Kayakers report seeing a great white

Say shark attacked seal off Chatham

By Martin Finucane
Globe Staff / August 20, 2009

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Two kayakers reported that they saw what they believe was a great white shark attacking a seal off Chatham over the weekend, saying they observed a large black fin slicing through the water near a seal in distress.

The kayakers were paddling about a third of a mile off Chatham’s Lighthouse Beach on Saturday morning near a sandbar, where there is a colony of gray seals, when they had their close encounter, said Bruce Bean, 57, of Newton, who was with a friend, Rod MacKinnon of Brewster.

The men, experienced sea kayakers who have traveled the area many times, said they saw a seal about 20 to 30 feet away jumping out of bloody water and a black fin just 4 feet away from it. The fin extended about a foot above the water.

The seal jumped again, then swam toward the men and surfaced just 5 feet from their kayaks with “a big cloud of blood surrounding him,’’ said Bean.

“There was so much blood in the water when he surfaced that we couldn’t see past his head and shoulders’’ to determine what his injuries were, Bean said. The seal then headed in the direction of the sandbar.

Greg Skomal, a shark specialist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said the men apparently witnessed a great white shark hunting down its prey, adding that the report came from an area where similar sightings have been made in the past.

“We think it’s a great white shark,’’ Skomal said. “There’s not many species of sharks in New England that would attack a seal. . . . It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. It’s a natural event that’s been going on for a few years.’’

With only thin hulls separating them from the ocean, the men pulled their kayaks together so as to appear bigger to the shark, following advice one of them had once received from a shark expert. Then they continued on their trip, Bean said.

Bean said the incident happened fast and was not particularly frightening, perhaps because the men did not actually see the shark. But he said it gave him second thoughts about future kayak trips.

Skomal said it was the first great white sighting he is aware of this year.

In July 2008, the carcass of a young great white washed up on a beach in Nantucket not long after lifeguards on a Martha’s Vineyard beach had reported seeing one. In August 2007, experts said after examining the carcasses of two dead seals off Chatham that they had been attacked by a great white. In 2004, a 1,700-pound great white was trapped for two weeks in a lagoon on Naushon Island, off Cape Cod.

A giant, implacable great white shark was featured as the villain in the 1975 hit movie “Jaws,’’ making an indelible mark on popular culture and heightening many people’s fear of the animals. The last shark-related death in New England was in 1936.