The Sharks Are Back; Beachgoers Urged To Take Safety Seriously

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Sharks

Orleans Beach Safety Director Tony Pike addresses a socially distant news conference last week, with Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom in the wings. ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO


Not that there was much doubt, but white sharks have returned to local waters. And with the holiday weekend upon us, beach managers are urging the public to take responsibility for their own safety.

On June 17, state shark biologist Greg Skomal and a crew from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy tagged three white sharks that were feeding on a whale carcass just south of Monomoy Point. The next week, boaters east of the Monomoy lighthouse watched as a white shark attacked a gray seal. And in the span of less than a week, the remains of two shark-predated seals were found on Nauset Beach, each with 24-inch-wide bite marks. On Sunday, a witness saw a massive shark breach in a group of seals off Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, seeing its large, white belly.

Unfortunately, Head of the Meadow is one of two Cape Cod National Seashore beaches that will be without lifeguard coverage this summer, because of staffing challenges related to COVID-19. The other is Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown.

“We’re doing the best we can this summer to try to get as much public safety as we can,” National Seashore Chief Ranger Leslie Reynolds said last week. Even as they’re being urged to maintain social distancing on the beach, visitors are being urged to avoid being isolated when swimming or boating. “If you notice a group of seals, stay away. If you notice a group of fish, stay away,” she said.

Retired Orleans Fire Chief Tony Pike, the town’s new beach safety director, said safety equipment is available at the town’s key beaches, and a “stop the bleed” box has now been placed at Skaket Beach, “due to the data that we’re getting on Cape Cod Bay” showing sharks are present.

Initially thought to be mostly off the outer beach, white sharks are now known to be present in Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound. With last year’s shark tagging trips expanding into new areas, there is a better understanding of where the apex predators are likely to be, National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom said.

“They’re everywhere. We proved that last year,” he said.

Because of the pandemic, the number of people who can be on a beach is now limited, but the beaches remain popular, Orleans Natural Resources Director Nate Sears said.

“Last weekend felt like the Fourth of July,” Sears said last Wednesday.

Since last August, a buoy has been in place off Nauset that provides real-time alerts when tagged sharks pass within 100 or 200 yards. Sears said they continue to examine the efficacy of the system.

“They reiterate the fact that there are sharks out there all the time,” he said. But they are not a useful tool when it comes to immediately alerting beachgoers to the presence of a white shark. “In terms of real-time notification, we have a long way to go,” Sears said.

More real-time buoys might not improve safety, but could set “a false expectation of safety to the public,” Pike added.

Beachgoers are encouraged to heed warnings on beach signs, and to follow the advice of beach staff. In addition to avoiding areas of seals and fish, swimmers and paddlers are advised to stay in groups, avoid murky water, stay close to shore and know the location of emergency call boxes and “stop the bleed” kits. Alerts are also available on the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy's Sharktivity smartphone app.

Beach officials are encouraging people to come to the shoreline and enjoy themselves, but to take personal responsibility for their own safety.

“You never turn your back to the ocean,” Reynolds said.