Responders prepare for booming great white shark population
According to the Atlantic Shark Conservancy, there have already been eight confirmed great white sightings this month
By Meghan Ottolini
CAPE COD, Mass. — A great white shark population boom is underway off Cape Cod, with as many as 150 expected in local waters this summer—and first responders are training to keep an eye out for the massive predators and deal with their traumatic bites.
"They have multiplied in numbers exponentially since I became chief," said Orleans fire Chief Anthony Pike, who has led Orleans Fire and Rescue for the past three years. "Great white sharks comprise about 30 percent of my daily work right now, and I never, ever thought that would be a thing."
Massachusetts Marine Fisheries scientist Gregory Skomal and others began studying the regional population of white sharks in 2014, when they counted 68 great whites. Last summer, that number was 147.
Skomal says 40 percent of the 141 sharks his research team tracked in 2015 returned to Cape waters in 2016. According to the Atlantic Shark Conservancy, there have already been eight confirmed great white sightings this month. Great whites typically patrol to the cool ocean waters off Chatham and other Cape towns between July and October, and Skomal—who has been with Marine Fisheries for 30 years—said the number of shark sightings has jumped over the past decade.
"For my first 20 years we never talked about sharks," Skomal said.
Great whites travel to the Cape to prey on the area's large population of gray seals. The last fatal shark attack in Massachusetts was in 1937, and if one of the animals does bite a human, Skomal said it's most likely a case of "mistaken identity."
"You know, biting the person thinking that it might be a normal prey item like a seal. Typically, the shark won't eat the person," Skomal said. "As a result, though, white sharks have very big jaws and sharp teeth, and cause traumatic injuries, and those kinds of traumatic injuries could lead to fatality."
In preparation for such an attack, Orleans has designed a first-responder program that teams up its 20 lifeguards and four EMTs. The first line of defense is awareness of what's swimming around in the ocean, Pike said.
"One of the major, fundamental things that all lifeguards and EMTs do is, you never turn your back to the water," he said.
Sarah Newcomb-Baker, a 35-year-old Orleans native who is the head lifeguard at Nauset Beach, said the safety staff is trained on the appearance of a great white's fin, as well as how to assist EMTs in triaging heavy bleeding injuries.
In the case of a major shark attack, Pike said the victim's best bet would be a Boston MedFlight chopper ride to one of the city's trauma centers.
"However, the caution about MedFlight is it only flies when it's clear from here to Boston, and we get kind of Seattle/Vancouver-ish weather here," he said.
That means that a shark attack victim may have to be transported by ambulance, a ride that could take hours.
Many locals are well aware of the risks associated with their summer visitors.
"There are certain beaches that I wouldn't go swimming at, like Nauset," said Jade Schuyler, 44, who grew up in Chatham. "I think that it's inevitable. I think that one day, something will happen. Something."
"I can't get into a pool without thinking about it, I mean, I was traumatized by seeing 'Jaws' as a little kid," her husband, Paul, 49, agreed.
Pike and Skomal say there are simple steps people can take to avoid great white encounters:
- Don't swim near seals,
- Stay out of the water at dawn and dusk, when sharks are hunting.
Aficionados who want to track sharks can download the conservancy's Sharktivity app, which notifies users of confirmed white shark spottings and lets them contribute their own data.
Researchers also have begun collecting data on sharks that venture beyond their usual Cape haunts.
"Up along the South Shore and North Shore of Massachusetts, they do go to those areas... but not in big numbers," Skomal said. He said his research team has set up equipment to monitor and detect great whites in those regions.
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