Shark Risks

The sad and violent death of a young surfer last weekend in Wellfleet was the first death by shark in Massachusetts since the 1930s and  has everyone I know here in Cotuit wondering about the risks of going into the water in the future. I can act the know-it-all and give them the usual reassuring statistical probabilities about lightning and air crashes being a more likely way to die, but there’s something so primally awful about the thought of being attacked by an unseen apex predator that I imagine the most improbable odds are enough to keep some people from taking the chance. Even the latest victim reportedly scoffed at his grandmother’s warning and told her he was “Superman.”

Would I have gone swimming this summer given the earlier, non-fatal attack of a New York neurologist in Truro, and the constant news reports of shark sightings and beach closings? Of course not. I won’t go swimming  anytime unless I’m thrown in the water by a capsize or pushed in by a jerky friend.  I just have a thing about other critters in the ocean, ranging from jellyfish to spider crabs, not to mention 20-foot long sharks.

Do I blame people for ignoring the warnings? Nope, because I live in the IdiocracyOw! My Balls! era of GoPro recorded self-injury and if people think jumping off cliffs wearing batsuits is entertaining, then people are going to go bodysurfing in the waves with sharks. I guarantee people are going to try to get selfies of themselves with sharks just for the likes and shares.

When I am in or on the water I don’t considered myself at any exceptional risk of a shark attack, but the thought has crossed my mind, especially in the early  70s when Jaws was  being filmed across the sound around Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t do the sort of things that get people eaten — kayaking in a boat shaped like a seal, boogie boarding, skinny dipping, abalone diving, etc. — but I have spent a lot of time wading in the water at night, especially twenty years ago when I was into surfcasting and taking stupid risks in the surf along the outer Cape from P-town to Monomoy. I gave that pastime up when the seals started to be a serious nuisance, stealing stripers off the line just because they could.  Nothing gets a heart rate up like getting one’s legs bumped by a playful seal in the surf off the beach at Chatham Light at 3 am. Now the seals are all over the place out there, massive shoals of the mermaids-for-dogs blanketing the beaches around Nauset and Monomoy Island. There’s so many of them — more than 50,000 according to the Boston Globe — that they can be seen from space.

Monomoy  seals as seen on Google Earth

This past June I saw a seal pop up inside of the drawbridge in Osterville, right in the channel across from the gas docks. That’s a first — I’ve seen seals in the spring, swimming around the Wianno Cut and out in the Sound during squid season, popping up and looking like a curious scuba diver from a distance. But June? When the water quality isn’t very good and there isn’t a ton of food in the water like the April herring run or the late summer menhaden schools …. I guess the seals are heading into the estuaries and bays to avoid swimming in the open water where they can get picked off.

So the question to ponder is: what are the odds a great white shark has entered the bays around Cotuit looking for something to eat? Great whites are pelagic fish — open ocean creatures — who cover lots of miles in their migrations and range everywhere from Cape Cod to South Africa to Australia to the Farallon Islands off of San Francisco . It makes sense they would hang around inshore if their favorite food happens to be a big ball of seal blubber and that blubber is laying by the thousands on the sandy strand.

There was a big to-do in Hadley’s Harbor in 2004 when a big female great white swam around  in that little harbor for a couple of days. That sighting drew a lot of attention to the fact that  there were great whites swimming in Cape Cod water. Around the same time the seal population in Chatham went crazy, flourishing in the decades since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act which stopped the rumored practice of commercial fishermen and lobstermen to carry hunting rifles on their boats to keep the seals from raiding their traps.  These seals didn’t just appear from nowhere. Apparently they are part of a big herd from Canada’s Sable Island who decided to relocate to the Cape’s clement shores.

The Hadley’s Harbor Great White of 2004

Seals equal  great whites. It’s just the way it is. No seals. No sharks. But no one is seriously considering getting rid of the seals, which means the sharks are here to stay, There were no seals around Cahoon Hollow Beach last weekend when the most recent attack occurred.

The question about shark attack risk is as much historical as it is about probabilities. The last victim, 16 year old Joseph Troy Jr. of Dorchester*, got picked off by a great white while swimming off the beach north of Mattapoissett on Buzzard’s Bay in the summer of 1936,  why weren’t there other attacks reported from that time, before that time, or in the 82 years that followed?  Where were the seals hanging out in 1936? Why were there very few seals in the late 1980s and 90s and suddenly a bazillion at the turn of the century? Did they vanish because of some cyclical trend or were they being hunted to the point they weren’t a feature of the local fauna?

Let some marine mammal expert answer that question, but the prevailing local wisdom is either kill  all the seals and repeal at the Marine Mammal Protection Act (the fisherman’s solution) or let Mister  and Missus Jaws do their thing and let nature sort it out. Something tells me we’re closer to the historical balance in the food chain now than we were at any point in the last 50 years.

Shark about to take out a mermaid-for-dogs

But in the aftermath of the fatal attack the press is now talking about solutions. I think the local officials on the outer Cape are biting their knuckles and acting like Mayor Larry in Jaws, worried about tourist season and summer dollars if beaches get closed and no one can go for a dip. My favorite elected wingnut, a Barnstable county commissioner, wanted to adopt the solution used in South Africa — a thing called a drum line which is essentially a set of baited hooks that intercept the sharks before they find someone’s leg.

Shark nets are used in Australia — I saw one next to the ferry terminal at Manly Beach on Sydney Harbor — but I can’t see how they would last very long in the pounding surf of the Atlantic. Maybe around Cotuit and the more protected waters, but even then I bet the expense is crazy and the effectiveness is limited. All it takes is one unlucky paddleboarder to fall off outside of the net and there goes that false sense of security. There are ankle bracelets one can wear which emit some electronic repellent that keeps sharks away, but if you’re wearing electronics to ward of man-eaters then you need to reassess your choice of pastimes.

As I tell my worried friends — the Mattapoissett attack happened a little more than 15 miles away from Cotuit. Hadley’s Harbor, where the 2004 sighting took place is 14 miles away. And Monomoy Island, where the seals are, is 23 miles from Cotuit. So do the math. Are great whites swimming around Cotuit? Probably not on a daily basis — it’s shallow, kind of murky and nasty in the summer, and not stocked with a huge number of seals — but I wouldn’t declare the place shark free by a long shot.


*: the definitive account of the 1936 Mattapoissett attack was published in 1950. Online version at Jstor (registration required)

See, Gudger, E. W. “A Boy Attacked by a Shark, July 25, 1936 in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts with Notes on Attacks by Another Shark Along the New Jersey Coast in 1916.” The American Midland Naturalist 44, no. 3 (1950): 714-19. doi:10.2307/2421830.




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