Forty years ago this month, Jaws, Peter Benchley’s best-selling toothy fish tale, was made into an iconic movie that helped usher in a new era of blockbuster films. Set in a fictional New England town, it told the tale of a bloodthirsty great white shark that developed a taste for humans and a penchant for gory mischief. Filmed primarily on Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Cape Cod, the irony was that while sharks such as the porbeagle, thresher, tiger, and mako were abundant, great whites were relatively a rare encounter.
Fast-forward forty years, and that is no longer the case. Great whites are now in abundance in the waters around Cape Cod. These regular seasonal visitors have reached the point of tourist attraction, drawing throngs to the Cape’s sandy beaches in hopes of a glimpse of one of the toothy beasts. Even with an uptick in attacks—several have been reported in recent years—the community vibe is more welcoming than menacing.
“If anything I’ve noticed, among the business community of the town of Chatham, which is the epicenter of white shark activity, they’ve embraced these animals as a way to make money and draw people to the town,” says Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior biologist with the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries department, leading expert on these apex predators, and essentially the New England great white guru. “Virtually every shop on Main Street is selling some kind of shark trinket or shirt, you name it. I think it’s been a positive response, one of people trying to embrace these animals.”
Skomal and his peers have been tirelessly hunting—with cameras and radio tags, as opposed to harpoons and guns—great whites for years, and the numbers keep growing. The reason for the dramatic increase in population is that most primal component: a huge increase in their favorite food. Seals.
“The growing seal population is a result of the Marine Mammal Protection Act from 1972,” he explains. “The seals are now rebounding, recolonizing, and becoming resident in many parts of the northeast where they previously had been wiped out. White sharks are the top predator of seals, one of their only predators, and is responding to that. So in essence you get this food source that has grown to a huge level on a relative scale and you’ve got sharks moving in closer to shore to feed on them.”
Cape Cod’s beaches are now an all you can eat buffet for a meat-eating predator that can grow up to 20 feet long and have as many as 300 serrated teeth ready to grind away at whatever they decide is for dinner. But don’t worry, swimmers, surfers, and other ocean-loving types, you should still be okay bobbing around out there.
“It’s going to be a situation where we have coexistence,” Skomal admits. “It’s happened in other parts of the world. If you look at the shark attack statistics in California, where a few decades ago they went through a similar phenomenon with the seal populations responding to protection and white shark attacks on seals increasing, there was no similar trend in attacks on humans.”
Before you roll yourself in chum, put on a seal suit and charge into the surf, however, there are some things you should keep in mind.
“Having said that, the presence of these animals does raise some concern among beach managers and the swimming public,” he adds. “The best way to deal with the presence of these sharks is to be proactive in terms of education. Putting one’s head in the sand is not the right course of action, thinking that these sharks are not here. I think up-front honesty, candor, and discussion regarding the presence of these animals is the best way to avoid interactions.”
So what should you do if you plan on doing some oceanic recreation in shark-infested waters? What steps can the average Joe looking to catch a wave take to avoid coming home in his or her board bag?
“One of the reasons we’re doing so much research on white sharks off the coastline here is to be able to provide better answers to stuff like that,” Skomal says, deadly serious, adding that the general rules of thumb are to avoid swimming at dusk and dawn, which are thought to be prime great white feeding times, use the buddy system, don’t swim too far from shore, and, most importantly, don’t be an idiot.
“Don’t swim in areas where there’s high concentrations of seals and sharks are likely to be spending their time. “
And even if you do somehow get bit, try not to take it personally.
“We know the sharks are not actively attacking or going after people because we just aren’t having the interactions we would have if that were the case,” he explains. “But the shark could make a mistake. It’s a wild animal. So don’t put yourself in a position where you could increase the probability of an interaction.”
In Jaws, one of the most terrifying themes is that the shark seems to develop a taste for human flesh, to the point where it prowls the shoreline stalking bipedal prey. If seals are delicious, tourists must be, too, right? What’s to keep great whites from suddenly deciding they’d rather have some leaner meat?
“There’s no empirical evidence that sharks will adapt their diet to consume humans,” Skomal says, humor in his voice. “I think they could, possibly, if they would starve to death. But there’s no evidence they’d do that. You’re talking about an animal that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years in the ocean, and has become reliant on ocean prey. Can a shark adapt to feeding on humans because they see them as a readily available food source? No, I don’t believe so. I don’t think they’re hard-wired to do that.”
It’s a good thing, too, especially for the people of Cape Cod, where Skomal’s team counted more that 68 individual great whites, identified via video footage and told apart by their unique body markings.
“We literally use a plane to locate the sharks, go up to them in a boat, and video them with GoPros. We literally do that,” he laughs.
One would think that with years of shark hunting under his belt, Skomal would have some pretty great stories. And he does, but nothing that compares to the final scenes from Jaws, in which the beast essentially eats a whole fishing boat to get to his desired human snacks.
“I’ve had a lot of different experiences,” he admits wistfully. “Sometimes just seeing these white sharks off Chatham and Orleans is really quite intense. They’re big, beautiful animals. Last year, we saw one attack and kill a seal. That was pretty dramatic, and traumatic. I did a bunch of work in the Arctic Circle with Greenland sharks, and diving with those under the Arctic ice was pretty exciting and exhilarating.”
40 years on, and Jaws is real. Okay, sort of. But one thing is for certain: shark hunter Greg Skomal? He’s the real deal.