Summer on Cape Cod is a New England tradition for hundreds of thousands of beach lovers, including many tourists from Connecticut. It’s also a warmer weather destination for one of the ocean’s most feared hunters, the Great White Shark.
Last summer, a swimmer was attacked off of Truro, but it is Chatham where the Great White makes its meat market. Seals are everywhere…in the harbor, on the beach, just off the beach. Fishermen have seen Great Whites take seals within just ten feet of the shore.
Anchored in the middle of the feeding grounds, within sight of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is the shark research ship, the OCEARCH. Back after tagging and studying two Great Whites last summer, the crew was approved for permits to fish closer to shore with catch boat, The Contender.
On the team of marine scientists is Fairfield native, Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior marine fisheries biologist with the state who also leads the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. “The more we know about this shark, the better equipped folks who are running beaches will be in terms of public safety,” Skomal said.
On a recent expedition to South Africa, OCEARCH caught, studied and tagged forty Great Whites in ninety days. Cape Cod Great Whites have been a challenge. Prior to our arrival onboard, the crew successfully caught and released only one Great White they named Betsy. “They’re very finicky here, we like to refer to them as being much more wild,” Skomal said. In other words, these sharks often get spooked by boats and the people on them.
Lucky for us, shark activity was high. At one time, three Great Whites, including a large male and a large female, were swimming around the catch boat. Using a seal decoy, the crew played a game of cat and mouse with the sharks for hours, successfully tricking one into taking the bait, a chunk of tuna.
After a slow tow to the OCEARCH, Contender’s crew guided the nearly 15 foot, 2300 pound female into the “cradle.” After the platform was raised out of the water and a hose was inserted through the shark’s jaws to pump life-preserving saltwater through its gills, the team of scientists sprung into action like a pit crew.
15 minutes is their time limit on a big fish out of water. The scientists always try to perform twelve tests, including ultrasounds, blood work, and fin clips. A satellite transmitter and a datalogger are attached to the dorsal fin, and if time permits, a longer lasting passive acoustic monitor is surgically implanted in the Great White’s belly.
The platform lowered back in the water, Captain Brett McBride had a hold of the Great White’s tail to make sure she was strong enough to swim away. Katherine, as they named her, responded well. “She was a really healthy shark, you could see she was kicking really strong all the way through,” McBride said.
Every successful release returns valuable information on health, behavior, and the whereabouts of Great Whites. After all, where they are is where a swimmer or surfer doesn’t want to be. “Sharks are the lion of the ocean and there’s no future for the ocean without lots of sharks,” said Chris Fischer, the expedition leader with the ironic name. “They are the balance keeper.”