Greg Skomal comes home to talk sharks

Great white expert plans to go beyond research to talk about living with the increasingly abundant apex predators.

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Greg Skomal, shark expert and former Island resident, will give a talk titled "Living With White Sharks" on August 1 at 7 pm at the Old Whaling Church. — National Geographic Channels/Mer

Greg Skomal, the state’s foremost expert on great white sharks and a former resident of Martha’s Vineyard, is coming back to the Island to give a talk titled “Living With White Sharks.”

Skomal’s talk will be held on Thursday, Aug. 1, at 7 pm at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, with the proceeds from the $20 tickets going to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, an agency that helps fund Skomal’s ongoing research. 

When Skomal gave his first talk in Edgartown two years ago, the church filled to the brim with people. So many people wanted to get in, the town’s fire department had to insist that the doors be closed. The takeaway? Get those $20 tickets early for this year’s show, because they increase to $25 price at the door, and may not be available if the show is sold out in advance.

“The past few talks I’ve given on the Vineyard the past two years were focused on what we had been doing here to date,” Skomal said. “I try to add relevance to the Vineyard and Vineyard visitors as well. I’ll still do a bit of that, bringing them up to date on our research, but I’m going to emphasize the direction our research is going in.”

That is, now that we know great whites are here (particularly off the coast of the Cape) in large numbers, and that there is a food supply for them, what more can be learned? “We’re moving from quantifying and studying their movements to drilling down deeper on behavior on white sharks in Massachusetts,” Skomal said.

While most of the work has centered on the outer Cape, there is relevance to both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, he said. “We’re trying to get a better sense on where, when, and how white sharks attack and kill their prey — seals,” Skomal said. Once that’s better understand, it will inform beach managers and public safety officials on how to keep swimmers safe, he said.

For the third year, detection buoys have been deployed off Martha’s Vineyard with the assistance of Edgartown seasonal resident Ben Ross. In years past, Island fisherman Donnie Benefit has also helped out the effort.

This year, Ross’s daughter, Maggie Ross, 17, is also getting involved. A third buoy was deployed off Nomans Land, where the Rosses have seen seals. And where there are seals, they suspect, there may be great whites, Maggie said. “We’re looking forward to having the consistency [in the research],” she said. “We’re trying to understand how they’re migrating past Martha’s Vineyard to Cape Cod. As we get more information each summer, we’ll have a better understanding.”

Maggie has also been practicing operating a drone off her father’s boat, and is hoping to get drone footage of Skomal and his team as they tag great whites. Her interest stems from going out on her father’s boat with his buddies fishing. “It sounds cliché, but I’ve always loved the ocean,” she said. Her curiosity in great whites was piqued by Skomal’s talk two years ago, though she admits to being terrified by her first viewing of “Jaws.” “It’s about having a better understanding of how great whites act, and who they are and what they do,” she said of Skomal’s research. “It will help sharks and humans live cohesively together.”

 

Shock attack

Skomal commented on a recent viral video that got people buzzing about great whites, even though that video of the enormous shark — estimated at 25 feet — off the southern coast of Martha’s Vineyard was of a basking shark, which feeds on plankton and is harmless to humans. He encourages media to go to him or other shark experts before hitting publish or broadcasting stories that will strike fear into the public, and he encourages boaters and fishermen to also reach out to him or the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy to get an idea of what it is they’ve encountered. Photos and videos help. “The audio from those videos is often most entertaining,” he said.

Skomal said he works with other shark experts to identify the species and inform the public. “It tends to create — I don’t want to say panic, but I’d say concern, when sharks are spotted. The swimming public has anxiety because of the events of last year,” he said. There was a shark attack on the Cape that killed a man. “We try to be the voice of reason — what are white sharks, what are not white sharks … The public has sharks on the mind, and the media knows it and is using it.”

That said, Skomal believes most of the Cape and Islands media are responsible when it comes to reaching out and getting verification before publishing.

While he’s on the Vineyard for his chat, Skomal will also be doing some research on another shark species. He plans to hook up with Cooper “Coop” Gilkes and other Island fishermen to do research on brown sharks for a study he’s working on in conjunction with the New England Aquarium’s Anderson and Cabot Center for Ocean Life.

Buy tickets for the Edgartown talk here: bit.ly/GregSkomal2019.