Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A shark's tale being told by scientist

A gray dorsal fin suddenly poked out of the shallow waters of the Cape Cod estuary. The slate gray coloring of the shark's back turned bright white at its stomach. The fish looked about 14 feet long.

''It was like a scene from 'Jaws,' " said Greg Skomal, the shark specialist for the state's Division of Marine Fisheries, of his first up-close glimpse of a great white shark in the Atlantic. ''I was absolutely in awe."

Skomal, 43, became a quasi-celebrity because of his role last fall in coaxing the 1,700-pound leviathan back out to sea from a Naushon Island lagoon. The female shark, nicknamed ''Gretel" by the public, captivated locals, tourists, and media from around the world during its 14-day captivity. Skomal, who studied great whites off the coast of southern Australia, relived his experience with the famous shark Wednesday night for a sold-out audience of 400 at the New England Aquarium.

The movie ''Jaws" gave the great white a bad reputation, said Skomal in an interview. Through his work, Skomal tries to debunk the myth that sharks prey on people. The great white is a small-brained fish, he said, and isn't good at telling the difference between humans and its usual prey -- dolphins, seals, or sea lions.

Two recent shark attacks along Florida's Gulf Coast injured one boy who was fishing in waist-deep water and killed a girl who was swimming 200 yards from shore; both sharks were believed to be the more aggressive bull shark. There have been no shark-related deaths in New England waters since 1936, when a teenage boy from Dorchester was killed in Mattapoisett by what was thought to be a great white, according to an aquarium spokesman.

Atlantic great whites are shrouded in mystery and tend to feed far off shore, Skomal said. Because sightings are rare, researchers do not know much about their migratory patterns.
''Personally, it was like a gift," Skomal said of the surprise visitor to the Cape. ''It was the single highlight of my career to spend 14 days with a great white in a New England estuary."

Doubting the shark would stick around for long, Skomal pulled out a spear and tagged the base of its dorsal fin with a satellite tracking device so he could study its movements over the next six months.

''I thought she'd swim out as easily as she swam in," he said. ''I was grossly wrong."

The next morning, the shark was still swimming near the middle of the pond where the water was deepest, at about 25 feet. It was too scared to head towards the shallow rocky opening to the ocean.

For the next week and a half, Skomal and about 20 others tried to lure the shark out with bait -- blue fish, tuna, even a dead seal. They made silt clouds out of powdered lime, hoping to cloud the water and edge the shark closer to sea. They generated an electric field. The shark ignored them all. Skomal spent nights at a friend's house in Falmouth, returning to his Martha's Vineyard home only to grab more clothes.

On the 11th day, local fishermen cast netting to force the shark to swim south. Skomal and the others nudged it through the opening by spraying water.

But the shark instead swam into a neighboring bay that was only about 4 feet deep. Again using water pumps, he and others finally freed the shark Oct. 4.

The next day, he spoke about the shark in an interview with ''Good Morning America." Afterward, he got an e-mail telling him the tracking device had fallen off the shark about an hour after it swam out to sea.

"It was like a kick in the stomach for me," said Skomal, who had spent up to six hours a day with the shark. ''I went from one of my highest highs to one of my lowest lows."

Still, Skomal said he hopes to have the opportunity to track more great white sharks in the Atlantic. Skomal predicts that the summer will bring one or two credible reports of a great white sighting within miles of Cape Cod.

''This was just the beginning of learning more about this elusive critter," he said.


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