Why great white sharks have returned to Cape Cod


On Sept. 14, Wendy Dockray strolled down to Newcomb Hollow Beach, on the shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The waves were mighty that day, so she went to watch the surf pound the shore. 

The waves also attracted surfers. “I actually thought, ‘Aren’t they worried?’” Dockray, whose family has owned a house on the cape for 60 years, said in an interview.

The next afternoon, a shark — suspected to be a great white — sunk its teeth into 26-year old boogie-boarder Arthur Medici. The tragedy was first shark attack fatality in Cape Cod since 1936, and it came a month after a shark latched onto the thigh of a New York neurologist, who was fortunately dragged ashore by group of beachgoers, and lived to tell a lurid tale. 

Decades ago, however, no one ever saw sharks in Cape Cod, New England’s legendary hooked-shaped summer destination. No one even thought about them.

“Zero. No concern. We never worried about sharks,” said Dockray. “Sharks were something that happened in Australia.”

Yet today, it’s not just sharks that have returned to Cape Cod. It’s a greater return of the ocean and coastal wilderness: What it was like centuries ago, before salty mariners arrived in droves to fish the plentiful seas; before the Pilgrims first stepped foot onto the cape, en route to establishing a colony at Plymouth. 

A Cape Cod beach closes in August 2018 following a shark attack.

Image: William J Kole/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Sharks hunt seals, but seal populations were mostly exterminated from New England waters around 150 years ago, Sean Hayes, chief of the protected species branch of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, said in an interview. But, after being protected by the landmark Marine Mammal Protection Act nearly half a century ago, the seals are back, and growing their numbers.

The sharks, also protected under U.S. law, have followed.

“From strictly a conservation goal of trying to recover these wild animals and upper-level predators, it’s been incredibly successful,” said Hayes.

A truer wilderness, then, has largely returned to the shores of Cape Cod, well beyond just sharks and seals. In some areas, clouds of fish dart frantically beneath the surface as humpback whales open their jacuzzi-sized mouths and engulf them.

But today, there’s another dominant species in the water.

“We never worried about sharks.”

“Now, you’ve got a new player — and that new player is human beings,” Greg Skomal, a senior scientist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who has researched white sharks for three decades, said. “Sharks are trying to hunt seals, and now people are in the mix.”

For locals, the change is palpable. 

“We live in a part of the country where, up until now, there was nothing that was going to kill you,” said Dennis Minsky, a Cape Cod naturalist who spends his summer out at sea educating the public about whales, and anything else dwelling in the water. 

But before the sharks came the gray seals. They’re everywhere now, and they promise to attract more predators.

Gray seals in New England.

Gray seals in New England.

“It’s scary to us,” Pete Hall, the owner of Van Rensselaer’s Restaurant and Raw Bar, just up street from the Wellfleet beach where the tragic Sept. 15 attack occurred, said in an interview. 

“It’s amazing to me how we went from like a dozen seals, to so many,” Hall said.

The expanding wilderness 

In the quiet twilight of Cape Cod, insulated from the boisterous pianos and merrymaking on Provincetown’s Commercial Street, you can see the animals swimming, almost playfully, just 10 feet offshore. Their dark heads bob out of the water, silhouetted by the moon. 

The gray seals have colonized Cape Cod from farther north, where hundreds of thousands of seals breed on Canada’s snake-shaped Sable Island. But like all islands, Sable has its limits. So the gray seals are radiating out.

And as a seal destination, Cape Cod has it all: abundances of small fish and large beaches to haul out on. 

The gray seals are even radiating well-beyond Cape Cod. Hayes, the marine scientist, recently spotted one off of Virginia. “Their range is likely still expanding,” he said.

A gray seal pokes its head out of the water on Cape Cod's Nauset Beach.

A gray seal pokes its head out of the water on Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach.

Image: MATT CAMPBELL/EPA/REX/Shutterstock 

Yet in 1980, gray seal populations in New England were pitiful, at least compared to today. A survey at the time found 30 gray seals, though there were probably more.

“I would be surprised if there were a thousand,” said Hayes. “There definitely weren’t the tens of thousands that there are today,” said Hayes.

The sharks have noticed.

“They see rich foraging opportunities emerge on Cape Cod, and elsewhere,” said Skomal, the shark scientist. 

Just how many great white sharks are?

“Counting fish is difficult,” said Skomal. But he’s cataloged 300 in the Cape Cod area, meaning at minimum 300 sharks have visited the region. Skomal’s lab aims to have more precise population numbers next year. 

But there is one trend: “The number seems to be increasing from year to year.”

A great white shark.

A great white shark.

Living on the cusp of wilderness

The top of the marine food web has returned to the Cape Cod shore. And that can be shocking.

“It’s frightening to think this could happen here,” said Dockray. 

For some, that means accepting reality and adapting.

“I’ll still swim in the harbor, but I’m not swimming in the ocean anymore,” said Minsky, noting that his friend, a veteran lobster diver, recently had the dark shadow of a shark pass overhead. “That was his last day in the water.”

Yet, Minksy emphasized, even here the chance of getting attacked — while perhaps now elevated — is “minute.”

“Its not Jaws,” Sean Anderson, a biologist at California State University Channel Islands, said in an interview.

Historic Provincetown sits at the edge of Cape Cod.

Historic Provincetown sits at the edge of Cape Cod.

Image: Shutterstock / Tono Balaguer

Sharks aren’t seeking humans. They’re often just reacting to what they think is a seal, said Skomal.

In 2017, there were a total of 88 unprovoked shark attacks globally, according to the Florida Museum. Just five of these encounters were fatal. 

Addressing the likelihood of a shark attack is a “constant, constant, constant battle,” said Anderson. “Way more people are going to die in their cars.”

“If everything is so sanitized, we lose a part of what makes us a traveler on this crazy spaceship planet we have.”

But, said Minksy, each person will find their own strategy to cope with the change. Some folks will be undeterred, and continue surfing. Some might hope for the local or state government to put up shark-deterring nets near the shore. Some might take a quick dip — and then scurry back to the beach. 

But there’s a big payoff, said Anderson

“That’s the wilderness — there’s this rawness,” he said. “If everything is so sanitized, we lose a part of what makes us a traveler on this crazy spaceship planet we have.”

Even without sharks, the seas are already a place full of dark unknowns to us land-dwellers. It’s a wild, unruly place, even if we forget this for a century or so, until the sea creatures come back. 

“The water is a foreign element anyhow,” said Minsky. “We really visit it at our peril.” 

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