Harbormaster To Patrol Oyster Pond During Swimming Lessons

By: Tim Wood

New shark warning signs like this one at Lighthouse Beach have gone up at most town beaches and landings. TIM WOOD PHOTO


CHATHAM – A confirmed sighting of a great white shark eating a seal off the southern end of Monomoy Monday leaves no doubt that what are now the region's most unwelcome summer visitors have arrived.

With shark sightings comes renewed concerns over safety at area beaches. Last week new signs went up at most town beaches and town landings warning of the presence of great white sharks. The bright red and blue signs, featuring a large photograph of a fearsome looking shark, state that sharks hunt seals in shallow water at beaches where they are posted, and that people have been injured and killed by seals along the Cape's coastline. The sign recommends downloading the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy Sharktivity smartphone app and provides a graph showing peak shark activity by month. While the activity peaks in August, September and October, shark “may remain year-round,” the sign warns.

The attack off Monomoy was confirmed by the Chatham Harbormaster's office. Meanwhile, on its Facebook page the conservancy reported seeing “at least” nine great white sharks, all between eight and 11 feet, off Wellfleet in Cape Cod Bay Monday in the first of the season's shark tagging trips by state division of marine fisheries shark expert Dr. Greg Skomal and his team of scientists. In research supported by the conservancy, Skomal will be concentrating this summer on tagging sharks in the bay as well as conducting a separate study of the feeding habits of great white sharks along the outer beach, with the goal of better understanding when and where sharks prey on seals.

With children's swimming lessons scheduled to begin at Oyster Pond July 1, town officials are scrambling to put in place safety measures at the popular beach. Town meeting voters rejected $100,000 to fund a study and implementation of some sort of barrier system to keep seals—and sharks—away from the swimming beach at the tidal pond, but plans were coming together this week to station a vessel just outside the swimming area during swimming lesson hours.

The task will fall to the harbormaster department, since the park and recreation department doesn't have a boat. Harbormaster Stuart Smith said his department has a 13-foot boat and a 17-foot inflatable that could be used to patrol the pond, but he hadn't realized the time involved; swimming lessons are held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week. He didn't budget for the personnel necessary to run the patrols.

But he said Monday that natural resources department head Robert Duncanson said the amount of money needed is relatively small, and can be accommodated within the budget. Smith said he will still have to hire additional personnel for the patrols.

“We have the boats and equipment, but we'll have to get somebody else on board,” he said. “We can make it happen, but it's late in the game.”

The patrol's job will be to watch for seals, which have been known to swim into the pond. To date there have been no confirmed sightings of sharks in Oyster Pond, but several concerned residents who have pushed for safety measures there say that it's only a matter of time before one follows a seal into the pond.

The park department has a protocol calling for swimmers to exit the water for half an hour after a seal leaves the swimming area. While lifeguards can sometimes see seals in the pond, they also need to keep their attention on swimmers, Park Director Dan Tobin said.

Commissioners hope having an extra pair of eyes on the water just outside the swimming area will not only provide ample warning when seals are in the vicinity, but will help collect data about how often the creatures frequent the pond. Lifeguards at other beaches will also be keeping tabs on the number of seal sightings this summer.