the Rhode Island coast, apparently heading for the rich feeding grounds off Monomoy.
“They're definitely moving back into the area,” Wigren said.
The shark that pinged on June 2 was Scratchy, a 12-footer who was also the first previously tagged shark to register last year, on June 6, said Wigren. Scratchy was first identified by Skomal and John Chisholm, who both work for the state division of marine fisheries shark research program, in 2014; he was tagged on Aug. 17, 2015.
The two other tagged sharks detected earlier this month were 10-foot-long Keelie and one previously known by its designation of WS17829, who has since been named Heady Chomper, Wigren said. The latter measures 12 feet long.
Researchers plan twice-weekly trips through October to identify and tag white sharks. The data gathered for the study will help Skomal develop population estimates for the apex predators who have been found here in growing numbers since 2009, drawn by the huge number of gray seals in the area. Since the study began in 2014, 257 individual great white sharks have been identified; 146 were identified last year, 89 of which hadn't been seen before by researchers. More than 100 sharks have been tagged.
Wigren said they hope to increase those numbers this year. They planned to go out Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Also Wednesday, a buoy with a receiver that can detect tags and report their locations in real-time was expected to be delivered for deployment. The buoy was supposed to be put out earlier in the season but had to go back to the manufacturer for repairs.
“We're really just getting ramped up,” Wigren said.
The free Sharktivity app, which was upgraded this winter to allow users to track individual sharks, will also be getting a new sponsor this year, she said: Nat Geo Wild, the sister network to National Geographic Channel, which she anticipates will help boost both the app and the work being done by the Conservancy.
The group plans a season kickoff party June 26 at ABBA in Orleans, where Skomal, Davis and other members of the research team will be available to discuss their work. Tickets are $25. On June 25, the group will sponsor the Cape Cod Shark Paddle on Town Cove in Orleans. And on July 6, National Geographic photographer and conservationist Brian Skerry will talk about his work with sharks at the Wequassett Inn in Harwich. For tickets and more information, visit the group's website, atlanticwhiteshark.org.