John Whelan: Mack The Knife

“Oh the shark, babe

Has such teeth, dear

And he shows them

Pearly white……….

You know when the shark bites

With his teeth, babe

Scarlett billows

Start to spread”


I debated for a while on whether or not to open my article with the lyrics to “Mack the Knife.” This article is about the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and all the good works they do. Since the Conservancy works so hard to prevent shark bites, I decided my choice of song was all right. “Mack the Knife” was written by German composer Kurt Weill with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht way back in 1928. The German musical it appeared in was translated into English and played as “The Threepenny Opera” off-Broadway for six years in the 1950s. Louis Armstrong released “Mack the Knife” in 1956 with moderate success, and Bobby Darin had a smash hit two years later.

There is no question that sharks have been good for business in Chatham, but they have also presented a dilemma for Chatham and the chamber of commerce. Shark-based tourism is working, but the possibility of a shark attack on a swimmer in Chatham waters is always a risk and it could damage Chatham’s image as a tourist destination. Fortunately, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy has, as one of its missions, the education of the public with regard to sharks and to promote public safety.

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy successfully merged with the Chatham Shark Center in March 2016. Prior to the merger, there were two local non-profits dealing with sharks. Slowly the presence of the merged AWSC here in Chatham is evolving. The Conservancy focuses on research, education and public safety with the goal of shark conservation. The research effort is very exciting and well-known. They are funding and collaborating with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on two research projects. Dr. Greg Skomal is a marine biologist and, in the summer of 2009, he and John Chisholm were the first to successfully tag and track white sharks in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Actual scientific knowledge about the species was limited, and Dr. Skomal’s project has greatly increased that science. We now have the ability to track white sharks and learn about their long-range movement and behavior. The Massachusetts Shark Research Program relies on outside funding and the Conservancy is the only non-profit currently providing financial support.

Dr. Skomal’s work is newsworthy. For five years, Chatham’s John King has worked with Greg and others locating and attempting to tag white sharks. They are aided greatly by spotter pilot Wayne Davis, who has a unique ability to locate the sharks. You perhaps have seen the photos and films of the attempts to tag the sharks. John King’s boat is used to search for the sharks. It has a tuna pulpit in the bow and, upon locating a target, the crew tries to approach the shark from the rear, and if possible, attach a tag in the back of the shark with the use of a harpoon. Tagging a shark is a difficult job and requires significant skill on the part of every crew member. John told me that after five years of being out in the Atlantic on a daily basis 16 to 20 weeks each year, the crew has become very close-knit. He enthusiastically told of running the vessel and the incredible experiences that they have had. Megan Winton is part of that crew and is a graduate student in marine biology. John described working with Greg and Megan as being an absolute pleasure. The effort is ongoing in that there is so much more to learn about sharks.

The second focus of the AWSC is education. I spoke with Marianne Long, the education director at AWSC. The education initiative is to help the public achieve a greater understanding of the species. The Conservancy makes presentations in the schools, and conducts shark lectures at various organizations. Each year they sponsor Shark Week, a kids’ summer program. They also have established The Gills Club, a club for girls in an attempt to encourage girls to have an interest in marine biology. The Gills Club has meetings for younger girls under 10 and has other sessions for girls 10 and up. Marianne told me that attendance has been strong and steady in both age groups.

The Shark Center on Orleans Road has been open since 2016 and offers interactive exhibits and virtual reality experiences. In 2016, 10,000 people visited the new center and more than13,000 visited in 2017. The AWSC plans to use their front lawn for shark-related displays that will attract even more visitors in the coming season.

I asked Marianne about the great number of seals here in Chatham waters. She referred me to Dr. Angela Bogomolni at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Angela’s official title is “Post-Doctorate Investigator.” Angela estimated the number of grey seals have run from 30,000 to 50,000 in the Northwest Atlantic Region. Grey seals move around continuously and estimates are difficult. We spoke briefly about the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and how it has allowed the recovery of the seal population. I asked if the rate of population growth was continuing and Angela indicated that she believed it had slowed down somewhat. I asked if the grey seal population had possibly slowed because of the white sharks. She said it is true that the sharks kill and eat a number of grey seals, but coyotes also prey on them. Available food supplies and other factors also contribute to changes in the seal population. The great number of seals does mean that we will continue to also have a great number of sharks. Dr. Bogomolni was very helpful and I thank her.

And that leads me the the third initiative of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which is public safety. Their advice is to never swim near seals and to stay close to shore in no more than waist-deep water. Avoid isolation and always refrain from wearing flashy jewelry. Be aware of the beach flag warning system and always heed the advice of lifeguards.

The Conservancy completed a strategic planning process this spring. They seek to be a leader in collaboration in the field of white shark research. They hope to increase public understanding of the species and, of course, continue to focus on public safety. Cynthia Wigren is the CEO and co-founder. Stephen Daniel is chairman of the board and the overall organization is vibrant and strong. I think more local people and summer visitors could benefit from a visit to the Chatham Shark Center. The leaders and staff at the Center offer so much information about sharks. I encourage everyone to drop in for a visit. I believe you will be glad you did.