Great White Sharks in New England | Feeding Frenzy
This is a field shaped by what isn’t known; data as basic as population estimates for many shark species are still a mystery. Little is known about where Atlantic whites winter, for example, or the routes they follow after they leave northern waters in mid-autumn. As of early September 2009, not a single Atlantic white had ever been successfully satellite-tagged–something Skomal, by his own admission, was more than a little obsessed to rectify. “I feel like Ahab,” he’d sometimes say. “My great white whale is the great white shark.”
Skomal knew he needed to get up in the air to verify the sharks himself, of course–preferably that afternoon. And if they were indeed great whites, he’d need to gather his tagging equipment, pull his team together, and get out on the water on the next good day.
Just before the meeting broke for lunch, Skomal spoke with Breen. “Yeah, they were whites,” the pilot said. “They were right up in the shallows off Monomoy Beach, in the same area you guys have figured they’ve been.”
For some time now, Skomal had been pushing the idea not only that a small number of Atlantic whites had made it as far north as New England but that these deep-water fish may have a reason to come close to shore. More than a decade of rapid expansion of the grey-seal population on Muskeget and Monomoy islands had introduced an easy and accessible food source, and with it, in recent years, a ratcheting-up of credible info from around Massachusetts: a small dead white washing up on Nantucket in 2008; two gutted seals found on a beach in Chatham in 2007; the sighting by a couple of Chatham beachgoers of a shark cutting a seal in half with a single bite in 2006. And, most revealing, a great white trapped in a saltwater pond and caught live on Naushon Island, off Woods Hole, in 2004.
By 2:30 Skomal was up in the air, crammed into a small single-engine plane, tucked behind Breen, the pilot, and clutching a point-and-shoot camera. Breen angled east, a cloudless sky overhead, the visibility nearly perfect as pilot and biologist approached Monomoy, south of Chatham. They stayed low, about 900 feet from the ground, so that Skomal could scan the water for shapes and shadows. In the distance he saw seals languishing on the rocks and in the dark-blue sea. Then, about a minute later, Skomal saw a long, wide body just a few feet under the water, its white underbelly apparent. Skomal yelled and leaned out the plane’s small door as he snapped away with his camera. Breen then buzzed up to Chatham and turned around to take another pass. On this second run, Skomal caught sight of an even more incredible scene: a loose cluster of five whites patrolling the water, most of them 15 feet or so long, none more than a couple of hundred feet from land. “There was no doubt what they were,” says Skomal. “I’m beaming. I’m slapping George on the back. I’m having the time of my life. What else could they be? It’s New England. Few fish ever get that big.”
No, they don’t. In the ever-changing environment that is the North Atlantic, where the clashing of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current creates a swirling mix of temperatures even in summer, the hospitality extends to only a small migratory number–blues, sand tigers, porbeagles, makos, threshers, baskers, and dogfish, predominantly–of the more than 450 species of sharks that rule the world’s oceans.
But that doesn’t diminish the importance of learning about these fish. And the most crucial research tool a marine biologist like Greg Skomal has at his disposal is the pop-up satellite tag, a $3,500 piece of technology that can help scientists piece together the story of a particular shark and its migratory habits over a period of several months. But its utilization requires a confluence of perfection.
The device itself isn’t all that impressive looking. The researcher sticks the tag–about six inches long, with a mushroomed head and a short antenna–at the back of the dorsal fin with a small dart. Then a miniature computer inside the tag harvests three main pieces of information: light levels, water temperatures, and ocean depths. At a preprogrammed time, the tag sends out a burst of electricity, which quickly corrodes the aluminum pin that keeps it tethered to the dart. When it’s released, the tag floats to the water’s surface and begins winging packets of info to the nearest satellite, which then transmits them back to computers on earth to be interpreted and analyzed.
But to collect all that information, there can’t be any hiccups. Not only does a shark have to be close to shore; it has to be within three feet of the water’s surface for the researcher to even have a chance of tagging it–
a precision-driven process that involves the deft touch of an experienced harpooner standing at the end of a narrow, shaky pulpit extending 20 feet out from the boat’s bow. Get all that right, and things can still get screwed up by a faulty tag, which is what happened to Skomal in 2004 when one device popped off the Naushon shark just a few days after he’d attached it. “I was heartbroken,” recalls Skomal. “I went from the highest highs in life to the lowest lows.”
Then there’s the weather. If it’s too windy or too cloudy, plane spotters can’t find sharks. Friday, for example–the day after Breen’s initial spotting–had been cut short after thick clouds rolled in over the Cape. Saturday, however, proved perfect. Deep-blue skies, limited wind, calm water; by 8 a.m. Skomal and his small crew–his assistant John Chisholm and Bill Chaprales and his son Nick–were circling the Chatham waters in Chaprales’s boat, guided by spotter pilots George Breen and Wayne Davis, a few hundred feet off Monomoy Beach.
The sharks were there, too, easy enough to locate, and three times Nick motored the boat up to a fish only to find that it was too deep to be tagged. Finally, at a little past 8:30, the crew rolled up on a small shark, maybe eight feet long, swimming in the shallows. With Skomal standing just behind him, Chaprales staked out his position at the end of the pulpit and waited. The 12-foot aluminum pole dangled from his right hand over the water, positioned not for throwing but for dropping onto the unsuspecting shark. After a few tense moments, he let it go, the small dart landing perfectly on the fish. “Yeah!” he yelled. Skomal and the others whooped it up, all of them taken aback by the sheer ease of it all. “We’d been out there an hour,” Skomal says. “I’d been waiting 30 years for this, but then …” He pauses and smiles: “… Greed kicks in. We’re here. Let’s not screw around. Let’s get more.”
Over the next week, in between bouts of stormy weather, the team tagged four more of the estimated 12 sharks that had come near Chatham. Reporters jumped on the news. All those tourists arrived. And the whole Chatham frenzy began its two-week run. “There were people coming down to the beach thinking literally that they could pet a shark,” says Chatham’s harbormaster, Stuart Smith. “They figured there were that many of them. ‘I’m here to see sharks. Where are they?'”
“How am I supposed to know?” Smith would tell them. He’d point to the water, where they could see Skomal and his crew in the distance searching for the fish. “There,” he’d say. “They’re somewhere out there.”
They are out there. But aside from people like Skomal and those who still manage to carve out a living catching fish, the chance to see a shark, to get close to the mystery, is rare. In part, that explains what happened in Chatham. It also explains the late-July circus that happens every year in downtown Oak Bluffs: the Boston Big Game Fishing Club’s “Monster Shark Tournament,” the longest-running such event in New England and perhaps the largest of its kind in the world. It’s a unique, if controversial, setting, where man and shark aren’t walled off by aquarium glass or a movie screen. Nowhere do the fascination with and fear of these fish converge as they do here.
It’s July 2009, and this year, 130 captains have forked over the $1,500 entry fee and steamed their boats–everything from swanky 80-foot luxury crafts from Florida to smaller 30-footers from nearby Plymouth and Nantucket–here for a chance to win some cash and perhaps get a shot at a record or two. Right now, though, none of those boats is in sight. They’re all en route, returning after a full day of trolling and chumming in faraway fishing hotspots with names like “the Fingers,” “the Dump,” and “the Banana.”