Cape Cod Adjusts to a New Normal (Rhymes With 'Dorsal')

Great White Sharks Mix With Boaters, Tourists
Author:
Updated:
Original:
Shark bigger cropped

Photo courtesy of Mike Lemery, mikelemery.com

Growing up on a bay beside the Cape Cod Canal, I never saw a great white shark. I never spoke to anyone who had seen a great white, nor did I ever speak to anyone who had spoken to someone else who had seen a great white.

The first great white I ever saw was at the Buzzards Bay Theater when the movie Jaws opened in the summer of 1975.

That was just three years after the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, an act of Congress that goes along way in explaining this remarkable photo.

The photographer is Mike Lemery of Schenectady, N.Y., who was on Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro over Labor Day weekend, when he aimed his camera at the same time a great white obliging lept from the water ahead of a passing sailboat. Lemery generously agreed to share this picture with PassageMaker readers, so next time you're having a beer, please tip your glass to him.

Here's what the Atlantic Great White Shark Conservancy says: 

It's hard to imagine a 2000-pound animal launching itself out of the water while hunting, but the great white shark does just that. This spectacular behavior is called breaching, and great white sharks breach in order to catch fast-moving prey like seals. Swimming fast at the surface, sharks can reach 40 miles per hour and fly 10 feet into the air; however, breaching is relatively rare because the shark has to use so much energy to propel itself.

The reason great whites were practically non-existent in the waters around Cape Cod during my childhood was that we had cut off their supply of food, so these magnificent predators had quit coming to visit. Great whites like to eat seals, and by the 1960s there were hardly any seals left. Why was that?

New England lobster fishermen were historically an unsentimental lot, and their societies functioned pretty much like gangs with their own rules and priorities. The lobstermen didn't like the fact that seals ate "their" lobsters, so they routinely shot them. Their weapon of choice was the 12-gauge shotgun. One particularly imaginative fisherman once asserted that seals would actually open his traps despite their lack of opposing thumbs.

The Marine Mammal Act put a stop to the slaughter for the most part, but it took until the 1980s before we started to see colonies of seals sunning themselves on our rocks and beaches in large numbers. Now there are thousands.

Forty seven years after passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, seals are thrive in New England waters, including here on Cape Cod, where they are arrayed like a buffet at the Great White Inn.

Forty seven years after passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, seals are thrive in New England waters, including here on Cape Cod, where they are arrayed like a buffet at the Great White Inn.

Hardly a day goes by now that doesn't include a news report of some Cape Cod beach being closed because of shark sightings. Just a few days after Lemery's photo hit the news, another photographer caught a picture of a great white swimming next to what had to have been a terrified surfer.

Despite decades of suburbanization, Cape Cod is still a summer tourist retreat. The drumbeat of shark sightings, and not just any shark, but the baddest of the bad, is now worrisome to the tourist industry. Some of its leaders have asked what can be done about the "shark problem."

The answer, of course, is nothing. Myself, I wouldn't go in the water if I thought there was a nurse shark under there. I can't begin to imagine going for a dip at Head of the Meadow, the place of the breaching great white.

Related