Surfers face new reality as great whites become frequent visitorsBy Doug Fraser
EASTHAM — When a gray shape passes silently under his or her board, it's always there in a surfer's mind, that maybe this one is a great white shark. Most of the time, the big whiskered head of a seal will pop up with a noisy snort and curious stare.
There was no doubt in paddleboarder Tom Menard's mind that he was looking at a great white last week while out at Coast Guard Beach with more than a dozen other surf enthusiasts. The water was only 5 feet deep, and clear right to the bottom.
|A great white shark swims over a wave south of Nauset Inlet on Oct. 6.ATLANTIC WHITE SHARK CONSERVANCY|
He'd just commented to those nearby that there weren't any seals around.
"I saw this shark as clear as can be," Menard recalled. "There was no mistaking it. I remember watching the outline of his tail, the whole thing."
Menard estimated it was around 12 feet in length, and really wide, as it passed between him and a woman surfer just 5 feet away.
"She looked at me and said, 'Was that just a shark?'"
Menard yelled out a warning and nearly everyone went in to shore.
"It does spook you a little bit," said Menard, 65, who's been surfing the Cape for 40 years. "This is the first time in my life I've ever seen one swim by."
Surfers have become more accustomed to the new reality of life in the water: There seem to be more great whites every year, and, since they hunt seals close to shore, they are being spotted in the surf line.
"We have seen numerous sharks close to shore this season," Atlantic White Shark Conservancy director Cynthia Wigren.
On Thursday, pilot Wayne Davis was circling over Nauset Beach in Orleans, a little south of the main beach, when he saw a great white swimming lazily near a surfer and paddleboarder. Surfers have become attuned to the presence of the spotter plane and the outboard boat state shark researcher Greg Skomal uses to tag great whites. The paddleboarder and surfer took the hint and went in, said Wigren.
"This is something we've seen all season," Wigren said of surfers who get out when they see the plane and boat. Her nonprofit organization has raised money to support Skomal's shark tagging for the past two years.
If people don't leave the water, and researchers feel they are in jeopardy, they may call the harbormaster's office to get someone out to encourage them, Wigren added.
Sharks are here to hunt seals, not people, Wigren said. "However, they still pose a risk and it's important for people to be aware of their presence."
The shark conservancy has safety tips on its website, including advice not to swim or surf alone, particularly at dawn and dusk, and to stay at least 150 feet from seals.
There have only been two incidents in recent years: the 2013 attack on Chris Myers, who was swimming off Ballston Beach in Truro, and last month's attack on two kayakers who were close to a group of seals in Plymouth Harbor. Shark experts felt the bite on Myers was investigatory. He was injured but was able to do a long swim to shore without a second attack. The kayakers in Plymouth did experience a full-on attack, according to Skomal's associate researcher, John Chisholm. Although they were knocked from their kayaks, the shark did not return. One of the kayaks was damaged but neither of the women was injured.
Even though Skomal and his team have identified 60 great whites in Cape Cod waters this year, and acknowledge there may be many more they haven't seen, there's been little interaction between humans and sharks. Surfers take a realistic outlook on it. The likelihood is slim — but the danger is real.
Based on his experience, Menard thinks great whites don't seem to be all that interested in people. Until they are.
"I just think he might not have been hungry," he said. "They just aren't an eating machine, 24/7."
Monday morning, the temperature at Nauset Beach was balmy and the waves small but robust enough that three friends donned wetsuits and caught short fast rides in the shorebreak not far from where the great white was seen last Thursday.
Standing in chest-deep water, Mike Coute of Dennisport shot video and stills of friends Julien Swanson of Orleans and Dan Nenninger of Dennis as they crouched under the breaking waves and slashed quick exits out the backside when they closed out.
"I've gotten out a few times when I thought there was a shark," Coute said. Since great whites were first tagged in the area in 2009, he's gotten a little more cautious. He won't go out early or late afternoon if no one else is in the water.
"It's like walking the woods," said Swanson. "You could get smoked by a bear."
But Coute can't see the possibility of a shark attack keeping him from surfing.
"Unless something terrible happened to me," he said.