CHATHAM – The death Monday of a woman in Maine from an apparent shark attack is a stark reminder that even though sightings are down this year, the apex predator is still present in area waters.
Between June 1 and July 19, there were 54 percent fewer sightings in Cape waters compared to last year, according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. But that doesn't mean sharks are not present off the coast, in just as great numbers as in past summers. Officials are concerned the lack of attention to sharks in the media and online during this pandemic summer will lead people to complacency.
“A lot of people have asked if the sharks are not here,” said Megan Winton, a research scientist with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. “We know there are sharks out there.”
A majority of shark sightings are reported by the team from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, led by Dr. Greg Skomal, on their regular shark tagging trips. Usually those trips, sponsored by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, begin in June, but with one exception, this year's tagging excursions did not begin until July 21.
“Usually we have a month's worth of trips by now,” said Winton, who is collaborating with Skomal on his most recent shark study. Although local ecotourism groups, beachgoers and others have reported sightings, the small number recorded from June 1 to July 19 – 34 compared to 74 during the same period last year – is directly attributable to Skomal and his team not being on the water.
The numbers may start to go up now. The research team was out on the water again Monday, tagging three great white sharks ranging from 9.5 to 11 feet, all in the waters between Chatham and Orleans. Several other previously tagged sharks were sighted, according to the AWSC's Facebook page. On Tuesday, Nauset Beach was closed to swimming for the first time this summer after a confirmed shark predation on a seal about 20 yards off shore.
The delay in getting this season's shark tagging program going is largely attributable to the pandemic and figuring out how to safely conduct the research trips. The nature of Skomal's current research is also different from the five-year population study that was the previous focus of the DMF and AWSC team. The population study depended on being out on the water on a regular schedule, at least two days a week. The current study, which began last summer and focuses on the fine-scale predatory behavior of great white sharks in Cape waters, involves placing high-tech tags on sharks which can gather a large amount of data in a short time. After two or three days, the tags pop off the shark and are retrieved by researchers, who can redeploy them after downloading the data.
The tags are outfitted with an accelerometer, which gathers acceleration data from three different directions. It also collects temperature and depth information and includes a video camera. It's like “giving iPhones to white sharks,” Winton said.
The high-resolution data set will help researchers determine when and where sharks are feeding down to the time of day and the depth of the water. The objective, Winton said, is to better understand the animals' predatory behavior and the times of days and places that might be high risk for swimming, valuable information for beach managers and the public.
The accelerometer tags can be tethered to the acoustic tag that Skomal has been deploying for a decade now (and has affixed to 197 sharks), and the data can be collated with information from the more than 70 acoustic receivers deployed in Cape waters, she said.
The data collected by the accelerometer tags is so large that it can't be downloaded by satellite; instead, after the tags pop off, Skomal and his team must track them down using a combination of satellite tracking and VHF signals. This leads to what Winton called the “craziest scavenger hunt you've ever seen,” and is one of the reasons this year's research trips will be concentrated on good weather days. “When you have to pick them up in poor weather, it takes a lot longer and is more stressful,” she said.
Last year Skomal and his team deployed and recovered six of the accelerometer tags. As of last week, three were placed on sharks that were feeding on a whale carcass on June 17 — an impromptu trip that was not part of this summer's regular schedule, Winton said — and two were deployed during the July 21 trip. Trips are planned this year along the Outer Cape as well as in Cape Cod Bay, and many will be streamed live on the AWSC's Facebook page, she added.
The pandemic is also impacting the AWSC's fundraising, which helps support Skomal's research. CEO Cynthia Wigren said the group's largest fundraiser, its Great White Gala, was postponed; last year the event raised $150,000. Reduced capacity at the group's Chatham Shark Center also means less revenue from admissions and merchandise sales. Last year the North Chatham facility sold $125,000 in shark-related merchandise. The group will be sponsoring a virtual Shark Week event featuring Skomal, Chris Fallows and Andy Brandy Casagrande IV on Aug. 6.
“Our entire team is focused on coming up with creative ways to bring in revenue this year, as well as reducing expenses as much as possible” while staying focused on its mission and commitment to donors and the community, she said in an email.
The group is continuing its “Shark Smart” program with educational programs at local beaches. Based at Lighthouse Beach last year, the program has expanded and this summer and now includes Nauset Beach on Tuesdays, Coast Guard Beach in Eastham on Thursdays, Marconi Beach in Wellfleet on Fridays, Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet every Saturday and Lighthouse Beach on Wednesdays. AWSC “ambassadors” are stationed at the beached from 9 a.m. to noon.
Despite years of publicity about sharks in Cape waters, some people still aren't aware of their presence or how close they can come to shore, Winton said. The lack of media attention due to the coronavirus and fewer sightings hasn't helped, although there was a slight spike in sightings this week, with 12 reported on the AWSC's Sharktivity smartphone app July 26 to 28.
“People don't seem to care as much about sharks this year,” she said. “But we want to remind people that they're still here, they're still present, despite the lack of media attention. We really want them to be aware [sharks] really are a predictable presence in our waters every year, and really want people to follow shark smart behavior at the beach.”
The victim in Maine, identified in press reports as 63-year-old Julie Dimperio Holowach of New York City, was bitten while swimming in the water off Bailey Island, according to an announcement by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. On its Facebook page, the AWSC wrote Tuesday that sharks are known to be seasonal inhabitants of the Gulf of Maine, and have been observed preying on seals and porpoises in Maine's coastal waters.