July 24, 2011

Deirdre Fleming: No great white sharks spotted in Maine – yet

"You're going to need a bigger boat."

It's more than a favorite movie quote from "Jaws."

But talk about great white sharks in Maine and you get told one of two things.

Either they don't swim this far north because our waters are too cold, or any dangerous sharks here are found way off the coast.

Well, both are false.

Great white sharks have been seen and tagged by biologists the past two years just south of Boston, near a seal colony at Chatham, Mass. Their numbers may well be growing there.

And biologists have documented the fiery great white as far north as Nova Scotia, thriving as it does worldwide in waters between 54 and 75 degrees.

With Maine's coastal waters a balmy 65 right now, our coastline is quite comfy for those 10- to 15-foot great whites cruising near Massachusetts beaches, just 75 feet from shore.

Then there are the seals -- 30,000 along the Maine coast and a favorite food source for great whites.

Does this sound like the paranoid stuff of a traumatized child of the '70s, circa "Jaws?"

You bet.

So I called the leading expert on sharks in New England, the guy who affixed radio transmitters to 11 great whites in Cape Cod waters the past two years. Because just knowing that Dr. Greg Skomal has tagged that many great white sharks recently makes you wonder if those 11 represent the majority of great whites near Boston, or if there are likely more.

Well, it made me wonder.

And yes, I asked Skomal, with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the obvious question here.

How far north have those 11 bad boys gone?

Skomal, to my relief, said not far north of Boston. But then he added this:

"I would imagine with a high density of seals in an area along the coast of Maine, where the seals are all the time, and with easy access to them from the water in terms of depths, I would imagine there could be great white sharks there. I just don't know if you see them as easily."

The reason we don't see great white sharks along the coast of Maine may have more to do with the murkiness of our water than with the great white's territory, Skomal said.

And the fact that we don't have any shark experts looking.

"Maine is pretty rocky. We know they occur in the Gulf of Maine and off the coast of Maine," Skomal said. "The fact we don't see them is a function of the fact people aren't looking for them, they aren't flying looking for them like we are. And the topography might not lend itself to great whites being visible there."

Awesome.

Of course, as everyone says and the data proves, there hasn't been a great white shark attack in Maine in at least 100 years.

According to the International Shark Attack File out of the University of Florida, there has been just one attack in New England waters since 1936, occurring in Massachusetts.

But as we know, nature changes.

The population of great white sharks -- protected by the federal government because of low numbers since 1997 -- seems to be growing, and the food supply for sharks is definitely larger than 50 years ago, Skomal said.

Back in the 1960s, gray seals were killed off as a nuisance. Today they are on the rebound. That's why there are at least a dozen great white sharks hanging around Chatham, Mass., Skomal said. They're coming in for this new, robust food source.

And in Maine, there are two big breeding seal colonies: Seal and Green islands, up near Mount Desert Island.

"Yes, there are plenty of seals in Maine to attract them," Skomal confirmed.

But all that said, this column is not meant to incite paranoia to match my own.

The great white shark is, after all, but another link in the web of life, a member of ocean ecosystems worldwide, a critter that belongs along our coast as much as any.

Heck, in Cape Cod this year, tourists are heading to viewing points to marvel at the great white sharks swimming there.

Nobody go swimming with the seals is all I'm saying.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph

 

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