CHATHAM — On the advice of the parks and recreation commission, selectmen this week reversed course on a proposal to move swimming lessons to Schoolhouse Pond as a precaution against sharks and seals. But the board is seeking new signs and better communications equipment to help lifeguards keep swimmers safe at Oyster Pond and all other town beaches.
On April 8, selectmen voted to have the commission consider the possibility of holding this summer’s swimming lessons at Schoolhouse Pond rather than Oyster Pond, a saltwater part of the Stage Harbor estuary. Board member Jeffrey Dykens proposed the change in “an abundance of caution,” given that the town has been unable to find a company willing to install a shark deterrent system at Oyster Pond beach.
At its April 23 meeting, the parks and recreation commission considered the proposal and unanimously rejected it, Chairman Meredith Fry told selectmen Monday.
“If we ban swimming lessons at Oyster Pond, we’re sending a message of fear, and it’s a mixed message,” she said. The beach is popular with swimmers, not just kids at swimming lessons, and has been staffed with lifeguards for years. “If we’re not going to have swimming lessons there, then we shouldn’t have swimming there,” Fry said.
Without firm data showing large numbers of seals in Oyster Pond, and with sharks never having been spotted there, moving swim lessons elsewhere is unnecessary, she said.
“We don’t want to send a message of panic to the town,” she told selectmen. The water in Oyster Pond is also shallow, particularly at low tide.
“I don’t think the attraction for a shark would be Oyster Pond,” Fry said. “If we really want to solve the problem, we could have a community pool and have swimming lessons there,” she said with a smile.
At the April 23 meeting, Recreation Coordinator Suzanne Winkfield said moving the lessons to Schoolhouse Pond would likely cut attendance by half. Last year more than 100 children participated in the program.
Resident Elaine Gibbs, whose home overlooks Oyster Pond, said she and others who see the waterway at various times of the day know that seals are present in larger numbers. Sharks, she said, only need four or five feet of water to swim undetected. “At high tide, they could be within feet of the beach.”
Gibbs cited the most recent shark safety brochure published by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and area towns, which warns swimmers to beware of sharks even in shallow water close to shore, to avoid areas where seals and schools of fish are present, to avoid murky water and to limit splashing.
“Every single one of those conditions apply to Oyster Pond,” she said. Visitors to town might also be misled by the waterway’s name. “Oyster Pond isn’t a pond,” Gibbs said. “It sounds deceptively safe.”
Gibbs argued that the town should hire two staff members to patrol the area in personal watercraft like Jet-skis “to look for, and scare away, seals.” The investment would be worthwhile, she noted.
Selectman Shareen Davis said it is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to harass or scare seals, and getting special permits to do so would take time.
Parks and Rec Commissioner Ira Seldin said the town already has a policy that if seals are spotted close to swimming areas at any town beach, swimmers are ordered out of the water for 30 minutes.
“But if no seals are spotted, why stop swimming?” Seldin said.
Dykens said the seal safety policy should be specifically mentioned in signs at the beaches and on published materials included with swimming lesson sign-ups. On his motion, the board voted unanimously to accept the commission’s recommendation to keep swimming lessons at Oyster Pond, on the condition that the seal safety policy be better advertised. The board also recommended equipping lifeguards at all town beaches with two-way radios that allow them to communicate with the harbormaster’s patrol boats, so those patrols can warn beach guards about seals or sharks in their area.
The park and recreation commission also asked Park Director Dan Tobin to have lifeguards collect information about seal sightings at Oyster Pond and other guarded beaches to begin building a database for future reference.