CHATHAM – The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy was created with public safety, research, and education in mind, and this summer the nonprofit is taking the public safety piece to heart with its new Shark Smart Beach Program at Lighthouse Beach.
Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday between 9 and 10 a.m., folks from the AWSC will be offering informational talks on sharks and shark safety.
“We want to increase the knowledge and change the perspective on great white sharks,” AWSC intern Nikki Tenaglia told a small crowd on July 3. “They're unique creatures. We want to respect them. We don't want there to be this fear because we want to use our beaches. We don't want people to be afraid.”
Tenaglia and summer program educator Haley Currie shared important information about sharks during the first of the planned talks at Lighthouse Beach, beginning with what sets sharks apart from their fellow fish.
Sharks, as Tenaglia explained, have a spine comprised of cartilage rather than bone, hard, rigid fins, and dermal denticles on their skin, as well as oily livers that make them more buoyant. They also have six senses—sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing, and electroreception.
“Sharks can sense electrical pulses in the water, such as heartbeats,” Tenaglia said.
What makes sharks interesting is that they're an apex predator near the top of the food chain.
“They're regulating our food system,” Tenaglia said. “If the sharks are gone we're going to have tons of seals. If sharks are gone we'd have a collapse of our whole ecosystem.”
Referring to a recently concluded population study, Tenaglia told those gathered that researchers connected to the AWSC have identified 300 sharks in the area, with more than 169 tagged.
“We're trying to see where they're going, where they feed,” Tenaglia said. “All that information is going to help us with public safety initiatives.”
But the key piece, both Tenaglia and Currie explained, is safety.
“We want you to be able to enjoy this beach. We want you to be able to swim in the water,” Tenaglia said. “But everyone needs to do what they're comfortable with. If you don't want to go into the water, don't go in the water.”
That said, they encouraged people who want to swim at beaches along the Lower and Outer Cape to remember that salt water environments are where sharks live.
“Any time you enter salt water there is that risk of a shark bite, but if you follow some of these tips it will minimize the risk,” said Tenaglia.
The tips include swimming in larger groups as it's hoped that crowds will deter sharks, avoiding swimming at dawn, dusk and in the dark since less light or no light makes it difficult to impossible to see through the water clearly, and avoiding or limiting splashing, a beach activity especially popular with children.
“Sharks go after animals in distress. It's easy prey,” said Tenaglia. “So if you're flailing around, splashing in the water, it might attract a shark.”
Perhaps the most important safety tip is not to swim in areas frequented or heavily populated by seals, a primary food source of white sharks.
“Avoid areas where seals are present,” said Tenaglia. “When seals are there, there are most likely sharks there, and we don't want to do that to ourselves. If you see a seal in the water you want to safely and calmly get out.”
Tenaglia and Currie also recommended that swimmers only venture into the water no more than waist deep in order to maintain a view of the water beneath themselves, and to always heed the warning signs and purple shark flags flown on lifeguard stands, as well as following all lifeguard warnings immediately.
“A lot of the beaches around here will be flying that flag,” Tenaglia said. “If that flag is up remember that there are sharks in these waters, so be aware.”
Tenaglia said that several Outer Cape beaches are employing more lifeguards during the peak summer months, and urged people to consider taking Stop the Bleed training, a free program that teaches people how to properly tourniquet a severe wound, which could prove lifesaving.
“That's also a really good thing to do,” Tenaglia said, adding that lifeguards have been armed with first aid kids that include tourniquets and compression bandages.
Upcoming Stop the Bleed programs include one at the Eastham Public Library on July 16 from 10 a.m. to noon.
One attendee of the talk questioned why the number of sharks seems to have increased in recent years.
“Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, there was a bounty hunt on seals,” Tenaglia explained. “With the Marine Mammal Protection Act, these seals are now starting to increase. The sharks have always been here, but now since the seal population is increasing, they're coming closer to shore and sharks are coming closer to the shore.”
Tenaglia closed with one last piece of advice.
“If you do see a shark in the water, quickly and calmly get out,” she said.
Shark sightings at Lighthouse Beach have been rare, but not unknown. Two summers ago a shark was seen preying on a seal a short distance away near Andrew Harding's Lane beach.
For more information on sharks and shark safety visit www.atlanticwhiteshark.org.