Friday, July 22, 2016

Be Shark Smart!

Thus read signs on some of the Cape Cod beaches. Cape Cod is a peninsula that protrudes from the coast of Massachusetts in the northeastern part of the United States. When looking at the “Cape,” as it is referred to locally, from above, it looks like an arm, bent at the elbow and making a fist. The land seems to be signaling defiance toward the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

Because of Cape Cod's geographical position, it has many magnificent beaches that are very popular during the tourist season. People from all over the country and around the world come to sunbathe, swim, and surf here. It is at this time of year, however, that a bit of excitement is introduced into the beach activity in the form of the danger posed by great white sharks, that mainly roam the waters off the beaches above the “elbow” formed by the peninsula. The reason for the sharks' preference for this location is that these beaches face the open Atlantic and are favorite feeding grounds for seals, which in turn are the preferred food of great white sharks. Many times while walking along my favorite beach I have seen the heads of seals pop up in the water only a few yards away from the shore, disappearing and then reappearing some distance away. I have also observed groups of seals high and dry on an offshore sandbank, seemingly sunning themselves. I am told that this is a sure sign that sharks are in the area and the seals are in reality waiting for the danger to pass. At times I have also admired the courage shown by the few surfers who venture out into the not-very-ferocious surf to catch a wave, because when in the water with their neoprene suits on, they look remarkably like a seal swimming on the surface and are often mistaken by a shark for his favorite meal.

Although the periodic presence of sharks off the beaches of Cape Cod has been recorded for years, no shark attack on humans has been reported recently largely due to the heightened awareness, which is a result of tracking the great white sharks with modern techniques. Signs are now posted on affected beaches making people aware of the potential presence of sharks. Airplanes and boats regularly patrol the waters off the coast of Cape Cod, not to hunt the predators, but to record their presence and when possible to place a transmitter on them to enable researchers to track their travels and thereby study their seasonal behavior. Receivers placed strategically off the coast pick up the signals of passing sharks, allowing their locations to be displayed on a map. There even is an app available that displays this map and that allows the users to report any shark sightings, should they be so “lucky.” According to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a non-profit organization that studies the shark population off Cape Cod, the number of great white sharks cataloged as spending time in Cape waters, as of 21 June 2016, is 169. The honor of being the largest documented shark is shared by a shark named Large Marge, Luci, and James (yes, they are given names), each 16 feet long.

For those of us who enjoy walking along the beaches without getting more than our feet wet, the potential presence of sharks in the water near where we are walking is of little consequence. However, whenever I walk on my favorite beach at dawn or near sunset, the shark's favorite times to feed, I hear the soundtrack of the movie “Jaws” playing in my head: “Tumtum, tumtum, tumtum, tumtum...”

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