Ever since Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold caught the “great store of codfish” that gave the area its name, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has been chiefly associated with one harmless, tasty ocean dweller and the seafood-and-sun lifestyle that goes along with it. But lately another fish is threatening to overtake cod as the cape’s most prominent sea-life avatar: the great white shark.
A shark attack off the cape killed a 26-year-old man last summer, just a month after an attack caused serious injury to another man, and these episodes have plunged the idyllic summertime destination into a world of drones, shark repellants, tourniquets, GoFundMe campaigns, and focus groups. As the high season for the area is set to begin, government officials, full-time residents, and vacationers are grappling with the seemingly opposing truths that shark attacks are extremely rare and that they sure don’t want to see another one.
“It’s a game-changer, certainly,” said Greg Johnson, a longtime lifeguard on Nauset Beach. “It’s not what I signed on for back in 1979.” For the past few years, lifeguard training has ballooned to include a significant amount of first aid.
Olaf Valli, owner of a Wellfleet surf shop called Sickday, finds himself conflicted. On the one hand, he believes the media has overdone it with shark attack coverage, present company included. “There’s been way too much emphasis and excitement over it,” he said. On the other hand, after the fatal attack, his shop has started carrying a $500 wetsuit designed to deter sharks. “Now that the incident happened, people are definitely willing to spend that kind of money on it. It’s always been a real risk, but something about it actually coming into fruition makes it more tangible for people.”
The shop also sells magnetic wristbands and so-called shark shields, both designed to ward off the predators. There is some evidence that sharks stay away from black-and-white stripes, so there is also all manner of zebra-core surf gear on the market, including boards striped on the bottom, the better for sharks looking at them from underwater. Valli said he would not stock any products that haven’t been tested with third-party research, but he also acknowledged that there’s no way to know whether his widgets will help keep sharks away at the moment of truth. At least he’s pretty sure they won’t hurt. “Myself, I have one of those striped wetsuits, I have the shark shield, and I wear the shark band, even though I know that’s not effective for white sharks. It doesn’t matter. I’ll just put it all on.”
As local governments and the Cape Cod National Seashore, a national park, have amped up warning signs and outfitted beaches with new communication tools and first-aid gear—including stop-the-bleed kits and a Zodiac boat—some have protested that official efforts have focused too heavily on informing the public and responding to attacks after the fact rather than preventing them. So they essentially tried to deputize themselves. “We said, ‘Hey man, let’s do something on the front end,’ ” said Heather Doyle, who started a group called the Cape Cod Ocean Community to advocate for and fund pilots of tech-focused solutions to the sharks. “The idea that we have lifeguards sitting on the top of a ladder with binoculars seems a little antiquated.” The group organized a GoFundMe campaign to purchase a shark-detecting sonar buoy and raised $36,000 of its $200,000 goal before ending the effort in April because it was already too late in the season to install the equipment.
And then theoretically, of course, there’s always the possibility of just killing all the sharks. Or killing all the seals. “Shark mitigation”—using one polite term—“is a hotly debated topic,” said Wendy Northcross, the chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. Carla Hemmings, a rental manager for a Cape Cod real estate company, explained the divide: “You get the old Yankees that want to kill ’em, you got the new people that are like, ‘No! Save them!’ ” Killing off either the seals or the sharks seems unlikely because of the animals’ protected status, and the many scientists and conservancy groups in the area who are friends to them, but the divide can’t be good for area morale.
The Woods Hole Group, a Falmouth-based consulting firm, has been commissioned to study all the technology and tactics available—we haven’t even gotten into the nets, or seal contraception, or broadcasting orca sounds!—but the group will likely not be done until the end of summer, leaving the intervening months, basically this summer season, as a confusing, in-between sort of time. So Cape Codders are mostly left to guess whether any of these solutions would help without creating more problems of their own. Gavin Naylor, program director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, said that products and methods that have been tested in Western Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere—other hotbeds for shark activity—might not work in Cape Cod, or could have harmful repercussions. “These mitigation approaches need to be tailored precisely to the species in question—and in Cape Cod, that’s going to be white sharks—and also to the location,” he said. “White sharks will behave probably a little bit differently in Cape Cod waters than they would in South African waters.” Naylor instead preaches learning to live with the sharks in peace: “The best collective solution is for humans to start to understand that they actually share the environment with other species and treat them with the respect that they deserve.”
Why are sharks suddenly a problem, anyway? When writer Peter Smith spent summers on Cape Cod growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, it never occurred to anyone to be afraid of sharks. “Once every two years you would hear about maybe a shark got lost and ended up in the Cape Cod Canal,” he said. As for a shark coming close to the beach, much less a human, “We just thought, no, that’s something for the big wild sea rather than the more protected homey cape.” A lot’s changed since then, clearly. In recent years, great white sharks have started flocking to the cape, spurred on by warming waters and their pursuit of a huge seal population that has flourished in the wake of 1972’s Marine Mammal Protection Act.
On top of more immediate shark concerns, the problem has Cape Cod residents and government officials worrying that the area’s reputation as a haven for vacationers could be in trouble. “There’s been a lot of conversation through the winter about whether there’s going to be any impact or any change in consumer behavior,” Northcross said. Shred Hawthorne, a local handyman, musician, and surfer, put it more bluntly: “I’m worried that if somebody else gets killed, this place is all done,” he said.
One ironic aspect of shark mania, though, may be its capacity to attract and repel visitors in about equal measure: In previous years, people started to come to the Cape looking for sharks. It’s unclear whether last year’s tragic attack will have cured that impulse. “It’s kind of another tourist attraction, really,” said Don Wilding, a Cape Cod historian. “It’s fascinating in addition to being terrifying,” agreed Mary Connolly, whose parents own a house in Chatham. Some local shops have long sold shark-themed souvenirs, which has recently been a subject of controversy.
Ted Shrensel, who has been going to Cape Cod since childhood, said he thinks that most people have short memories, and if there are no more attacks this year, they’ll likely be inclined to just forget about the sharks on the cape, especially vacationers. “They’re just going for two weeks, you know?” Shrensel points to an essential truth underlying all of the shark attack conversation: Shark attacks are incredibly, inconceivably rare. The International Shark Attack File puts the odds of being attacked by a shark at 1 in 3,748,067, making it more likely that a given person would die from lightning, fireworks, or a train crash. Or by a ton of other ocean activities! “Any time you’re choosing to recreate, you’re assuming a certain level of risk. That goes for any activity you take on,” said Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore. He noted that the most common serious injuries at the seashore are caused by bike accidents.
Statistics be damned, some in Cape Cod say they favor the ultimate way to avoid shark attacks: staying out of the water. That’s what Doyle’s doing, even though she happens to be married to a surfer. “I’m a divided house,” she said. “I’ve been out of the water for a year, and my husband was in the water just this morning, in fact.” Hawthorne has also kept surfing, but that doesn’t mean he’s not scared. “That’s what I love to do,” he said. “You get in a car wreck, do you stop driving a car?”