Sunday, July 23, 2006

Great white sharks get noticed!

When Gregory Skomal heard the news that a 12-foot shark forced the closure of Sagamore Beach in Bourne and Scusset Beach in Sandwich last weekend, he wasn’t surprised. Mr. Skomal, the shark expert for the state Division of Marine Fisheries, also wasn’t shocked when he learned a group of surfers in Chatham reported seeing a large shark circle and kill a seal about 70 feet from shore.

“We have a fairly sizeable population of sharks,” the Fairfield, Connecticut, native said this week. “This is a great place to study them.”From his office on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Skomal coordinates research efforts and logs shark sightings all over Massachusetts. He has been back in the news lately, with the shark sightings this past week—the first reported inshore sightings of the season.

He said the shark spotted at Sagamore Beach on Friday and Sunday, and which paid a visit to Scusset Beach on Saturday, was a basking shark. Basking sharks are filter feeders, not meat eaters, Mr. Skomal said; they feast on plankton. Mr. Skomal said that basking sharks are quite common in Upper Cape waters. They’re mammoth animals, growing to 30 feet or more. Although they have huge mouths, basking sharks have no teeth. Mr. Skomal said that they are dark in color; that color gets lighter on their bellies.

Their color patterns are not uniform and can sometimes be spotted. They can be a brownish-red color to a blue to a black. Their dorsal fins look triangular, like a sail, and are very large. Even with all his experience with sharks, Mr. Skomal admits that it is even hard for him sometimes to tell the difference between baskers and their notorious first cousins, the great white shark, just by looking at a dorsal fin cutting through the water. “They look a lot alike,” he said.

“When in doubt, public safety should comes first.” Just ask Judith Cox, the Bourne Recreation Department’s lifeguard coordinator, and James J. Fitzpatrick, a 19-year-old Bourne lifeguard.According to Ms. Cox, a 12-foot basking shark was spotted at Sagamore Beach at 1 PM last Friday, again at 4:30 PM, and again on Sunday. The beaches were closed both days and lifeguards cleared the water.

“I’m not too keen on letting people swim with sharks,” Ms. Cox said.Mr. Fitzpatrick, who was working at the beach on Sunday, said that a child came up to him and told him that he had seen a shark on the left side of the beach. “It came by a couple of times on Sunday,” he said. “It came across by our swim area buoys. We could see the dorsal fin and the tail fin.” Mr. Fitzpatrick is a resident of Sagamore Beach, and has worked Bourne’s beaches for four years.

He said that a basking shark was at Sagamore Beach two years ago.“The first time I saw it [Sunday], I was worried,” he said. “I didn’t know what kind of shark it was.” He said that after Ms. Cox identified the animal as a basking shark, his concerns were alleviated. He said that he even allowed people into the water up to their knees.“Whenever you see anything like that, you have to clear the water and keep everyone out until further notice,” he said.

When asked if he worried that at some point the fin he sees could belong to the basker’s cousin, Mr. Fitzpatrick took his time to answer. “I do,” he said. “Sometimes when the water warms up. Sometimes I’m afraid of a shark going astray. It does cross my mind.” Two years ago, Mr. Skomal was in Falmouth, where he tagged a great white shark that was spotted off Naushon Island. The tag fell off soonafter and, like the proverbial Captain Ahab, Mr. Skomal continues to chase the elusive white fish. “It broke my heart,” he said.

“I’m an avid gotta-find-a-white-shark guy.”Besides basking and white sharks, Mr. Skomal said there are many different sharks found in Cape waters. They are classified as either inshore or offshore sharks, and can be broken down even farther by their territory, north or south of Cape Cod.The spiny dogfish is a brown sand shark with white spots, found off the southern coast of Cape Cod and around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

The spiny dogfish is on average about three feet long and is found from the spring until the fall. They are schooling sharks, that can be found in groups of hundreds or even thousands. They are recognizable by the long, very sharp, spine at the base of each dorsal fin. Mr. Skomal said that if anyone gets stuck by the spine, they could get a nasty infection.A close relative of the spiny dogfish is the smooth dogfish, also found inshore, in the Cape’s southern waters.

This shark is usually around four feet long when found on the sandbars around Cape Cod between May and October. Mr. Skomal said that the sharks have “cat-like eyes” and two dorsal fins of similar size. They are a small gray species, with a white underbelly.He said that both the spiny and the smooth dogfish, although found inshore, are generally only seen when caught by surf and blue fisherman. Mr. Skomal said that sometimes the dogfish wash up on shore and that they’re not very big in girth. They have blunt molar-like teeth.

A shark not quite as common as the dogfish, the brown shark, is also found close to shore, off the southern coast of Cape Cod. The brown shark is a lot bigger than the dogfish at eight to 8 1/2 feet. They can weight upward of 200 pounds and have sharp teeth. They generally come to the Cape between June and September and are typically not seen by beachgoers. They have much more girth than the dogfish and are generally only seen when caught by surf fisherman.

Their first dorsal fin is much bigger than their second, and they are not encountered in Cape Cod Bay.Another larger shark found inshore on Cape Cod is the sand tiger shark. According to Mr. Skomal, the New England aquarium has several sand tiger sharks for their ferocious looks and their mild-mannered temperament. “These will be encountered in all Massachusetts State waters,” Mr. Skomal said. He added that they are called benthic, or bottom feeders; they rarely surface at beaches. Mr. Skomal said that the sand tiger is not a dangerous species, despite its very sharp teeth that jut from its mouth.

He said that they “don’t typically associate near people.” The sand tigers found off Cape Cod are mostly juvenile and are typically less than four feet in length but they can be between five and eight feet. They have two dorsal fins that are the same size and are of brown, tan, or copper color with light blotches and black spots. He said that they are relatively rare and are “not prowling along beaches.”As for great whites, Mr. Skomal said that they are elusive creatures.

He said they are found inshore and offshore, but stick to no defined pattern. “For years I’ve been trying to find them,” he said. “And I’m looking...It’s slim.”He said the shark that killed the seal in Chatham last weekend was a white shark. The surfers and beachgoers believed the shark to be a basker until it attacked, cutting the seal in half. As the seal’s blood turned the surrounding water red, the shark disappeared followed by the seal’s body.Mr. Skomal said that people should be cautious when they see a dorsal fin. “Public safety comes first,” he said.

However, he said that people have a better chance of getting in a car accident on the way to the beach than getting attacked by a shark. The last fatal shark attack on Cape Cod occurred in 1936 when a child was attacked in Buzzards Bay, off of Mattapoisett, and it involved a white shark. There are only three documented cases of shark attacks on the Cape. “We get a few reports of big sharks every year,” he said. According to Mr. Skomal, the media makes people pay attention. Generally there are about six calls per year. “We encourage folks to call us.”The offshore waters of Cape Cod are dominated by blue sharks, mako sharks, and thresher sharks, Mr. Skomal said.

He said that, to a lesser extent, hammerheads and tiger shark have a presence offshore. He added that all have teeth and are large. They are all fish eaters.“They are here to feed or reproduce,” Mr. Skomal said.


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