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 dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

It's official. They're here. Cold water or not.

click image to enlarge

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
click image to enlarge

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.

SEE THE SHARKS

To see Mary Lee or other great white sharks in the Ocearch study: sharks-ocearch.verite.com/

After a shark was sighted off the Wells coast Thursday, little more came from the rare report of a dorsal fin off the Maine beach. But Tuesday, Massachusetts shark expert Greg Skomal confirmed great white sharks are in Maine waters just as he launched a ground-breaking study on the species.

Three different specimens cruised up here the past year wearing acoustic transmission tags, proving great whites migrate to Maine, said Skomal, the shark biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

So the argument that Maine waters are too cold for great white sharks doesn't hold water, not one drop from the Gulf of Maine.

In fact, the great white shark population has grown so robust around Cape Cod, 11 coastal towns spent $45,000 this year to line the beaches with pamphlets and great white shark warning signs. And on Tuesday, Skomal launched the first-ever study using satellite transmitters on great white sharks in the Atlantic Ocean, giving scientists, indeed the general public, a real-time look at where these sharks are spending time.

Finally great white sharks along the Eastern seaboard can be tracked and their travel routes plotted for all to see on the website of the research vessel, Ocearch, at www.ocearch.org.

And Skomal said it's only a matter of time before one of these high-tech tags ends up on a great white that travels to Maine. Then the proof that Maine serves as the feeding ground for seal-hungry whites will be documented for all to see.

"You are on the highway. It's just we haven't identified yet off the coast of Maine where any hot spots are. But given the sheer number of seals, you could have quite a few white sharks. It's just they come and go unnoticed," Skomal said.

Since 2009 Skomal has had more than 25,000 detections from acoustic transmitters on great white sharks traveling as far north as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and all the way to Cape Canaveral, Fla. Some of the 35 great white sharks Skomal has tagged reside in Cape Cod, but he said most are transient.

And Skomal said a few travel to Maine.

"I've got my proof in other tags. I know they do occur in the Gulf of Maine, maybe not in terms of the numbers that we're seeing in Cape Cod. But once we get more (real-time) tags in now, it will be perfect timing for the sharks heading north. You'll be getting detections in your neck of the woods in September, October, November," Skomal said.

HIGH-TECH TAG

In the past four years Skomal has tagged great white sharks off the Cape Cod coast using a few different kinds of acoustic transmitters, but none with the real-time satellite transmission capability. He said the high-tech tags he is using now will change the way great white sharks are studied, understood and maybe viewed by the public.

As Skomal waited Tuesday aboard his 126-foot research vessel to catch a great white shark to put a satellite-based tag on another dorsal fin, he mused about the one massive shark that has become the poster girl for his study.

The 16-foot-long, 3,500-pound great white tagged by the Ocearch team on Sept. 17, off Cape Cod during the study's pilot project, has traveled so far and come in so close to so many beaches, Skomal said, "Mary Lee" is now being followed worldwide.

"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.

SWIMMERS TAKE NOTICE

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:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph

 

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