Hypnotic, elusive, and highly charismatic…. Even at a benefit lecture by a world-renowned photographer and a media-savvy scientist, undoubtedly the great white shark was the star.
Everybody wants to know about this A-lister among fish that makes its seasonal vacation home just off New England’s coasts. So like a feeding frenzy of fans, a sold-out, starstruck crowd packed the Chatham Bars Inn for a joint presentation by acclaimed National Geographic photojournalist and New England Ocean Odyssey collaborator Brian Skerry, and Greg Skomal, senior fisheries expert for Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and director of the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. The lecture was a benefit for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.
Skerry opened the evening with “Ocean Soul,” the luminously pictorial, ever-evolving documentation of his travels covering marine wildlife all over the globe. He used a photograph of a baby shark in a mangrove nursery to begin a narration of oceanic habitat in Bimini, where ecosystems of reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove stands interconnect. “Animals flow between all of these,” he pointed out. Skerry emphasized the absolute interdependence of life in marine habitats: “Every animal plays a role,” he said. “Everything matters.”
That interdependence, of course, includes sharks. Skerry’s global perspective set the stage for Skomal’s thrilling regional focus on sharks in New England’s coastal waters. For of the distinct great white shark populations all over the world – in the northeast and northwest Pacific, around the coast of South Africa, and the coasts of Australia and New Zealand – there is one population of great whites that loves Cape Cod. Teeming grey seal populations due to climatic shifts have over the past decade made the Cape a hot vacation spot for this celebrity predatory jet set.
The frequency and predictability of shark visits to the Cape – one shark nicknamed “Julia” returns on almost the exact same date every year – give researchers the rare advantage of access to these animals.
Above: Dr. Greg Skomal and his team tracking and tagging great white sharks near Chatham.
Aerial spotters help Skomal and his team locate the sharks. Once a shark is spotted, the challenge of tagging begins, with a biologist balancing on the pulpit of a boat to lance the fish’s dorsal fin with an electronic tag via an intramuscular dart. Buoys and receivers on the ocean then create transects that collect data about sharks in the area.
New technology has given researchers more access to sharks, through acoustic tags, pop-up satellite tags, and AUVs (i.e., drones) – autonomous underwater vehicles that send back revealing videos of shark behaviors.
“We know that they are dynamic and highly migratory, with complex migratory patterns,” said Skomal. “They are warm-bodied, so they can go anyplace they want. They are far more remarkable than we had ever imagined.”
But for all we have discovered about sharks, there is still so much we don’t know. “We are just getting started with studying these animals in this area,” said Skomal, who has been concentrating almost exclusively on shark research for the last six years. He invited young people fascinated by the sea to consider a career in shark science, which offers ample opportunities for exploration, such as solving the mystery of white sharks’ 800-meter-deep dives off of the continental shelf. What are they doing down there?
Skomal emphasizes the importance of sharks as apex predators for maintaining sustainable fisheries. Just like terrestrial predators picking off the sick and weak members of a herd, sharks keep fish stocks healthy by predating the less viable members of a fish school. So they are in fact allies of fishermen, being fishermen themselves!
Skomal’s research on the migratory pathways of these formidable fish could be a valuable resource for policymakers in the creation of protected areas where sharks can be safe from hunting and harassment, in order to replenish their populations so critical to the balance of a healthy ocean ecosystem. Every animal matters.
And his advice for humans sharing the water with these grand and intimidating animals? Show common sense and healthy respect. And don’t swim in the deep channels close to shore.