Sand, Sunscreen And ... Sharks! Cape Cod Beach Towns Do More To Keep People Safe

Aug 28, 2019
Originally published on August 28, 2019 8:00 pm

A year after a young man was killed by a shark off Cape Cod — the first such death there in more than 80 years — beach towns full of vacationers are struggling to manage an influx of great whites.

Sharks off the coast have become more common in recent years as the seal population they hunt has increased. Scientists point out that sharks do not target humans, though they can mistake them for prey. But many officials believed the attack was only a matter of time.

Last year's death happened while a 26-year-old was boogie boarding. Weeks before that, another man was attacked and fought off a shark while swimming in what he said was 8 to 10 feet of water. Both those incidents have driven home the risk for many.

On Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, Mass., vacationer Olivia Gattuso says she normally enjoys hourlong swims. She is being more cautious now.

"I mean yesterday was a really good swimming day, and I wouldn't let myself go anywhere above my waist because I was too afraid, she says.

In recent months, Outer Cape towns have been making changes to protect beachgoers from sharks. With grant money from the state, many have purchased taller lifeguard chairs to help lifeguards see farther offshore and spot sharks or seals. Beach entrances have updated shark warning signs, which note that sharks hunt seals in shallow water. Some beaches have landline emergency phones and first-aid kits.

At Newcomb Hollow Beach, there's also a new high-tech buoy in the water that alerts lifeguards when it detects a tagged shark in the area.

"We actually are just coming off of a closing right now," says head lifeguard Joey Craven. "We had to close for an hour because the buoy pinged at 10:15."

The buoy sends an alert and a description of the tagged shark to lifeguards, who then call everyone out of the water. This year, these calls have happened a lot, sometimes twice a day.

This time, Craven says, "it was a shark named Ben, and he's about 13.9 feet long. That's a pretty mature shark."

A taller lifeguard chair at Newcomb Hollow Beach is meant to help spot sharks and seals. Next to it, an all-terrain vehicle is equipped with a Stop the Bleed kit for shark bites.
Sarah Mizes-Tan / WCAI

The buoy was set up by Massachusetts shark researcher Greg Skomal, who began tagging white sharks off Cape Cod four years ago. He says the sharks his organization has logged are just a small slice of the population that exists in these waters.

"We know at least 300 individuals are visiting Cape Cod, but we'll definitely be able to tell you that's not the actual estimate — it's going to be much more than that," he says.

Skomal is also working on a study about shark behavior to help advise towns how to best prevent another attack. He is trying to determine whether specific areas around the cape are used for hunting or breeding or something else entirely.

"We talk a lot about seeing more and more white sharks from year to year to year," he says. "Now we'll be able to tell you, is it increasing?" His study is due out this fall.

On Nauset Beach in the town of Orleans, a mobile EMT team patrols the beach front in all-terrain vehicles, part of the town's initiative to increase emergency response times on the beach in case of another shark attack. After last year's fatal attack on Arthur Medici, some felt he might have survived if emergency response times had been faster.

"We work with lifeguards. We patrol around looking for stuff, make sure everyone's doing good," says EMT Henry Rex.

Every ATV is equipped with a large plastic box full of first-aid equipment, including new items specifically for treating shark bites.

"We have a lot more trauma dressings and hemostatic dressings," Rex says.

An updated sign bluntly warns beachgoers about sharks in the water at Nauset Beach.
Sarah Mizes-Tan / WCAI

Critics worry these measures are reactive, and they want towns to do more to prevent attacks.

In Chatham, local official Shareen Davis says there have been "calls for putting shark barriers up, and pingers" that could detect not just tagged sharks but any shark movement in the water.

"That would be great," she says, "but those are costly, and I don't know if the technology is even there yet."

In lieu of proven prevention tools, town officials believe their most effective approach is education, to make people aware of this new risk.

Copyright 2019 WCAI. To see more, visit WCAI.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been a bit tense on some of the beaches of Cape Cod this summer. That's because nearly a year ago, a young man was killed by a great white shark, the first such death there in more than 80 years. There's been an influx of sharks since a rebound in the seal population.

And now, as Sarah Mizes-Tan of member station WCAI reports, some Cape Cod beach towns are taking new steps to keep people safe.

SARAH MIZES-TAN, BYLINE: The sun is just starting to peek out from behind morning clouds at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, and Olivia Gattuso is sitting on the sand with her family. Normally, she'd be out in the water, but she's being more cautious this summer.

OLIVIA GATTUSO: I mean, yesterday was a really, really good swimming day, and I wouldn't let myself go, like, anywhere above my waist because I was too afraid. But normally, like even last year, I would go out swimming for, like, an hour at a time.

MIZES-TAN: After last year's deadly shark attack, Outer Cape towns are making changes. They've purchased taller lifeguard chairs, so lifeguards can see further offshore. There are now large signs warning about the risk of great whites in the area. And for this beach, there's also a new high-tech buoy in water that will alert lifeguards when it detects a tagged shark.

JODY CRAVEN: We actually are just coming off a closing right now. We had to close for an hour because the buoy pinged at 10:15.

MIZES-TAN: That's head lifeguard Jody Craven. The buoy sends an alert and a shark description to the lifeguards who will then call everyone out of the water. This year, these sightings have happened a lot, sometimes twice a day.

CRAVEN: It was a shark named Ben, and he's about 13.9 feet long. That's a pretty mature shark.

MIZES-TAN: The buoy was set up by state shark researcher Greg Skomal, who began tagging white sharks off Cape Cod four years ago. He says the tagged sharks are just a small slice of the population that exists in these waters.

GREG SKOMAL: We know at least 300 individuals, 350 individuals are visiting Cape Cod, but we'll, you know, definitely be able to tell you that that's not the actual estimate. It's going to be much more than that.

MIZES-TAN: He's also working on a study about shark behavior to help advise towns.

SKOMAL: You know, we talk a lot about seeing more and more white sharks from year to year to year. Now we'll be able to actually tell you, well, is it increasing? And what are the numbers looking like? And then get a sense of where the population trajectory is going.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATV ENGINE)

MIZES-TAN: On a nearby beach, EMT Henry Rex is riding an all-terrain vehicle. He's part of the town's new initiative to increase emergency response times in case of another shark attack.

HENRY REX: So what we do is we kind of monitor all the sections of the beach, and then we work with the lifeguards, and we patrol around looking for stuff, make sure everybody is doing good.

MIZES-TAN: The vehicles they're driving are equipped with a large plastic box and a duffel bag that contains all kinds of first aid equipment, including new items specifically for treating shark bites.

REX: We've upgraded our equipment a little bit. We have a lot more trauma dressings and hemostatic dressings and stuff like that.

MIZES-TAN: But some people say these measures are reactive, and they want towns to do more to prevent shark attacks. In the town of Chatham, select board member Shareen Davis acknowledges that she's heard of things like buoys that could detect not just tagged sharks but any shark movement in the water.

SHAREEN DAVIS: There'd been calls for putting shark barriers up and pingers, and I think that would be great if we could. Those are costly, and I don't know if the technology is even there yet.

MIZES-TAN: For now, she says towns haven't heard of any proven prevention tools. Officials think the most effective thing they can do is to make people aware of the new risk.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Mizes-Tan in Wellfleet, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRENTEMOLLER'S "MISS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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