By Andrew Roiter, Cape Cod Times
The pop-culture image of the great white shark as a relentless killer may be on the way out, or at least that’s the hope of the education efforts of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. The Orleans-based nonprofit is dedicated to funding research and education about the much-maligned marine stars of Hollywood.
A very public part of that effort takes place Saturday, when the conservancy partners with Mass Audubon to host the Finomenal Fest in Chatham, which includes family activities, a film showing, a nature walk, talks about shark research and fishing for certain types of shark, and cooking with fishable sharks.
“I think kids are really curious about sharks, as are adults,” says Emily Wolfe, the day camp director and education coordinator for Mass Audubon. “Maybe there’ll be some future shark researchers in the group.”
Activities for youngsters will be part of the free carnival-style Shark Family Fun Area open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Kate Gould Park. There will be shark-themed games, shark face-painting, shark facts, live music and kids can watch shark-tooth jewelry-making.
“This festival is very based in education,” Wolfe says. “We wanted to educate locals and visitors on the sharks in the area.”
At 10:30 a.m., before the Family Fun Area opens, the film “Great White Shark,” a 40-minute documentary, will play at Chatham Orpheum Theater downtown. (Tickets are $6.) Very little is actually known about the lives of the creatures, according to Cynthia Wigren, conservancy co-founder and president.
“For us, the big piece is learning more about the species,” she says. “There’s not a lot of information out there.”
In the past few years, great whites have been spotted along the coast of Cape Cod, and especially near Chatham, where some have been tagged for tracking. A main aspect of the conservancy’s mission is to fund efforts by marine biologists in Massachusetts who study the three-ton fishes that come to feed on grey seals. The seals have seen a resurgence in recent years following a massive population hit because of hunters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Wigren says.
With the return of the seals, there has been a return of their predators. And the education involved in Finomenal Fest and in conservancy officials visiting schools is to spread awareness, change the way sharks are viewed, and undo the reputation damage of 40 years of cinematic slander, she says.
“For us, this is really the place you want to educate people on white sharks,” Wigren says of events like Finomenal Fest. “(We’re trying to) dispel the myth that these sharks are out there feeding on humans. The whole ‘Jaws’ idea of the mindless killer.”
Through efforts of the conservancy and other groups, she believes some change has already occurred, as she encounters more people who are aware of the true statistics surrounding the number of people bitten by sharks worldwide each year -- which is fewer than 80, as confirmed with National Geographic.
One statistic Wigren enjoys citing is that the number of people bitten by New Yorkers, as in humans, each year is 10 times higher than people worldwide bitten by sharks.
While the focus of Saturday’s event is mostly on the white shark, there will be a food-related talk from 11:30 a.m. to noon by a member of the Cape Cod Fisherman’s Alliance. The talk at the Orpheum will center around the dogfish, a type of shark that can sustainably fished in Massachusetts, according to Wolfe.
There will be discussions about how to make sustainable seafood choices as well as how to market dogfish in the United States. Afterwards, VERS restaurant at the Orpheum will serve up dogfish tacos for those interested in trying them.
Also during the day, festival participants will be encouraged to visit Morris Island for a self-guided nature hike. Hikers can follow the shark fin signs to explore the area and learn more about the local sharks.
In the evening, there will be a 7 to 9 p.m. talk at the Chatham Bars Inn by shark researcher Greg Skomal and filmmaker Joe Romeiro. The “Shark Tales” talk will showcase underwater photography and discuss Skomal’s work in shark science.
More information beyond the festival: AtlanticWhiteShark.org. Children ages 7 to 9 can sign up for one of five different shark summer-camp sessions, and girls of all ages can sign up for the Gills Club, which focuses on connecting girls passionate about sharks to learn with female marine biologists.
Proceeds from the Finomenal Fest, including T-shirt sales, and donations go towards scholarships for the Mass Audubon’s summer day camps located in Wellfleet and Chatham. For more information on the day camps: www.massaudubon.org. Proceeds from the evening talk (which costs $25 per person) will go towards shark research.