With warm weather persisting after Labor Day, beach officials warned swimmers along the Cape's eastern shoreline to be aware that while the crowds may have thinned, sharks are still prowling the waters.
In a strongly worded statement last week, Orleans Natural Resources Manager/Harbormaster Nathan Sears said he was concerned beachgoers aren't taking the situation seriously enough.
“Regardless of how much signage and information we provide, there still seems to be a concerning level of complacency,” he said. Sharks were seen “feeding aggressively in shockingly shallow water on almost a daily basis” in August, he warned.
“The inshore waters off Cape Cod are truly a wild place and people should practice extreme caution while visiting,” Sears warned.
Cape Cod National Seashore Chief Ranger Leslie Reynolds echoed Sear's comments, noting that the six guarded Seashore beaches were closed 26 times this summer – more than double previous years – based on confirmed shark sightings by lifeguards.
“That's significant,” she said.
State shark biologist Dr. Greg Skomal said Sears is “spot on. Just because it's Labor Day doesn't mean the sharks are going back to school.”
“We find that September and October are strong months for these animals,” he said. Skomal is nearing the end of the fifth and final year of a white shark population study conducted with the support of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
He said the increase in reports of sharks close to shore may be the result of more awareness as well as cell phones and drones, not necessarily a change in behavior. “All I know is it happens and we've seen it from year to year,” he said. As the summer matures, seals seem to stick closer to shore in shallower water. “They've figured out to some extent there's a large predator there to eat them,” said Skomal. If there's enough water, sharks will follow.
“Depth is a major factor,” he said, but added that sharks “are not afraid to get into shallows because let's face it, that's where the seals are.”
Despite a shark attack on a 62-year-old man in Truro last month – which Skomal confirmed was a great white – he agreed that beachgoers seem to be paying attention to shark warnings. Swimmers should follow “shark smart” advice, stay in shallow water and avoid seals, especially locations where there tends to be a high density of seals, such as Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, which was closed to swimming multiple times this summer due to shark sightings.
“Be cognizant that sharks may be hunting in that area,” Skomal said.
Signs, public information and publicity in the media means more people are aware of the sharks, Reynolds added, and swimmers seem to be staying closer to shore and staying away from seals.
“People are listening, they're changing their behavior,” she said.
Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith said east-facing beaches along South Beach, North Beach Island and North Beach officially remain closed to swimming. “People forget that,” he said. Seals are often present in those areas, along with more mundane dangers like riptides and heavy surf. Most of the shark activity this summer, however, was to the north, between Nauset Beach in Orleans and beaches in Truro, he noted.
The remoteness of Chatham's east-facing beaches helps keep the number of swimmers down, Smith added; beachgoers have to either drive to North Beach or boat across the harbor to reach those areas. None of those beaches are guarded, either. There is a beach patrol on popular Lighthouse Beach – which will continue weekends for a few weeks – but no sharks were sighted there this summer. Only a handful have ever been spotted in Chatham Harbor.
Where Chatham does have a heavy density of beachgoers – along Nantucket Sound – sharks “just don't seem to be interested,” Smith said. “The food source is still on the east side.” He noted, however, that sharks were sighted numerous times in Cape Cod Bay this summer.
The Cape Cod National Seashore issued a statement reiterating beach safety rules and warning that lifeguards are no longer on duty at its beaches. Beachgoers should be aware of seals in the area and not swim near them, stay close to shore where feet can touch the bottom, don't swim alone or at dusk or dawn, according to the statement. The Seashore also warned to watch for riptides, undertows and shore breaks. Those are likely to be more dangerous to the average swimmer than sharks, Reynolds said.
“Although there are a lot of sharks and they are coming close to shore, really the incidents that keep lifeguards busy all summer long is rescuing people from riptides and shore breaks,” she said.
Skomal and his research team sighted 149 sharks this July, more than double the 74 sighted in July last year and just 29 more than were sighted in July 2016. Those are raw numbers, he cautioned, and do not represent the total number of individual sharks in Cape waters. The goal of the population study is to gather data to be able to confidently estimate that total number.
In his statement, Sears said beach officials operate on the assumption that sharks are always in the vicinity of swimming areas; they watch vigilantly and a Zodiac rescue boat and EMTs are present during the summer. But while data from Skomal's study indicate that sharks will remain in local waters into the fall, lifeguards won't be watching the beaches, Sears said.
His goal in the future, he added, is to “strengthen the public awareness component by working with the regional shark working group,” a collection of local beach managers who meet periodically to strategize about how to make the beaches safer. In recent years they've looked at different ideas for monitoring the beaches, ranging from the use of video cameras mounted on balloons to drones.
“We have yet to find a silver bullet,” said Reynolds, “but I am continually looking for it and having conversations with other people about what else we can tell the public.”