Sunday, September 13, 2009

Great white sharks take a bite out of our surfing vacation

Every summer for the last few years a great white shark has been spotted off of Chatham, MA, drawn by the growing grey seal population. The sharks have mainly stayed out around Monomy Island and haven't ventured too near the popular swimming and surfing beaches. Both my husband and I have still paddled out every September at our favorite spot in Eastham, which is at least fifteen miles from a shark sighting. Until this year. (photos are from the MA DMF website)

Almost two weeks ago at least five great whites were seen around the mouth of Chatham harbor, still fairly far from Eastham's Nauset Light Beach. My husband paddled out last Sunday and Monday and attempted to on Wednesday but it was too messy to ride. I chose to hang back. Like I said in my previous post: I'll risk one great white but not five. Personally, I think my husband was a little nuts to surf, but the reports were still saying the sharks were miles away where the big seal colony is. Until Wednesday.

That evening we drove out to Chatham again to see the seals in the harbor. The previous Friday there were a few tourists checking them out, but overall it was pretty quiet. This time there was a Channel 5 satellite truck in the parking lot and about 30 people with telephoto lenses and binoculars. They were mostly ignoring the 500 pound pinnipeds cruising within feet of them. All lenses were aimed off shore. Sharkapalooza had begun.

Apparently that afternoon at least twelve great whites were spotted in the area and, according to the Boston Globe, one of them hunted a diver who had gone in to retrieve video equipment that was used while DMF was affixing satellite tags to one of the sharks. The diver was tethered and pulled out when the shark was 100 feet away. And even more scary was the report from the spotter plane claiming a great white had come to within 100 yards of a surfer that had luckily rode a wave in and got out of the water, not even knowing the shark was there. That surfer was on a beach only a few miles from our surfing spot. The next day we left Cape Cod to return home and the shark-free northern waters near us in Gloucester, MA and Hampton, NH.

Greg Skomal, a senior biologist with the Mass Division of Marine Fisheries, did a great interview on the Today Show. It includes excellent footage of the taggings. And to read more about that amazing effort and to view even more amazing photos visit the Mass Division of Marine Fisheries website. The satellite tags will pop off in January revealing much needed data on where these guys spend their time.

Great white sharks, as well as their prey the grey seals, are protected under federal law. Therefore they can not be hunted. I have a feeling with the exploding seal population (to the left) we'll be seeing a lot more of these amazing hunters in years to come. It's important to remember that sharks have a key role in the health of the ocean. They are the wolves of the sea. Without them seal populations could spiral out of control much like deer populations in many wooded areas of the US. I like to remind myself of that every time I launch into the waves with my surfboard. But it doesn't exactly make me feel any safer....


  1. I have continued to follow the reports on TV. Even though it is scary, it is still awesome. I never realized sharks were anywhere near that area. I am ocean life dumb. I guess I thought they were always in the warm water down south. It is too bad it limited your time in the water, but for you it had to fascinating.

  2. That is a great picture of the seals in the surf. And yes, they do proliferate, don't they? I think the balance of nature means they would normally not end up in such numbers if their natural predators were there. So it makes sense that the sharks are also protected.

  3. Nice post Kate. 10 years ago, whale sharks were slaughtered by the locals in a coastal town and make it as their source of income and food. Sometimes they sell the meat to restaurant owners for their specialty dishes.

    This called the attention of some government agencies and NGO to stop the practice of eating and trading them for they play a big role in the marine life.

    The gentle giants as what they are called now, are now being protected by WWF and a government agency, they educate the locals about the significance of this creature to the environment. Now that the locals had been aware of this, they earn income by guiding tourists who wanted to see the sharks and swim with them. They are remarkably gentle and docile so it's generally safe to swim with them.

  4. Fascinating information, I have always found sharks in general very intriguing. As long as humans leave well enough alone and let nature take its course all will be well. I wasn't aware that great whites were protected, that is good news.

  5. Rae: It is fascinating for me, and scary. Wish I could see one, but from the safety of a very very large boat!

    DJan: it is very good the sharks are protected. I have a feeling if they weren't being so closely watched someone would have a very large trophy on their wall...

    AL: I am so jealous of your whale sharks. Your country is famous for them, another reason to visit! Eventually I won't have an excuse! I am glad to hear that NGOs have made such a difference in their survival.

    SQ: You are so right: as long as we leave nature alone it will take its course and all will be well! -kate

  6. i wish you would vacation in North Carolina and try surfing off the Outer Banks.

    There are some shark sightings at times but no great whites....

  7. This is so interesting to me. I love sharks and find them to be amazing ~ not saying I want to share my swimming space with them though! I'm glad your husband returned unharmed....he's a daredevil!

  8. deborah: a surfari to the outer banks is on our list! there are sharks there, but there are sharks everywhere, it's just part of the sport I guess.

    Lisa: I'm not thrilled about sharing my swimming space with them either. In fact, every year our whole Aquarium team gets invited to do a cage dive with blue sharks off Rhode Island. And every year I pass. I much prefer to see them on TV, I don't even like swimming with our docile 8 foot sand tigers in our big tank. One day they're gonna snap..... -kate


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