Among some other things too personal to talk about, I am terrified of brown bears, big cats, and great white sharks. In the summer I limit myself to the northeast, where I probably don’t see any bears except black bears, which don’t scare me, or no big cats. However, I do spend time on Cape Cod where there are lots of great white sharks. Articles about shark attacks sometimes mention that a person is more likely to die in a car accident, have a heart attack on the beach, or drown in the sea on the way to the beach than to be killed by a shark. I’ve never seen a car accident on the way to the beach, or someone who had a heart attack or drowned, but I saw someone attacked by a shark on Longnook Beach in Truro in August 2018. And the following September, a young man in Wellfleet was killed by a shark at Newcomb Hollow, the beach where I grew up.
The man attacked on Longnook was a doctor from Scarsdale. The people on the beach carried him on towels to a rescue team who had a stretcher, and then they climbed the dunes to an ambulance in the parking lot. It was an antique-looking gesture, like a painting, as if it were being carried from the field at Thermopylae. He had swum a little above his head in the water. Great white sharks can be close to you and invisible, especially at high tide. From research by Greg Skomal, recognized as the leading authority on great white sharks in the North Atlantic, I know that great white sharks at the Cape spend about half their time in water that is less than five meters deep.
I also know from Skomal’s research that Cape Cod is the largest collection point for great white sharks in the North Atlantic. Skomal has marked two hundred and thirty of them since 2009. He tagged fifty of them in 2019 and thirty-eight last year – because of the pandemic, he couldn’t spend as many days on the water as he would have liked. He started tagging them this summer in July, and so far he’s tagged nearly twenty. Including sharks, which he recognized based on fin and scar patterns, he has identified more than four hundred great white sharks off the Cape. Dozens of them return to the Cape as regularly as I do, that is, every year. Like me, many of them arrive in August. Nobody knows exactly where they will spend the rest of the year.
All winter long I have wondered how I would feel in the water this summer now that I know how many great white sharks there are offshore. I take precautions, of course. I consult an app called Sharktivity, operated by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, an organization that helps pay for Skomal’s boat and the spotter plane that finds the sharks for him. Sharktivity relies on reports from people on the beach and from sensors in the water to detect movement from the tagged sharks that pass them. Newcomb Hollow Beach now has a sensor, but an untagged shark is undetectable to it. My personal shark spotting method involves counting seals, which the sharks primarily feed on. Seals are ubiquitous on the outer cape. They pass Longnook like commuters on their way to the big seal hunt about three miles north, near Head of the Meadow Beach. When I see one, I assume there is no shark around. “The seals go where they know they are safe, especially older seals,” Skomal said. “The seals found out.”
Before I go into the water, I also do a little arithmetic. I count how many swimmers there are and how many surfers, and I notice how far they go, then I stand under them and use them as human shields. This is my last line of defense, and it may be useless, but that’s all I have.
I don’t actually swim in the sea, but bodysurf, which means that I’m mostly deeper than my hips, but not as deep as my shoulders in the water – on the edge of the so-called surf zone. A few years ago Skomal told me that sharks won’t actually enter the surf zone. You seem to have an innate fear of getting stranded, he said. A few weeks ago he told me that now he thinks if a great white shark sees something it wants in the surf zone, it will get it if the water isn’t too shallow. Apparently, just like in deep water, they go wherever they want. I think I’m glad I knew, but I felt safer when I didn’t.
The water at the cape is cold so I’m wearing a wetsuit. There’s no research to suggest that a wetsuit will make a great white shark think a person is a seal, but neither is there any research that says it doesn’t. Skomal says there is no research at all on what great white sharks think. Nobody really knows why great white sharks attack humans except to speculate that humans look like seals to them.
“If I had an answer, it would be published in a high profile magazine,” Skomal told me. “Shark attacks are a delicate business because there are so few of them. Patterns are hard to find and the incoming data is inconsistent and missing. It is an eyewitness, so only partially reliable. Also, you don’t have and don’t want the sample size. I don’t want to draw from two hundred shark attacks. “
I remember being taught in high school that the longer something doesn’t happen, the more likely it is. I wasn’t a great student, and I may be wrong, but I’ve thought about it a lot during the winter and spring, and I think about it while standing on the edge of the ocean. It sounds a little silly to say that body surfing is very important to me, but it is. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Not doing that would change my relationship with the sea. When I rarely swim in the water above my head, I feel like fancy bait and anything could show up and attack me.
When Jaws was released in the summer of 1975, it was playing at the Wellfleet Drive-In. I was twenty-three and a cop in Wellfleet. One of the other cops, Joe Hogan, was from Washington, DC. Whenever he could, he would park the police car in the back row of the drive-in theater and watch the movie, and sometimes I would be with him. If he was there when the shark stepped out of the water behind the fishing boat, he stiffened and grabbed the steering wheel. It was a child’s reaction, and I was impressed that an adult could be so inconspicuous. However, a year as a policeman in a small town, car accidents and deaths, husbands and wives fighting like animals made me realize that we all act more or less like children when the pressure is high.
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