First white shark attack in Massachusetts in 76 years confirmed

DMF biologist Greg Skomal and members of a Discovery Channel film team prepare to tag a large white shark in shallow waters off Chatham in August 2010. — Photo courtesy of Greg Skomal

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) confirmed on Tuesday that the shark that bit a Colorado man swimming off a Cape Cod beach on July 30 was a white shark. It marks the first confirmed white shark attack in Massachusetts in 76 years.

“Working with George Burgess, the curator of the International Shark Attack File, officials from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have determined that the injuries sustained by Chris Myers off Ballston Beach, Truro on July 30 can be attributed to a great white shark,” said Reginald Zimmerman, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “This conclusion was reached after examination of the injuries and testimony from Myers.”

Over the last several years white shark sightings have increased off the coast of Massachusetts. DMF researchers have been monitoring and tagging white sharks since 2009.

Greg Skomal, a DMF biologist and former Island resident, has been at the forefront of a tagging effort.

In summer 2010, a team lead by Mr. Skomal 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.

Of the five PSAT tags, one tag did not report, two tags jettisoned prematurely (one off of Monomoy in September 2010, one off Hatteras, N.C., in October 2010).

One of the tagged sharks made its way to the Gulf of Mexico in January 2011, and the other shark was tracked to an area 200 miles off the coast of Georgia in April 2011

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 they knew little about its movements.

One of the most remarkable examples of the presence of white sharks in state waters occurred on Sept. 21, 2004 when a 14-foot white shark became trapped in an estuary on Naushon Island. The shark captured worldwide attention for almost two weeks, until DMF officials successfully freed the shark from the estuary.

State officials said this week that beachgoers should use common sense and be aware of their surroundings. “DMF advises swimmers to avoid swimming at dawn or dusk, stay close to the shore, avoid areas where seals congregate and adhere to local beach closings and swimming advisories.”

The last confirmed attack occurred on July 25, 1936, at Hollywood beach in Mattapoisett when a white shark attacked Joseph Troy Jr., 16, as he swam with a friend a short distance from a pier. He died soon after he was pulled from the water with massive leg injuries.

White sharks are thought to grow to lengths in excess of 22 feet, but the largest reliably measured was 21 feet. Females mature between 14 to 17 feet and males between 12 to 14 feet. The maximum accurately recorded weight is close to three tons. Their estimated lifespan can be over 30 years.