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Shark sightings equal big business in Chatham

Tourists agog, trinkets sell out

The beach patrol kept a close watch yesterday at Chatham Light Beach. It was nearly impossible yesterday to find a parking spot. The beach patrol kept a close watch yesterday at Chatham Light Beach. It was nearly impossible yesterday to find a parking spot. (Vince Dewitt for The Boston Globe)
By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / August 11, 2011

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CHATHAM - Dozens of sightseers surrounded the lighthouse of this picturesque Cape Cod destination yesterday. The parking lot was full; cars were parked end-to-end on the narrow side streets. Families crowded the sidewalks and spread towels over much of Lighthouse Beach.

But almost nobody was in the water.

If beachgoers waded too far into the waves, where hundreds of gray seals - the chief prey of Chatham’s increasingly numerous great white sharks - clustered just offshore, harbor patrollers in a motorboat and an all-terrain vehicle waved them back to shore.

The curious scene unfolded a day after authorities banned swimming within 300 feet of the seals, and yesterday afternoon, the harbormaster announced a moratorium on any swimming on east-facing beaches, including popular South Beach, between sunset and sunrise.

Yet Lighthouse Beach was still packed with tourists, many of whom had come hoping to catch a glimpse of the seals - or their predators. The question, “Seen any sharks?’’ could be heard up and down the walkway to the beach.

At one set of the beach’s coin-fed telescopes, Lisa Lindsay, 37, of Westfield, let out a shriek of excitement.

“Oooh, oooh, look! There’s a shark! I see a fin!’’ she said, pointing at a small gray shape bobbing above the water.

Her husband, Gene, 40, and daughters were skeptical, but Lindsay insisted. “Don’t disappoint me,’’ she told her family. “I want to keep my fantasy.’’

Lindsay had recorded all of the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,’’ she said. When she heard the beaches were being closed because of sharks, she knew she had to come to Chatham to see for herself.

Shark mania has returned to this vacation haven at the height of the vacation season, two summers after great whites began reappearing in local waters, drawn by the resurgent gray seal population. Local officials believe the security measures are necessary.

“If we’re seeing a real frequency of sharks in the locations where people are swimming, then we won’t take a chance,’’ said Dan Tobin, Chatham’s director of parks and recreation.

Although seals are known to bite humans who get too close, the real danger is that a shark looking for prey will mistake a human for a seal and attack, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for New England Aquarium.

There have been 35 great white shark sightings off the Cape this summer, though some sharks could have been spotted multiple times, said Reginald Zimmerman, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Though shark sightings have forced town officials to close some beaches each of the last two summers, business owners are far from worried about tourists being scared off.

For one thing, beaches on the Nantucket Sound side of Chatham remain shark-free. For another, the town is doing a roaring trade in shark merchandise.

At the Chatham Candy Manor on Main Street, 5-inch shark-shaped chocolate lollipops sell out as quickly as the store can produce them. They share counter space with blue shark gummies, shark bookmarks, and Baileys-infused truffles shaped like seals.

“The shark lollipop is definitely a hot item,’’ co-manager Susan Carroll, 57, said as she filled a plastic mold with gooey milk chocolate. “The past couple summers, we’ve doubled up on every shark item we’re making.’’

Fliers for seal- and shark-watching boat tours line the bulletin boards. The Mayflower Shop is running out of its plush shark toys, shark oven mitts, shark water guns, and shark cookie cutters.

Manager Georgianna Adams, 61, said business has exploded over the past three years.

“People are fascinated with sharks,’’ she said. “Anything shark-related, I could always sell it.’’

She said she recently commissioned a local company that makes souvenir Christmas ornaments to produce another version - this one featuring a great white shark.

At Blue Water Fish Rubbings, the most popular items are child-size T-shirts that artist Jennifer Bovey, 46, decorates by painting mummified sharks and pressing them over the fabric. The preserved dorsal fin of a great white decorates one best-selling T-shirt, Bovey said.

“Sharks have been our best-sellers for years, but as far as tourist foot-traffic goes, it’s been a good season,’’ she said.

“Everybody’s embracing it,’’ said Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce. “And people are everywhere. It’s just been nonstop bumper-to-bumper traffic.’’

It was nearly impossible yesterday to find a parking spot by Chatham Light. Dozens of families hovered around the coin-fed telescopes near the parking lot, staring out at the cluster of gray seals on a spit of sand offshore.

Matt Arsenault, Denis O’Connor, and Pat Wall, 14-year-olds from West Roxbury, had not brought bathing suits or towels, just a fistful of quarters, enough for each to take a few turns at the telescopes. They had come to see seals, and maybe a shark.

“I just think they’re cool,’’ Arsenault said, atop the telescope’s base to get a better look.

O’Connor plans to go deep-sea shark fishing next week. “They don’t scare me,’’ he said.

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com.