4 great white sharks spotted

Presence of seals off Cape is draw, specialists say

By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / July 8, 2011

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They’re back: Several great white sharks, seeking to prey on an ample population of gray seals, have been spotted off Cape Cod just as the vacation season kicks into high gear.

Four of the predators have been seen, including a 12- to 15-footer reported Tuesday several hundred yards off Chatham, state officials said yesterday.

“I think that we are going to see more white sharks through the summer, and we can anticipate more for quite possibly many years to come,’’ said Greg Skomal, a state shark specialist.

The sightings were reported nearly a year after numerous shark sightings off the Cape and islands forced the temporary closure of several beaches, drew huge crowds of sightseers, and garnered widespread publicity.

One of the beaches closed was South Beach in Chatham, a favorite gathering spot for seals.

The first sighting this season was May 6, when a fisherman observed a shark estimated to be about 18 feet long in waters off the western tip of Martha’s Vineyard.

Last Friday, a fisherman spotted a great white several hundred yards off the coast of Monomoy Island.

A day later, another one was seen by a fisherman about a mile off Truro, Skomal said.

The latest sighting was reported Tuesday by a spotter pilot working with the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries.

Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged yesterday that shark sightings stir public interest. She said that she recently got a call from a news organization in Australia that wanted to interview her about the great whites.

But Franz said Chatham is still beachgoer friendly.

“I would just tell anyone planning to come here that we have nine beautiful ocean beaches,’’ she said. “We wouldn’t discourage anyone from coming here whatsoever.’’

She said South Beach is remote, accessible only by boat. “I went there last week, and there certainly were a lot of seals,’’ she said.

Skomal said sharks are showing up for one simple reason: They are following ample supplies of food.

“They are really turning up only in very specific areas, in relation to the presence or absence of seals, not so much in the southern beaches of Cape Cod, but anywhere you get a large aggregation of seals consistently you will have white sharks.’’

Reducing the seal population would not be easy, because they are federally protected, Skomal said.

“The chances in the short term of reducing the seal population is very low. I really don’t know what would happen with that.’’

He directed a recent study on the migratory pattern of six sharks that visited the area from July through September of last year.

The findings of that study, released yesterday, show that the sharks migrated to the waters off the coast of Georgia and the Gulf of Mexico.

Skomal advised beach visitors to be cognizant of their surroundings, not to swim in areas where seals are known to congregate, not to swim alone or great distances from shore, and to avoid swimming at dawn and dusk, when most attacks occur.

To put the dangers in context, however, he said the last fatal shark attack off Massachusetts was in 1936.

Brian R. Ballou can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @globeballou.