'Shark Smart' Education Program To Be Expanded This Summer

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Sharks

Interns from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy educated visitors about sharks at Lighthouse Beach last summer with the group's “Shark Smart” program. An expanded program will return this summer. FILE PHOTO 

CHATHAM – Last summer's “Shark Smart” education program at Lighthouse Beach was a success and will be expanded to other locations this coming summer.

Marianna Long, Education Director at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, told park and recreation commissioners last week that while the exact number of people who stopped by to listen to interns talk about great white sharks three mornings a week was not tracked, 10 to 25 people per day participated. The AWSC plans an expanded the program at Lighthouse Beach this summer, and is working with the Cape Cod National Seashore and the town of Wellfleet to bring the program to more beaches.

Last summer was a pilot program to find out how the public would respond to the program, which involved AWSC interns providing educational information and shark safety tips at Lighthouse Beach every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning from 9 to 10 a.m. “The program overall was a big success,” Long said, attracting a lot of media attention. The crowds were biggest on Wednesdays, she added, with Monday being quieter and Fridays “steady.”

The non-profit organization, which runs the Chatham Shark Center and provides financial support for Dr. Greg Skomal's shark tagging studies, requested permission from the commission to expand the program at Lighthouse Beach with a tent and table and longer hours. Various “props” would be used to educate visitors, Long said, including models of shark tags, shark teeth and maybe even a replica of a great white shark jaw. The table would allow the display of photographs and the tent would provide shelter for those running the program.

There was some concern among commissioners that items like shark teeth or jaws would have a negative impact on children and might “freak them out a little bit,” in the words of commissioner Meredith Fry.

“I'm not a fan of bringing out shark teeth on the beach,” she said.

Commission member Ira Seldin said he's in favor of shark education, “but how do you balance education with not throwing fear into people and driving people away?”

Commissioner Kimberly Robbins said she's less concerned with shark teeth or jaws than with the huge photograph of a menacing shark on a warning sign posted at the beach.

“What scares kids is the big picture. It looks real,” she said. On a recent trip to the west coast, she did not see any similar signs at beaches, she added.

Long allowed that there is a fine line between generating awareness of the presence of great white sharks off Cape waters and frightening people.

“But it's very important to us to generate that awareness,” she said. The interns who ran last summer's Shark Smart program found that many visitors were not aware of the shark presence.

“We live here and we hear it all the time, but there are a lot of people who are coming from afar and they don't realize the reality of what we have off our coast here,” Long said. The Shark Smart program “brings the facts and education. “That can help take away the fear.” The AWSC did that very effectively in its series of “Shark Tales” videos last summer, Robbins added.

Chatham was fortunately to not have any shark sightings off its beaches last summer, Fry noted. “God knows that can change in a day,” she added.

Props such as shark tags and replicas of fins to demonstrate how the tags are attached, as well as the ability to show the size of a great white shark by posting stakes in the beach, help demystify the animals, Long said. And there's also the safety component, such as photos that show what a shark fin looks like on the water.

“There's a lot of misconceptions out there,” she said, “one being you're going to see a shark fin as it approaches. That's actually incredibly rare to see a fin break the surface.”

Commissioners approved continuation of the Shark Smart program at Lighthouse Beach. They also asked Long to come to a future meeting with the props and run through the program for them.