August 4, 2013

Sounds like sharks: White with fright, bite

Readily adaptable to cooler waters, at least a few great white sharks venture into the Gulf of Maine, but they're after seals, not swimmers.

By Deirdre Fleming
Staff Writer

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Just when they thought it was safe to go back into the water, beach goers in Orleans, Mass., wisely stay ashore as a great white shark patrols the shallows in search of one of the many seals that populate Cape Cod and the islands.

Photo By George Breen/Courtesy of Dawson Farber, Orleans Harbormaster

Shark Diving in Guadalupe Island
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The Associated Press Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear ... and woe to the seal that gets pulled into the 2-inch serrated incisors of this great white that may be a seasonal guest.


To see Mary Lee or other great white sharks in the Ocearch study:

"That shark went within a few hundred yards off the beaches in North Carolina. When Mary Lee went to Bermuda, it was amazing. It was like a celebrity came to town. Everyone knew she arrived," Skomal said.

In the past, the tags affixed with a harpoon to a shark's body would measure its position somewhere within 100 to 150 miles.

The satellite-based tags track them within a few miles, showing many great white sharks hunt and feed just off shore.

To tag the sharks, biologists steer them toward a "cradle," a massive platform attached to Ocearch that lifts the big fish out of the water. Then Ocearch biologists quickly get samples from the shark as a transmission tag is being affixed to the dorsal fin.

"Let's face it, it's hard to get hands-on access to an animal that's bigger than 10 to 13 feet," Skomal said.

To date, Skomal has 35 great white sharks tagged with various types of transmitters since his work began in 2009. By the end of August, he wants 50.

By then, he hopes Mary Lee and other great whites carrying satellite tags will thrust the 16-million-year-old species into the public's consciousness and the Ocearch website will draw viewers like public television.

"Some scientists take data and keep it until there is enough to write an article for a journal. I'm a little more open," Skomal said. "Why not let everyone see it at the same time and accelerate the rate at which we're learning, and raise awareness? There are an amazing number of people who are interested in Mary Lee. I think she's created fascination instead of fear."

Already on Cape Cod, fear and fascination has spread among beach-goers this summer.


At the popular sand beaches along the Cape, great white sharks have drawn more sunbathers and even swimmers this summer, said Orleans harbormaster Dawson Farber.

"There are more people utilizing our beaches, coming down to sunbathe and swim, hoping to see a dorsal fin. It has the opposite effect from what the average person might assume," Farber said. "And if it holds true to last summer, the number of sightings will increase in August and September."

Despite warning signs going up along the beaches, and 11 coastal communities working on increasing public awareness of the dangers related to great white sharks, the public wants a look at one, Farber said.

"I don't think we can give any level of reassurance whatsoever. We are not pressing the panic button but there are inherent risks involved with going into the ocean. It is their home, we're just guests visiting," Farber said.

Meanwhile, in Maine great white sharks have not registered on the public's consciousness, at least not yet.

York harbormaster Don Day said there is no news, talk or fear regarding great white sharks at one of Maine's southernmost beaches.

But Day, a fisherman, knows what Skomal knows, that the harbor seals that have drawn the great white sharks to Cape Cod are here as well.

"It must have been seven years ago there was a shark seen off the beach and (York) beach did close at that time. I know because it was before my time as harbormaster, and I've been harbormaster for five years," Day said.

Day believes great white sharks are close. He's heard of them preying on seals at the Isles of Shoals, the group of tiny islands six miles off the coast of New Hampshire.

And Day believes they could be at Boon Island, six miles off the Wells coast. Like Skomal, he said it could be just a matter of time.

"Down there they have a big seal population, thousands. That's what they're after. We don't have that many seals, but the seal population is getting bigger and bigger everywhere. At the Isles of Shoals, there are more down there than there were a year ago. And at Boon Island," Day said. 

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

Twitter: Flemingpph


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