Sunday, July 16, 2006

Shark sightings in shallow waters

''It was just like being on the movie set of 'Jaws,''' said Lisa Champagne of Bourne.
''The lifeguard yelled, 'Everyone out of the water!' And everyone started running, tripping over each other,'' she said.

It turns out only the plankton had something to fear.

A 12- to 15-foot shark that forced a swimming ban at Scusset Beach for almost two hours yesterday was of the toothless variety, a basking shark.

''It's really a whale trapped in a shark's body,'' said Greg Skomal, shark specialist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

Basking sharks are harmless and common in the region from June to October, particularly along the Cape Cod Canal, he said.

But who knew? When you're sitting on the beach, it's pretty hard to tell the difference between the placid plankton eaters and a meat-eating great white. Both are among the largest fish in the ocean, Skomal said. Both have telltale dorsal fins.

So when lifeguards saw the fin cutting within 10 to 15 feet of the shore at about 11 a.m. yesterday, they called everyone out of the water.

It took nearly two hours for state specialists to arrive and identify the shark. In the meantime, a beach filled with about 500 people waited in suspense, getting up only for hot dogs and ice cream breaks.

Then fear transformed to fascination.

Bathers and boaters waded as close as possible. The creature obliged by weaving close to shore.
''I live in the Berkshires, so this was pretty amazing. It's a nice treat to see nature on Cape Cod,'' said Alisa Blanchard of Pittsfield.

Great whites ply these waters, too, and witnesses reported a more ominous shark sighting yesterday in Chatham.

On Lighthouse Beach, witnesses said they saw a 15-foot great white spring from the water and devour a seal swimming about 50 feet off shore. Officials could not confirm that a shark had entered shallow waters.

But for a handful of people who saw the attack, about 1½ miles from the lighthouse, there was no doubt.

''Somebody screamed, 'Shark!''' said E.J. Corb, 15, of Chatham, who works at Chatham Beach Company surf shop. ''I saw the fin and the back tail. And it just took down the seal.

''Three minutes later, the seal carcass just popped up again.''

''We all know they are in the water there,'' Corb added. ''But we don't expect it to come that close.''
Coast Guard officials said they heard the great white reports, but they were unable to confirm them.

''We've had sightings before,'' said Petty Officer Brent Beebe, who is stationed at the Coast Guard Chatham station. ''Is it common? Well, they're out there. But it's not an everyday thing.''

Lee Tallman, the assistant harbormaster in Chatham, said town boats were looking for the animal. But by early evening, there were no confirmed sightings.

''To be honest, I've never seen a great white out there. And why I haven't I don't know,'' Tallman said. ''Because there are thousands and thousands of seals out there. And that's obviously one of the primary meals for that beast.''


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