More Seals Means More Great White Sharks In Cape Cod

Great white sharks are becoming a more common sight along the East Coast. Beach closures are not unusual along Cape Cod, but most beach-goers are taking the new threat in stride.

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This time of year, the beaches of Cape Cod are crowded with tourists. But another visitor, the great white shark, also patrols these waters. Sharks come to prey on seals, whose numbers have skyrocketed in recent years. So up and down the cape's Atlantic shoreline, efforts are under way to deal with the potential threat these predators pose. Brian Morris from member station WCAI reports.

BRIAN MORRIS, BYLINE: Russell Cook from Fitchburg, Massachusetts, sits at a picnic table with his family at Nauset Beach in Orleans. Cook says he doesn't mind sharing his vacation with a few sharks.

RUSSELL COOK: I think the sharks are here for a reason: because there's too many seals. The seals are protected. All they do is eat all the fish and eat all the lobsters, and the sharks are doing us all a big favor, thinning the herd. They got people looking. And if you need to get out of the water, get out of the water. I'm not going to let it deter my vacation.

MORRIS: About six feet from Cook is a large new sign that greets visitors at all Cape Cod ocean beaches. It warns that great white sharks live in these waters. As if to hammer the point home, an illustration of a fierce-looking great white dominates the sign. Some people stop to read, but most continue down to the beach. Alex Quigley from Kingston, New York, says he isn't worried.

ALEX QUIGLEY: You know, if you don't get yourself out too deep, I think you'll be fine. I mean, honestly, you know, it's not very often that people even get fatally wounded or anything.

MORRIS: Over the past winter, town officials created a unified plan for dealing with shark sightings.

VINCE GULOTTA: We close the beach pretty quickly once we can verify it and then ask questions later. Always good to err on the side of safety.

MORRIS: That's Vince Gulotta, a beach supervisor at Chatham's Lighthouse Beach. He says he also would notify lifeguards at other beaches within minutes alerting them to the closing. So far, he hasn't had to activate the plan this summer. But there have been shark sightings at two other cape beaches prompting one-hour closings.

GULOTTA: It's a new reality. We got some new neighbors. And we got to coexist with them the best we can.

MORRIS: Beachgoers are advised not to swim close to seals. But that's often a guessing game because seals tend to pop up anywhere, including just a few yards off crowded public beaches, and there's no way to tell if a shark is close behind.

GULOTTA: Normally, it's very hard to see from the beach because the great whites swim so deep that it very rarely shows its dorsal fin unless it's going in for a seal attack.

MORRIS: Originally, it was thought that sharks cruising local waters would drive away tourists. But if anything, shark fascination has been a boon for local business. Sharks have become quaint. In Chatham, a shark-themed cottage industry has sprung up along Main Street. Many stores now carry shark T-shirts and hats, inflatable sharks, shark jaw picture frames and other shark-related novelty items.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have, like, very few shark T-shirts left. On the left-hand side, right up here, I have a couple of them.

MORRIS: Despite the shark's newfound commercial appeal, there's always the lurking possibility, however small, of a serious shark attack. Patricia Salvina from Athens, New York, is vacationing on the cape with friends. There are 13 kids in their group. That's reason enough for her to veto swimming in the waters off Chatham.

PATRICIA SALVINA: Yeah. We're not going in. Just not willing to take a chance with all these kids. Too many kids to keep an eye on. You know, they understand we don't want them to be shark meat.

(LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: Beach supervisor Vince Gulotta says much of people's fear can be traced back to that famous movie of 38 years ago.

GULOTTA: I think that ever since "Jaws" came out, there's a primordial fear in human beings of things they can't see that might be in the water beneath them, that awful feeling of vulnerability.

MORRIS: Most agree that the great white sharks aren't here to stalk humans, only seals. But a great white sometimes can't tell the difference, and no one wants to be the next victim of that kind of mistaken identity. For NPR News, I'm Brian Morris on Cape Cod.

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