Martha’s Vineyard and white sharks linked in fiction not fact

Greg Skomal and members of a Discovery Channel film team prepare to tag a large white shark in shallow waters off Chatham. Three tagged sharks were recently detected off South Beach. — Photo courtesy of Greg Skomal

Martha’s Vineyard sells, but sharks and Martha’s Vineyard together sell really well. Some reporters will go to any lengths to connect the two.

The headline of a story posted July 18 on the MSNBC website said, “Great white sharks amass off Martha’s Vineyard. Site of ‘Jaws’ movie sees boom in predators after seal population explodes.”

Don’t worry, it is still safe to go in the water, even if you are a seal. Worry more about what you can’t see, like bacteria or Keith Olbermann.

MSNBC reporter Jennifer Viegas either needs a map or a better editor. She wrote, “Gathering by the shores of Monomoy Island near Martha’s Vineyard, where much of the movie ‘Jaws’ was filmed, great white sharks have people on notice in the Northeast.”

Of course, Islanders are not immune to shark hysterics. In July 2008, several beaches were closed based on the rumor of sharks.

Great white sharks and Martha’s Vineyard. We are a team, forever linked not by facts, but by fiction.

Last Thursday, Greg Skomal, Division of Marine Fisheries biologist and former Island resident, appeared at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, a few casts from the revelry surrounding the 25th Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament, to deliver the facts.

His appearance was part of a continuing program of guest speakers sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association. Judging by the turnout of about 300 people, there is a lot of interest in the subject.

Greg has become the state’s go-to guy whenever an editor tells a reporter that there are sharks in the ocean. Instead of edited sound bites the audience was treated to an in-depth look at an animal, that until recently, we knew very little about in the Atlantic Ocean.

A former Island resident and longtime member of the Derby committee, Greg did a great job, packaging complex data in an informative and lively manner. The audience clearly enjoyed the presentation.

The title was “Jaws revisited: The White Shark in New England.” Greg explained to me that the scientific community agreed to drop the “great,” but it remains part of popular usage. He said the title reflected his intent to turn away from the “Jaws” image of sharks.

Of course, that image is what sells. Massive chomping jaws are heavily featured in the promotional material for the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” a regular film festival of seals on a spit.

Greg told the audience, “I want to separate scientific fact from fiction and talk about what we don’t know, and what we’ve been learning.”

Much of what we are learning is the result of work by a team of DMF researchers led by Greg with the support of DMF director Paul Diodati and supported by grants and donations. That includes tracking white sharks as they migrate between Cape Cod waters and the southeastern coast of the United States.

Last summer, the team tagged six white sharks off the coast of Monomoy Island near Chatham on Cape Cod.

Five sharks were tagged with Pop-up Satellite Archival Transmitting (PSAT) tags programmed to transmit data during the winter months. One shark was tagged with an acoustic transmitter, which allowed project members to track fine-scale movements in the waters around Monomoy and Chatham.

The acoustic transmitter emits a ping (not the sound of a cello) that is detected by underwater receivers, which log the date and time of the detection. Four receivers have been placed from the southern tip of Monomoy to Nauset Beach.

Of the five PSAT tags, one tag did not report, two tags jettisoned prematurely (one off the coast of Monomoy in September; one off Hatteras, N.C. in October).

One of the tagged sharks made its way to the Gulf of Mexico in January, and the other shark was tracked to an area 200 miles off the coast of Georgia in April.

The tag that popped up off the coast of Georgia was affixed to an 18-foot mature female. Tag data indicated the shark dove to depths as great as 2,700 feet every day — in sharp contrast to the behavior of other tagged sharks.

Until very recently, white sharks were not easy to find in North Atlantic waters. For the most part, scientists relied on dissections of fish caught by fishermen to learn about the creatures’ biology but knew little about its movements.

One of the more entertaining stories concerned the discovery on Sept. 21, 2004 of a 14-foot white shark trapped in an estuary on Naushon Island. Greg had traveled the world to study white sharks only to have one appear literally in his own backyard. The video footage is available on the DMF website and it captures an extraordinary moment.

Greg tagged the shark. But what should have been a career achievement turned into a failure when the tag deployed about 45 minutes after the animal was freed from the estuary.

Greg said he had no way of knowing at the time that opportunity would come swimming up again. In 2009, the DMF team tagged not one, but five sharks 10 to 15-feet long in the waters off of Chatham.

Why are there more white sharks off the Cape? Greg said the question is not difficult to answer. There are more gray seals and the protected (from humans, not sharks) population continues to expand. When you have large predictable numbers of seals you have more white sharks and, Greg said, “more dead seals.”

In terms of practical advice, Greg advised a questioner who asked about safety not to swim near large groups of seals and not to dress like one. (My advice to surfers who wear black wetsuits is to wipe off the lettering that reads “eat me.”)

He also trotted out the old line that every shark expert has handy about how the likelihood of getting eaten by a shark (or attacked by a Grizzly bear, or slapped by Lady Gaga) is very low. “Don’t stop swimming,” Greg said. “They really don’t want to eat you.”

Right. Small comfort if you are the one they mistake for a seal or a toothpick.

Asked about the monster shark tournament, Greg said it provides a good opportunity to collect samples and is a conservation-based contest with a very high release rate not unlike other fishing contests. “I’m very comfortable with this event,” he said.

White sharks like cool water in the 55 to 68-degree range, so we will likely see more. That is good news for Greg because he obviously likes what he is doing.

Last August, Greg went into a shark cage suspended next to a dead humpback whale carcass, something of a shark delicacy, for the Discovery Channel, which was filming for a show, “Jaws Comes Home,” that airs at 10 pm, Sunday.

Greg said there was one very scary moment when the 3,000-pound shark, in a moment of whale-blubber rapture, became entangled in the cage lines and the door popped open.

Greg assessed his next move. Should he bail out? The shark freed itself and swam off. He expects the episode will be featured as part of a Discovery show with all the appropriate drama. After all, sharks sell.

Honest, it happened

I was drifting off Seven Gates Saturday afternoon fishing for fluke when a boat, “Twisted Ts” I think was the name, out of Falmouth, motored over to me.

The three guys on board wanted to know which direction to head for Oak Bluffs. Honest. The man at the wheel said they had gotten turned around during the quick-moving storm that blew through.

Where could they have thought they were going while traveling up Vineyard Sound with the Vineyard on their left and Naushon on their right?

“That way,” I said and pointed toward West Chop. “Take a right.”

As they pulled away I heard one of the guys say, “He’s laughing at us.”

How does that happen when people can carry smart phones, GPS units, or those old-fashioned things called maps?

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Window to the sea

On Saturday, August 6 at 8pm at the Tabernacle, Brian Skerry, award-winning underwater photojournalist will present “Window to the Sea.”

Brian is the New England Aquarium’s Explorer in Residence and an award-winning National Geographic Magazine photographer who specializes in marine wildlife subjects and stories about the underwater world, according to a press release.

He typically spends up to 8 months each year in the field working in locations of extreme contrasts from polar climes to tropical reefs.


The striped bass blitz I wrote about left me rattled. That is my excuse for misidentifying Chris Windram as Dave Skok last week. I probably got both men in trouble.