Updated 8:30 pm
The death of a Revere man at a Wellfleet beach from a shark attack is having a ripple effect on beachgoers and swimmers on Martha’s Vineyard, just a short trip across the Sound from Cape Cod.
The death of Arthur Medici, 26, made national news, in part, because it’s the first death in Massachusetts from a shark attack in more than eight decades. Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe’s office released Medici’s name, and is awaiting a full report on his death from the chief medical examiner’s office.
Medici’s attacker is suspected to be a great white shark, according to a statement by the Cape Cod National Seashore.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Dukes County manager Martina Thornton said. “I was not surprised.” Thornton noted white sharks are widely known to be in those Cape Cod waters. The incident hasn’t prompted her to post signage on State Beach, however. Thornton said she spoke at length with state shark expert Greg Skomal earlier in the summer, and was told even a surveillance buoy “doesn’t make sense” because there is no seal colony on-Island. The only time the sharks come by the Vineyard, she recalled being told, was when they migrate to and from area waters. Still, Thornton said, she was interested in exploring placement of a buoy off State Beach. The data, she said, would be invaluable to boaters, fishermen, and local government.
She said she has reached out to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy regarding the cost of placing a buoy, but has yet to receive a response.
As to placing signs, she said, “I don’t want to be scaring anybody if there is no need to be scaring them.”
Even absent a seal colony, sharks can turn up anywhere around the Island if accidentally baited — if someone dumps fish guts in the water, for example, she said. “I never want to get that phone call that there’s even a sighting of a shark,” she said.
“It’s definitely alarming,” Edgartown town administrator James Hagerty said of the fatal attack, as well as the shark bite that injured another person a month earlier in Truro.
Hagerty said if ever a time came to consider posting the beaches, it wouldn’t rest solely on his shoulders. The selectmen, the parks department, and The Trustees would join him in a collective decision, he said, with the selectmen being the final arbiters.
The choice, he said, would need to be weighed carefully. “Obviously we don’t want people petrified,” he said, but added the town will err on the side of public safety when it must.
“It’s a sign of the times that we have to be aware that great whites pose a risk for injury and death,” Chris Kennedy, Vineyard stewardship manager for The Trustees of Reservations, said.
White sharks spotted in Island waters by air in recent years have most often been spotted off Chappaquiddick, and Wasque, specifically, the Vineyard’s easternmost point.
“We had one at Wasque Point Saturday,” Kennedy said. It was “fairly large,” he noted, but the chief ranger and anglers who spotted it couldn’t make a positive identification. It may have been a white shark, but it might also have been a basking shark or a brown shark, he said. “We certainly need to be much more visible with signage,” he said, but pointed out that that presents the need for a balanced approach to hedge against “fear-mongering” as opposed to “informing.”
Currently The Trustees employ handwritten signage, but Kennedy said he sees merit in adopting the flags used at the Cape Cod National Seashore — a white shark silhouette on a purple field. He also said he’d like to beef up the reporting by The Trustees to the Sharktivity app. Currently all The Trustee’s gatehouses offer brochures on shark safety.
“There are certainly more white sharks than in the past,” he said. Safety is partly up to the person who enters the water, Kennedy said.
“It all starts with vigilance and making good choices when you swim,” he said. “You don’t swim with seals. You don’t go swimming next to a whale carcass. Clearly, wading in the water is far less dangerous than swimming so many yards out …”
Rip currents and jellyfish are much higher-probability dangers at Trustees beaches than sharks, he said. “We’ve been very fortunate that we have not had the number of shark sightings [as at the Cape],” he said.
“I’ve been fishing since the Derby started. I haven’t seen a seal yet, ” Edgartown harbormaster Charlie Blair said. “You go to Chatham, there are literally thousands and thousands of seals. We’re lucky.”
Blair said not so long ago there was a seal colony off Edgartown on a shoal called Skiffs Island or Porky’s Island (the latter because the famous tackle shop owner Everett Francis, a.k.a. Porky, frequently fished there). The shoal was off Wasque, and was above water at high tide. As a result, he said, it was thick with seals.
The seals brought white sharks close to South Beach — inside the sand bar, near swimmers. “It was a problem because they were inside the bar,” Blair said. He described the sharks as about “10 casting lengths distant” from the beach. Blair said this was about a decade ago, and he decided it was his duty to post warning signs. He put them at the left and right fork — Herring Creek Road and Atlantic Road.
“People went ballistic — Amity all over again,” he said. Within a few weeks, somebody removed the signs, he said.
In his long tenure in Edgartown, Blair has witnessed plenty of astounding things, including people crazy enough to swim out to a dead whale — out to sharks.
About 10 years ago, he said, when Dennis Arnold patrolled the beach, Blair said he got a call from Arnold, who had spotted a dead whale headed toward the beach with the wind. Blair said he told Arnold to clear the beach as soon as the whale got close. When Blair got to the beach he was stunned.
“People wanted to swim out to the whale” — even as he watched sharks “tearing huge mouthfuls” from the carcass, blue sharks as opposed to white sharks.
Blair said he and Arnold called out to the reckless swimmers and told them to get out of the water or they were going to jail. They got out.
“Folks on the Vineyard and across the Cape and Islands need to know that there are large numbers of great white sharks in our region, that often swim just feet from the shore,” State Representative Dylan Fernandes emailed. “While the chances of getting bit by a shark are extremely low, every time you go into the ocean, you are entering the habitat of an apex predator and are subject to the risks associated with it.”
Fernandes went aboard an Atlantic White Shark Conservancy vessel Monday and tweeted about how numerous the sharks had become: “Today we saw four in under three hours.”
What precautions can Islanders take when entering the water? Dean Bragonier, founder of NoticeAbility, on the recommendation of shark expert Skomal, wore a device called a Shark Shield during a fundraising swim around the Island. The shield is an anklet trailing a wire that creates an electric field repulsive to sharks.
“I had questions about the efficacy,” he said.
But Bragonier recalled when his leg would break the ocean surface he could “feel the electricity,” and the ongoing field left a metallic taste in his mouth, both of which lent a sense of security.
Bragonier said Skomal also advised him to swim inside the surfline, which he did as much as possible. All of Skomal’s concern was leveled at the south side of the Island, the Atlantic side, and east Chappy, Bragonier said.
A final precaution Bragonier took was to wear a custom triathlon suit broken up into colors that mimic the pigmentation of poisonous or venomous sea life. The colorations also served to make Bragonier appear less like a seal.
While he found the swim a rewarding experience, Bragonier said, he wasn’t too sure he’d do such a swim these days.