One man whose job it is to understand is Greg Skomal, Ph.D., a 48-year-old marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and head of its Shark Research Program, one of the few state-funded programs like it in the country. Skomal, who lives and works on Martha’s Vineyard, matches a toothy, infectious smile with an inviting energy when the subject turns to fish. When the media need to know about sharks, he’s their man.
He first heard of the great whites off Chatham on a Thursday, an early-September day that found him in a windowless hotel conference room in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he’d been waiting to lead a discussion on the state’s shark regulations, when his cell phone buzzed. On the line was Bill Chaprales, a longtime Cape Cod fisherman who’d worked with Skomal since 1992 tagging sharks throughout Massachusetts waters. Skomal had barely said hello when his friend, who was on his boat in Cape Cod Bay hauling lobster traps, cut him off.
“Two white sharks!” Chaprales burst out. “Two white sharks off Monomoy Island. George [Breen, a spotter pilot] just saw them.”
Skomal asked his friend to slow down. “When George lands,” Chaprales yelled over the roar of his boat’s engine, “just call him!” Then he hung up.
Skomal is no stranger to such calls. Part of his work involves sifting through the information that comes to him, and it’s not that uncommon for a report of a great white to make its way to his Oak Bluffs office from excited charter-boat captains, kayakers, lifeguards, and town officials. Most of such sightings can be chalked up to mistaken identity: basking sharks mainly, whose size, color, and shape resemble a white’s. But with Chaprales and Breen, Skomal knew he was dealing with solid information; both men have been instrumental in the success of his office’s research, which has amassed data on more than 24,000 sharks.
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.”