Atlantic GREAT WHITE SHARKS
Posted on Thursday, 29 August 2019
When one works with sharks, and has a tremendous passion for them, visiting the different Great white shark hotspots around the world is of great interest. One of the few known locations left for us to visit was Chatham.
This past August Chris & I found ourselves heading over to the USA which happens to be peak time for Great white sharks congregating off the waters of Cape Cod on the United States East Coast.
Over the last 8 years or so this particular piece of coastline has seen the return of great whites in very healthy numbers. It’s a curious situation and a number of reasons could account for this.
After a number of years of protection via the marine mammal protection act, Grey seals numbers began to steadily improve with more and more of these large seals starting to haul out and create small rookeries along this coastline. This has meant that potential prey is now abundant.
Added to this and perhaps even more important, the number of commercial vessels for the Pelagic and Demersal shark lonline fisheries in the area had shrunk due to their target species no longer being viable to catch and the thought is that this meant less pressure on the Great white sharks.
Around 2009, fisheries scientist, Dr Greg Skomal had begun to notice some of these grey seals with large bite wounds that would typically indicating a predatory encounter with a great white shark.
Prior to 2009 a lot of aerial spotting work was being conducted for commercial fishing work (mostly for Bluefin tuna and swordfish) and Great white sharks were just not seen. It seems with almost certainty that Great whites were simply not here.
In 2009 Dr Skomal was making use of aerial support in order to tag basking sharks when his eye in the sky spotted what he thought was a great white shark. Sure enough, when the vessel located the shark, it was indeed a Great white. This was to be the first shark tagged off Cape Cod as well as the very beginning of the influx of an Atlantic Ocean Great white shark population to this particular area.
Back in 2011 we had met John and Pam King whilst on a snow leopard expedition in India. At that time the first whispers of great white sharks possibly being present off Cape Cod were starting to rumble, and John had lots of questions for us. He was particularly passionate about learning from our experience in South Africa so that the greater Cape Cod area could best be prepared to live with Great white sharks. He recognized the need to educate the public so that both sharks and people could co-exist in the event that this shark population began to increase. This was aside from the fact that both he and Pam were extremely passionate about sharks and nature.
In 2010 Cynthia Wigren participated in a Great white shark trip to Seal Island with Apex. This experience with the Seal Island sharks inspired her to return home and create an NPO for sharks in her hometown and The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) was born. Chris & I were able to connect John and Cynthia and together with other key individuals they have created an extremely impressive organization. AWSC not only funds the shark research here but also aims to educate the public on sharks and how to live alongside them.
I am giving this very brief history so that you can understand how it was for Chris & I to arrive 8 years later and witness the incredible work that has been done.
The Conservancy solely funds the current research programs that are primarily looking at a population baseline study. The study in being undertaken by a Phd Student, Megan Winton (supervised by Dr Greg Skomal).
To date they have tagged 173 individual sharks (mostly with acoustic tags) and using underwater GoPro footage approximately 300 different sharks have been identified. We had the great privilege of joining the research team for a day out on the water and I will talk in greater detail about this a bit further on.
I would first like to talk about the feel around Cape Cod and particularly Chatham. Shark Fever has well and truly taken hold and walking around seeing all the shark merchandise for sale, hearing the shark talk on TV and other media channels, it feels like fever pitch.
Chris was fortunate enough to have the opportunity of talking to a sellout crowd at Chatham Bars Inn and it was fantastic for us to see how much positive interest and enthusiasm for sharks lies within the community.
Sharks are well and truly in the limelight now and of course the great challenge will be to find peaceful and safe ways for both human water users and sharks to co-exist. Cape Cod has a huge amount of ocean front with many bathing beaches and surf spots. Grey seals dot the whole coastline, with some areas housing large colonies, and of course the sharks are patrolling close to the beaches. The Conservancy and authorities are working closely together and I feel confident that good solutions will be found. As always though, people need to be extremely mindful when entering the water that they do so in a shark’s world and they need to make informed choices as to which beaches they swim at.
The Conservancy has also done a phenomenal job in the creation of a shark education center in Chatham. Visitor numbers are increasing year on year. If you were to visit you’ll find great info on sharks and the research they are doing, alongside public safety information. Additionally, they have a VR shark experience which I thought was fantastic for those not able to dive and have that kind of experience with sharks. I did the Great Hammerhead experience in The Bahamas and I literally felt as if I was right there. It is well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Our day with the research team dawned with perfect weather meaning sunlight, no swell and flat seas. The modus operandi here is to make use of a spotter plane to spot for sharks and then to guide the research boat on to the shark. Bait may not be used to attract the sharks so the team has really had to come up with an ingenious way of working with them and we were amazed at how successful they have been with their tagging and ID work despite these working limitations.
The research boat has been modified to include a “Pulpit” that reaches over the bow of the boat and from here Greg is able to tag and also use an extended pole camera in order to obtain shark ID footage. Everything is done in a non-invasive fashion which to me is so important for the sharks.
As we headed out the inlet, Wayne, our eye in the sky, had already seen 4 sharks just outside the harbor area. Within no time we were onto our first shark of the day. It was extremely exciting for us to see that dark shadow beneath the ocean surface…our first Cape Cod shark!
After obtaining ID footage we were then directed onto the next animal. This time the hydrophone was able to tell us it was already a tagged animal and re-sight information was gathered.
As we moved further south towards Monomoy we picked up on an extremely interactive animal. He seemed to love the pole camera and spent a good 20 minutes with us right on the surface and just below, the view of him was really excellent. As he began to lose interest in us he proceeded directly to the shoreline and into very shallow water. A number of large grey seals were in the surf and these seemed to be of obvious interest to him. He definitely seemed to be in hunting mode.
His routine was to make a straight line for the beach and then edge towards the seals. As soon as it became too shallow he would do a very quick about turn. Our thinking was that perhaps a pectoral fin or other part of his body would touch sand and this would be the que to get back out to deeper water. He did this multiple times, going in and out, testing for the right seal. I guess an opportunity didn’t present itself or the seals were too large so we never saw an actual chase but the intent was certainly there.
It was an incredible piece of behavior to witness and heart-pounding stuff when the shark was in such shallow water. It is definitely the shallowest I have ever seen a great white go.
Over the course of the day we had approximately 12 different sharks close to the boat, 2 of which were tagged and 5 were already tagged adding to the re-sight information. At one point the spotter plane radioed down that he had 9 different sharks visible at one time and further norther another pilot had another 10 different sharks visibly, making it 19 in total. Now that is a lot of sharks! Having said that this is probably the North Atlantic stronghold of the species and with perhaps less than a thousand sharks it still makes them extremely rare animals where every animal in the population is important.
On our last day we had another great opportunity of going whale watching off Chatham. From late April to November each year around 4000 Humpback whales migrate here from The Caribbean to feed. They are mostly feeding on Sand Lance (locally known as Sand eels) and on occasion bubble-net feeding can be seen. Although we did not see this we were surrounded by many groups very close to the boat. My favorite as always is just listening to the whales as they exhale in that loud bellow like manner of theirs!
Cape Cod had one final surprise and highlight in store for us, a helicopter flight along the coastline. Being in the air is definitely the best way to experience the Cape Cod great white sharks and not long after taking off we had already spotted 2 sharks from the air. These large sharks stand out like a sore thumb and with no swell again we really had a great opportunity to watch more behavior. Sure enough, one of the animals started displaying a purposeful perpendicular approach to the beach and came into extremely shallow water, in fact the shark must have been touching sand at one point. As this area was away from bathing beaches a number of seals were in the shallows. We watched as this shark behaved in the same fashion as our boat-based day. In and out it would swim, definitely in a hunting patrol mode. After observing 4 occasions of this in and out approach, we moved further south … bad move! By the time we started to fly back North we spotted a huge amount of thrashing in the water. Yes, you guessed it….a predation! We must have missed the initial strike by seconds and got above just as the shark began shaking the carcass, a huge pool of blood forming around it in a small area. The carcass was very quickly consumed with a little more thrashing around. We just could not believe what we had just seen and we definitely understood we had gotten the Cape Cod shark highlight package in a just a few days.
We would like to say a huge thank you to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy for sharing their resources with us. We are left with the impression of a very healthy shark population being studied and monitored by dedicated scientists backed by a very impressive self-funded NPO who have both the sharks and water users very best interests at heart. A number of individuals have volunteered massive amounts of time and resources to make this all happen and although shark-human interactions are always going to be a possibility, we do see all the right parties at play here fighting for a positive future.