Playing Tag With Sharks
By Doug Fraser, Cape Cod Times
CHATHAM — The summer crowds and traffic on Main Street were down to a trickle. Leaves sifted onto lawns, and the birdsongs and rattle and hum of insect life were stilled for another year.
As the Aleutian Dream nudged past rolling breakers at the mouth of Chatham Harbor, the ocean told another story. Rippling V’s of migrating waterfowl filled the skies. All around the vessel, spouts from fin whales on their way to the West Indies, pausing to gorge themselves on sand eels, burst into the air like escaping jets of steam. The inky black backs of minke whales, likewise headed for equatorial regions, jackknifed as they dived on the eels below.
Notably absent were the great white sharks that seemed omnipresent at summer’s end, closing town beaches from Orleans up to Wellfleet as they cruised close to shore, occasionally beaching themselves in their pursuit of seals in Harwich, Chatham and Wellfleet.
But tagging data going back to 2010 showed that most great whites were gone from the Cape by mid- to late October.
“It’s only the big slobs hanging out now,” joked state Division of Marine Fisheries shark scientist Greg Skomal. In the summer, average sizes hovered around the 12- to 13-foot mark, but most of the sharks they had encountered this fall were to 14 to 15 feet long.
Perched on a pulpit, a narrow catwalk jutting forward from the bow of the Aleutian Dream, Skomal eased his back onto the hard aluminum rail and stretched his legs, waiting for word from above. Despite the bright sunshine and blue skies, wispy high cirrus clouds foretold of the coming storm that likely would end what had been a record-breaking shark-tagging season.
Although technicians were still examining video recordings used to identify sharks by their unique scarring patterns, the season thus far had yielded 24 great white sharks fitted with acoustic tags, 120 sharks identified using video, 80 of those seen for the first time. Skomal was pretty sure that was more than had been reported in other hot spots such as California and South Africa in their tagging seasons.
In year two of a five-year study designed to estimate the numbers of sharks that visit Cape waters each summer and the greater population in the Northwest Atlantic, Skomal ventured a rough guess of 280 sharks coming to Cape waters each year. The Cape wasn’t the only place sharks were seen — the acoustic tags that sent out a signal identifying each individual shark had been detected on receivers moored in both inshore and offshore waters from Jupiter, Florida, to Halifax, Nova Scotia — our massive gray seal colony, the largest in the U.S., resulted in the biggest gathering of great whites in the North Atlantic.
The spotter plane droned on, circling overhead. Seals massed along Chatham’s South Beach shoreline sent up an eerie howl as the boat drew closer.
The radio crackled as pilot Wayne Davis saw a shark emerge from the blackness of deep water silhouetted against the white of the sandy shallows, its size and sinuous tail stroke apparent from hundreds of feet in the air.
Boat captain John King pointed the 24-foot Aleutian Dream toward 4-foot waves breaking over the sandbars, where a trio of seals bobbed, unaware of the shark, staring at the approaching vessel. King, a former Alaskan crab fisherman who retired from the biopharmaceutical industry, is a board member for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and donated his vessel and time for the second straight year to help the tagging program the conservancy supports through donations and fundraising.
Two years ago, the researchers switched from a larger, deeper-draft tuna vessel to King’s smaller craft in part because King was willing to donate his time and vessel, saving them $2,500 per trip. But the shark-tagging team found it was frequently pursuing white sharks in shallow water, often inside the line of breakers, where the bigger vessel risked grounding or capsizing. King posted a lookout to keep an eye for the bigger breakers astern as he maneuvered the Aleutian Dream alongside a 15-foot great white. Lindsay Graff, a shark scientist from Montpelier, Vermont, who was working with bullhead sharks in Fiji before she signed on with Skomal for the summer, lowered a hydrophone into the water. The crackle and hiss of waves was apparent, but there was no distinctive ping of a signal from a tagged shark, so the team knew it was likely working with a new, unidentified fish.
Sweeping the water with a long pole tipped with a high-definition video camera, Skomal recorded underwater footage of the shark that would be analyzed later. Switching to a harpoon with a surgically sharp detachable tip tethered to a cigar-sized acoustic tag that would broadcast an identifying signal for the next 10 years, Skomal tagged the shark with a short jab. It swam a little off from the boat then turned.
“He’s coming back at me,” Skomal said. Broad, and more than half the length of the boat, it swam leisurely by, under the pulpit, rolling onto its side, the white of its belly flashing, so that it could look up, as if sizing up the vessel and crew.
Then, it returned to the hunt.
A hunt no less tenuous and necessary goes on every year behind the scenes and makes the tagging operation possible. Although Skomal and fellow shark researcher John Chisholm’s salaries are paid by the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the $90,000 a year to purchase electronic tagging equipment, pay for spotter planes and pilots and boat expenses must be raised by the conservancy through donations and events.
This year they had help as National Geographic donated the acoustic tags. Conservancy director Cynthia Wigren said a new program offering a trip on the shark vessel really paid off. The Chatham Bars Inn, which gave the conservancy the use of its dock for the season, also marketed the trips to its guests without taking a cut of the proceeds, Wigren said. At $2,500 for two spots on the vessel, the boat was filled for most of the summer season and had a waiting list, and raised $40,000. On two occasions, people paid $5,000 for the trip because they wanted to contribute more, Wigren said.
“There were people who certainly had an interest in the organization who would have donated regardless, but the majority were just looking for that experience, to check it off that bucket list,” she said. Regardless of the motive, they were rewarded with a close-up of one of the world’s greatest predators, a prehistoric survivor with a movie star cachet. Until recently, great whites were so rarely seen even the scientists that studied them had trouble finding one in the wild. But those who paid their $2,500 were treated to something they once would have had to travel to distant oceans to see.
“Everyone we took out saw a shark,” Wigren said. Sometimes a couple of dozen of them in a single day, and their reactions varied from welling up with tears to yells from men excited to finally see a great white, Wigren said.
With three more years to the population study, Wigren is hoping she will finally be able to tap into a new source of revenue that promises steady returns. She has enough orders that the state can begin producing Atlantic White Shark Conservancy license plates. It will raise $21,000 in the first year. Within five years she hopes to have 3,000 plates ordered, meaning $60,000 a year.
Newly minted member of the conservancy’s board of directors Jon Dodd, and his wife Joan, were two supporters on board the Aleutian Dream on the most recent trip. A self-described great white enthusiast his whole life, Dodd recalled them being so rare that, driving to the movies 20 years ago, he diverted to a dock to see a white shark brought in by a fisherman.
“So, to think you have 100 sharks here, with four spotted (that day) at 15 to 16 feet, it’s fantastic,” Dodd said. “It’s wild, wild.”