Shark Season Is Upon Us: Researchers Ready For Summer

by Ryan Bray

CHATHAM – The sharks have arrived, right on time.

On May 22, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy confirmed the first two white shark sightings of the summer off Monomoy Island.

Dr. Megan Winton, a senior scientist with the conservancy, said during a presentation at the conservancy’s Shark Center in Chatham that the first documented sightings of the season are in line with those from past years.

“This is right on trend,” she said. “This is typically the time when we get the first detections of tagged sharks in our array and is typically the time when we have the first sightings of sharks.”

As public interest in sharks continues to grow, the first seasonal shark sightings off of Cape shores have become every bit as much of an indicator of summer’s arrival as beach traffic and other seasonal indicators.

“The return of white sharks is a sure sign of summer’s approach on Cape Cod,” Cynthia Wigren, the conservancy’s president and co-founder, said in a statement last week.

And for the conservancy, it means the start of another busy summer of study and research into the white shark’s habits and mannerisms. On May 23, Winton and Dr. Greg Skomal, who together have been studying white shark behavior off the Cape for more than a decade, hosted a media day giving an overview of the various methodologies conservancy staff will employ this season to track shark activity in the region.

The increased seal population has attracted more white sharks to Cape waters in recent years. Winton, a senior scientist with the conservancy, said that sharks documented off Cape shores spend half their time in waters 15 feet deep or less. She presented a spotter plane photo showing one shark stalking two seals while curious spectators watched closeby from the shore.

“It is really impressive to see just how close to shore these big sharks can be,” she said. “And it’s a question we get a lot from visitors, from tourists. They know that white sharks come here, but they don’t know that they’re spending much of their time in shallow water close to shore.”

Tags continue to be one of the biggest tools in the conservancy’s arsenal when it comes to gathering data on white sharks. The tags, which are attached to the back of sharks by researchers from a boat, communicate with an array of more than 70 acoustic receivers that are distributed throughout the Cape’s coastline. The receivers, which are deployed in early spring, communicate with the tags to collect data on the number of times tagged sharks registered on the receiver and their locations. Data from the receivers is collected periodically and analyzed by scientists and researchers ahead of the next summer season.

Skomal, a senior biologist who runs the shark research program for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said since 2010, staff have tagged 300 sharks, and each tag has a life span of approximately 10 years. The tags correspond with receivers at distances of less than 500 yards, he said, adding that data collected by the conservancy is shared with other research organizations spanning from Canada down to Mexico.

“This array has been out in some way, shape or form since 2010,” Winton said. “So we really are collecting a lot of long-term monitoring information about white sharks off the Cape.”

An early look at data collected from 2023 showed 130 sharks documented through the array last year, a number Winton said is on par with previous years. Skomal said one of the most prominent areas for shark activity remains the Outer Cape, where he said “thousands” of shark detections have been registered. By comparison, waters north of the Cape off the South Shore registered very few detections.

“We can get a relative sense of risk to swimmers and can inform the public safety officials and the public in those areas what that risk is” through the data, he said.

A set of seven real-time receivers have helped researchers build upon the data collected through the array in recent years. The receivers, which are visible above water similar to buoys, can transmit alerts about shark sightings within seconds to beach and public safety officials. They can be found in waters off of Nauset Beach, Head of the Meadow, Lecount Hollow, Newcomb Hollow and North Beach.

Other tools used by the conservancy include drones that scan waters similar to spotter planes. There are also camera tags that collect video of shark behavior in real time. Winton and Skomal showed video from 2021 in which a white shark, “Chopper,” was recorded attempting to feed on a seal close to shore.

“The way I like to describe it is we’re giving smartphones to white sharks, essentially,” Winton said of the camera tags.

The use of video has been “transformative,” Winton said, providing scientists and researchers with “millions of records” that can be used to closely examine individual shark behavior, some of it never seen before.

“We saw a shark resting on the bottom, which we didn’t know they did,” she said.

Through these various tools, researchers have documented 57 successful predations by sharks on seals since 2014. Skomal said data collected has also allowed researchers to zero in more closely on trends regarding when sharks are feeding by month, in what temperature waters and where.

But Winton and Skomal note that the data isn’t airtight, as there’s constant shark activity off of Cape shores, not all of which is documented by researchers. And not all sharks are tagged. But the public can do their part to help in the conservancy’s research by using the Sharktivity mobile app, which allows people to log and report any potential shark sightings in real time. Reports are vetted by staff at the New England Aquarium.

“There are people out on the beaches everyday,” Winton said. “We can’t be everywhere, we can’t be out everyday. If folks see a predation, we encourage them to report it via Sharktivity or reach out to us directly via our info box.”

Members of the public can also access a second interactive mobile app, the White Shark Logbook, to gather historical data collected on white sharks by the conservancy over the years. The logbook contains data on approximately 700 individual sharks.

But alongside those public engagement efforts, the conservancy also stresses the importance of beachgoer safety. Winton said sharks are constantly feeding close to the shore, and there are no off hours.

“A lot of folks don’t always think of the beach as a wild environment because there are lifeguards,” she said. “But it is very much a wild environment anytime you enter the ocean.”

That said, beachgoers aren’t being told not to swim in the water, Winton said. There just needs to be an understanding of the potential risks that can come along with going in for a dip. She said people can take their own preventive measures, from swimming only at guarded beaches or avoiding swimming where seals might be present.

“It all honestly comes down to individuals’ comfort with risk and using a wild environment,” she said.

With seals attracting more sharks to the region’s waters, would federal lawmakers ever consider adopting legislation more permissive of the hunting seals? Skomal said it’s very unlikely.

“The number [of seals] that would need to be removed would have to be very, very high to make an impact, and I just don’t think that the U.S. public has the stomach for that kind of culling operation,” he said.

Skomal is now in his 37th year researching white sharks. But with all the advanced technology at researchers’ disposal these days, he said he’s as energized by his work as ever. This summer could see the conservancy piloting yet another technology, social tags that can help researchers observe how sharks communicate with one another.

“It just seems so primitive when I was younger, the tools we had compared to what we have today,” he said. “The growth in knowledge has really [expanded] in my career because of those tools.”

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