It was a typical day on the water for Dr. Greg Skomal and his shark research team. Spotter pilot Wayne Davis was guiding boat captain John King through murky water near the Eastham-Wellfleet line, following one of several great white sharks spotted that day. Skomal stood at the end of the pulpit 11 feet from the bow of the 24-foot Aleutian Dream, ready to photograph the shark with his pole-mounted GoPro.
And then the unpredictable nature of wild animals was suddenly on display as the shark breached the water beneath the pulpit, its lethal jaws coming within inches of where Skomal stood.
“I looked down and there's a shark's mouth gaping wide open just below the pulpit,” the state shark biologist said in an interview Tuesday.
The incident, which occurred on Monday, July 30, was captured on a video camera mounted on the bridge. The clip went viral when it was released Monday by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
In the video, spotter pilot Wayne Davis is heard directing King toward the shark. Just after the pilot says the shark is “right off your bow,” the predator leaps toward Skomal.
“Whoa, holy crap! It jumped right out of the water!” King screams.
“Did you see that? Did you see that?” Skomal responds. “It came right up. It opened its mouth right at my feet!”
Skomal dipped his pole-mounted GoPro into the water just after the breach. He said Tuesday he was able to get a shot of the tail as the shark swam off. He estimated the shark was about 10 feet in length.
“It had some shoulders to it, so to speak,” he said, “which would be indicative of a shark in excess of 10 feet.”
While he can't know for sure what prompted the shark to breach, Skomal offered a few possibilities. The water on that day was “really cloudy and horrible. I couldn't see anything,” he said. There were seals nearby, close to the beach. “This shark seemed to be hunting those seals, and couldn't get to them.” The vessel suddenly looming above it could have startled the shark, causing it to react defensively, or it could have thought the boat was prey.
“I wasn't sure whether at first the shark was just spooked and jumped, but when I saw the mouth open, it was clearly reacting to us, either to defend itself or trying to eat,” Skomal said.
Researchers have observed sharks breaching in Cape waters before – most famously a shark chasing a seal in 2015 – but this was an unusual incident, Skomal said, which highlights the predators' unpredictability.
“We're not trying to frighten anyone, just trying to make them aware these animals are here, there's an unpredictable side to them,” he said. King said people on the water need to remember that the sharks “are predators and they are hunting.” There have been videos posted of sharks taking fish right off the lines of fishermen in the area. “Just the act of bringing a fish to the boat and reaching down, you have to be safe,” he said, adding that state fish and game commissioner Ronald Amidon was on board the day the video was taken, and a boat of Chatham Bars Inn guests was nearby.
Most of the time sharks are just dark shadows below the surface, added King. Seeing one come out of the water was “magnificent.”
“We've never had one breach that close to the boat and in close to Greg,” he said. “It was quite a shock.”
Working with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and the UMass School for Marine Science and Technology, Skomal and the state division of marine fisheries are in the final year of a five-year population study of the Cape's great white sharks. During twice-weekly voyages from late June to October, Skomal and his research team, aided by spotter pilot Davis, photograph and tag sharks from Monomoy to Provincetown; more than 320 individual sharks have been identified so far, and more than 120 have been tagged. On Monday Skomal and his team tagged the eighth shark of this season, a 12-foot animal encountered off Monomoy. Shark sightings were also reported off Marconi Beach in Wellfleet, resulting in a one-hour beach closure, in Cape Cod Bay off Plymouth. On Tuesday at least two alerts were issued and the Cape Cod National Seashore closed Head of the Meadows Beach in Truro to swimming after a shark sighting.
There was some question about how close the breaching shark came to the pulpit. Skomal thought it was a couple of feet; King said it was six inches to a foot. Skomal said AWSC President Cynthia Wigren, who was on the research vessel, thought the shark's nose nudged the pulpit.
“We've seen a lot of things” since white sharks began to reliably populate the area in 2009, he said. “This is rare, this is unusual. We haven't seen this kind of behavior before.”
This season researchers have been concentrating on the Outer Cape around Truro and Provincetown. Monday they spent part of the day off Monomoy, where there was a large density of the predators. Skomal shot video of more than 20 sharks, although how many were “repeats” won't be known until the video is analyzed.
“The season is in full swing,” he said. In past years, late August and September have been the busiest times for the researchers. They've collected a large amount of data which takes a “massive effort” to analyze, he noted. Since the Cape is the only place great white sharks reliably congregate – drawn by the large number of seals, their favored prey – the goal of the study is to use the data to estimate the size of the region's great white shark population. However, Skomal emphasized that studies looking at other aspects of great white shark biology that have been ongoing since 2009 will continue beyond the five-year population study. That includes using data collected from tagged sharks to try to figure out the finer-scale movement of the creatures, information that can be used by public safety officials.
But, as seen in the video, “just when we think we figured them out, they do something else,” Skomal said.