Calls of 'Shark!' Bring Caution, Smiles To Beach

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A great white shark swims near Cape Cod, Mass., in 2004

A great white shark swims near Cape Cod, Mass., in 2004. Officials are using high-tech tags to track the movements of great whites near Chatham's Lighthouse Beach. Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries/AP

The appearance of great white sharks in shallow waters off Cape Cod is forcing coastal towns to close some beaches to swimming. But while some swimmers are unhappy, much of the community is excited.

Unlike in movies like Jaws, many residents are welcoming the presence of the great white sharks. They're good for science, and even good for business.

At Lighthouse Beach on the southeastern corner of Cape Cod, hundreds of beachgoers lie out along the wide expanse of sand. Kids construct sand castles. Teenagers play volleyball. And parents relax with the latest Stieg Larsson novel.

But only three little boys are brave enough to venture into the blue-green water, and they only go in waist deep. It's all because of three words: Great. White. Shark.

Two days before, a pilot spotted a 14-foot shark inside Chatham Harbor. And while it's three-quarters of a mile north of the beach, it was close enough for officials to temporarily ban ocean swimming.

But on the first day officials lifted that ban, Mary-Alice Sarandopolis and her daughter, Margo, were staying on the beach. "No swimming for the little one," Sarandopolis says. "Nope. Or myself. We won't venture out there this summer."

Sarandopolis says the two will pass the time collecting shells. That's it — they even left their swimsuits at home.

Hours later, longtime summer resident Bob Potter pedals up on his bicycle to a beach overlook. He likes that there are great white sharks here, he says — but he doesn't like the beach closures. "I think it's a total overreaction by the town officials," Potter says, adding that tourists making a short trip to Chatham are out of luck.

"But for people that live down here and vacation down here regularly, it's just amusing," he says.

For Greg Skomal, a senior biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the sharks offer a rare opportunity to conduct much needed research.

"Almost everything we know about white sharks just comes from one of a few sources," he says. "Again, the white shark is an elusive shark — and in the Atlantic, the white shark is not a species that is easy to find."

Yet for the past two years, the sharks have been regulars, giving Skomal the opportunity to get Sea World-close to the predators. He's part of a team that tagged five great whites with satellite transmitters in 2009, and four more this year.

The headline-making sharks are migrating from Florida to Cape Cod, Skomal says. They spend the majority of their time in waters whose temperature ranges between 59 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit.

The sharks come to the North Atlantic to feed on the 200,000 or so gray seals here. In recent years, the seal population has exploded, turning these waters into a sort of all-you-can-eat Vegas-style buffet for great whites.

And the arrival of great white sharks has made Skomal a regular on the Discovery Channel. People want to know about the sharks. "I think the fascination with white sharks is tied to the simple fact that every now and then — and it is a very rare occurrence —but, a white shark bites a person," he says.

Whenever the great white appears in Chatham waters, it's like the movie Jaws — but in reverse. Instead of fleeing, people are attracted. And Lisa Franz with the Chatham Chamber of Commerce says they are visiting by the busloads.

"Anytime you have people coming to Chatham for any reason, that helps business," Franz says. "And if it brings people to the businesses, it makes the business people happy."

These days, Lighthouse Beach holds an atypical cast of binocular-equipped onlookers wearing bluejeans and hiking boots. They mix with the shirtless — and are desperate to see a dorsal fin break through the surface.

With perfect water temperatures and seals by the thousands, it's likely the great whites are here to stay for the summer. And many in Chatham couldn't be happier.

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