Researchers Report More Great White Sharks Along East Coast A restoration of the seal population in the Northeast means more activity among their greatest predator. Researchers on Cape Cod are studying the their movements and educating the public about safety.
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Researchers Report More Great White Sharks Along East Coast

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Researchers Report More Great White Sharks Along East Coast

Researchers Report More Great White Sharks Along East Coast

Researchers Report More Great White Sharks Along East Coast

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A restoration of the seal population in the Northeast means more activity among their greatest predator. Researchers on Cape Cod are studying the their movements and educating the public about safety.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The great white shark is a beast, the largest predatory fish in the world. And just off the beaches of Massachusetts' Cape Cod, there's been an increasing number of sightings in summer months. Craig Lemoult of member station WGBH reports that some people believe it is time for beachgoers to get used to the presence of the sharks.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Dr. Greg Skomal leans over a railing at the bow of a motorboat and reaches a long pole into the Atlantic.

GREG SKOMAL: Come on up. Come on up.

LEMOULT: Just below the surface of the water, only a few feet away, is an 11-foot white shark. Skomal is a fisheries biologist for the state, and on this day he's already seen several of them. But this one's shallow enough for him to try to jab it with that pole, tagging it with a transmitter that will let him and beach managers know when it's nearby.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Cheering).

MAN #1: Yeah. Right on, brother.

LEMOULT: Over the last seven, years Skomal has identified close to 200 white sharks swimming off Massachusetts and tagged nearly 80 of them. He says that's just a fraction of what's out here. Skomal points to a stretch of the shore.

SKOMAL: Yeah, it's few hundred seals right there on the beach. And you could see that the shark is hunting right off that pile of seals, you know? You really don't need the Ph.D. to figure this one out.

LEMOULT: The return of the seal population is actually a conservation success story. But it's come with a catch that's worrisome to more than just the seals. On Nauset Beach in Orleans, beach manager Nathan Sears says they used to shut things down when they heard from the researchers that white sharks were in the area, but then he realized the sharks aren't just there on the two days a week when the researchers go out.

NATHAN SEARS: It's seven days a week. There's dozens and possibly even more sharks swimming through these swim areas.

LEMOULT: For the most part, those sharks really aren't interested in people. There's only been one confirmed white shark bite off the Cape since 1936. But even so, Sears says beachgoers weren't being careful enough because he wasn't jamming a safety message down their throats.

SEARS: So we're at that point now.

LEMOULT: Sears stands next to a large sign - one of many he had put up this year - featuring a huge photo of a white shark, its mouth open, revealing blade-like teeth. The sign advertises the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy's new mobile phone app for tracking and reporting sightings. And it lists safety tips.

SEARS: Do not swim near seals. Swim close to shore, in waist-deep water. Avoid swimming at dawn and dusk.

LEMOULT: Liam's Clam Shack is just steps away from the sign.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm going to have a lobster roll, a tuna roll.

LEMOULT: The restaurant's owner, John Ohman, says he thinks all the signs and media attention that sharks are getting is overblown and bad for business.

JOHN OHMAN: I think it's unnecessary to alert the public to a danger that isn't as prevalent as one would think.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

LEMOULT: It's a hot and sunny beach day, but 11-year-old Kate Sincebaugh’s mom won't let her go in the water at all.

KATE SINCEBAUGH: There might be sharks somewhere around here.

LEMOULT: Others are willing to take more of a risk. Nancy Earley says she swims in deep water even when she sees seals swimming just feet away.

NANCY EARLEY: Yeah, I'm aware of it, and I just enjoy it so much. And, you know, it's too much fun to give up.

LEMOULT: Her sister, Eileen, stands by, throwing her hands up in disbelief.

EILEEN EARLEY: We've always been concerned about her going out, thinking about undertows and all those things, but now with the shark threats added? It's nerve-wracking.

LEMOULT: But she's a big girl, Eileen says. And if her sister wants to swim with the sharks, they can't stop her. For NPR News, I'm Craig Lemoult.

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