Amid Shark Concerns, Town Could Move Swimming Lessons To Schoolhouse Pond

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Sharks

Children play in Oyster Pond.  FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM With it becoming less likely that some sort of shark barrier will be ready in time for swimming season at Oyster Pond Beach, selectmen have asked the parks and recreation commission to consider moving swimming lessons to a freshwater pond this summer.

“I don’t know if I’m overreacting or not,” said selectman Jeffrey Dykens, who proposed the move. “I’m using an abundance of caution.”

The town issued a request for proposals for shark deterrent systems for Oyster Pond Beach but received no responses. They had hoped to have some sort of system—possibly a net or an electronic shark repellent device—in place for the start of swimming season. The beach has been used for swimming lessons for young children for years.

“We are aware that that is a concern,” Parks and Recreation Director Dan Tobin told selectmen Monday. “Relocation of that is possible, though not ideal, to go to someplace like Schoolhouse Pond,” he said.

Dykens said he favors the idea, despite the logistical problems of doing so. Seals are now regularly seen in Oyster Pond, and sharks are possible there, he said.

Now reserved for town residents and property owners, Schoolhouse Pond has only a handful of parking spaces and portable toilets are used there during the season. There is another complication, Tobin said. Ponds are now at a high level, which is good for the aquifer, “but it does provide very limited beach space,” he said.

Moving swimming lessons there would cause more beachgoers to park along Schoolhouse Pond Road and Sam Ryder Road, which already occurs on peak beach days. Selectman Cory Metters warned of the problem.

“We’ve got to be careful where we push things around,” he said.

The logistical problems are not insurmountable, Tobin said.

“Obviously, public safety is on our mind at the public beaches every single day,” he said.

The town used Schoolhouse Pond for swimming lessons in the past when there were concerns about water quality in Oyster Pond, he noted. Sign-ups for swimming lessons start on May 1, and any change in the program location needs to be made quickly so the information can be included in printed materials, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith added.

Selectmen voted unanimously to ask the parks and recreation commission to make a recommendation to selectmen about moving the lessons to Schoolhouse Pond.

“If that doesn’t happen, would we have to cancel the swimming lessons?” Selectman Shareen Davis asked. The board opted to wait and hear the commission’s recommendations before considering that step.

In other respects, shark safety planning is well underway for the upcoming summer season, and “public education is a very important part of that,” Tobin told the board. Much of the work has been accomplished with the regional white shark working group, which includes beach managers, shark experts and first responders from a number of towns. “New brochures have been designed and have been ordered,” Tobin said, and around 75,000 will be distributed through summer rental property agencies and hotels, the chamber of commerce and through dispensers at beaches.

The pamphlet reminds swimmers to stay close to shore and to swim or paddle in groups, avoiding areas where seals or schools of fish are present. The booklet helps people identify shark dorsal fins and encourages them to report sightings using the Sharktivity app.

A new large informational sign will be placed at Lighthouse Beach to warn people that sharks are present, and this year the town is considering installing the signs at key landings “where we have people going out by boat,” he said. One likely spot is Ryder’s Cove landing, he said.

Davis said she believes signs should also be posted at the town’s south-side beaches.

“I don’t mean to sound scary,” she said, but there have been shark detections in Nantucket Sound, and some believe that the Sound is becoming a nursery for smaller sharks. She said continued public education about sharks is key.

“I think you honestly have to look at the entire water system around Chatham and not just the east side,” Davis said.

The town is seeking to fill around 25 lifeguard positions this summer, and about half that number have already signed on. The town has increased the pay for these positions this year and hopes to attract more qualified candidates than it has in recent years, though “lifeguards are a limited resource in their own right,” Tobin said. The town is also close to filling out its six-person Lighthouse Beach patrol, he added. About half of this year’s lifesaving staff—including some supervisors—will be new to the town, Tobin said.

Working with other towns in the region, Chatham is still investigating technologies that might be useful in detecting sharks off bathing beaches, but it may be some time before a solution emerges that is sufficiently reliable and works in various water conditions, Tobin said.

“I’m not sure that we’re there quite yet,” he said.