‘A sharky place’ Martha’s Vineyard: a pit stop on the great shark highway

Nicole Jackson

With the first white shark sightings of the year already pinging as close to Martha’s Vineyard as Provincetown on May 20th and off Chatham on June 2nd, marine researchers are encouraging swimmers and boaters to be aware of their surroundings and to report shark sightings, and suspected sightings. 

With the Vineyard being a pitstop for sharks on their migratory journey north to the seal-rich waters of the Outer Cape, Islanders can expect great whites to be swimming through local waters now that the season is here, particularly off the southern and eastern parts of the Island. 

That being said, state shark expert Greg Skomal says Islanders need not be too concerned about attacks. Though there are seals on the island, there aren’t enough to make the Vineyard a hot spot for shark activity, at least compared to the Outer Cape.  

MV does not play a big role in white shark residency because of the lack of large seal haul-outs,” says Skomal. 

Still, the white shark population seen off the coast of Massachusetts has increased over the last 20 years thanks to shark conservation efforts and an increasing seal population. It’s unclear if that increase has peaked, or whether the population is still climbing. Skomal could not say if islanders could expect to see more sharks this year as compared to 5 years ago. “It is difficult for us to determine if the population off Massachusetts is still increasing from year to year,” Skomal said.  

Sharks can be found during the summer season wherever seals are abundant, as white sharks, also called “great whites,” primarily feed on seals. 

The Outer Cape, as it happens, is an area with a very dense population of gray and harbor seals, and thus an attractive area for white sharks. 

There are significantly more seals on the outer Cape than on the Vineyard. “On the order of 100s,” said Skomal. 

Other nearby areas with high-density seal populations include Muskeget Island off of Nantucket, and Great Point on Nantucket, before reaching the seal-mecca of the Outer Cape, spanning Chatham to Provincetown. 

Skomal, with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, is a marine biologist and researcher who founded the Massachusetts Shark Research Program in 1988. A former Islander himself, he got his start in the field right here on Martha’s Vineyard. As a young scientist he moved to the Island in the 1980’s and quickly became involved in the local fishing community and on the research on sharks, specifically. Skomal lived on the Island studying local sharks for 23 years. He’s since turned into somewhat of a celebrity in the shark world with appearances on the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week. 


The Shark Highway

Both sharks and seals are migratory animals, and both have long visited the waters of Cape Cod. Every year, like so many other visitors to the Cape and Islands, white sharks make a nearly thousand-mile journey north for the summer season, only to migrate south when the water temperatures shift cooler.

Skomal explained that white sharks avoid frigid, off-season temperatures by migrating to the waters of the Carolinas and further in the winter. They may even travel as far as the Gulf of Mexico. 

“Their movements are mitigated and driven by water temperature. So once water temps begin to warm, which is happening for the most part in the month of May, they begin their migration North,” Skomal said. Typically in May is when they begin their seasonal journey up the Eastern seaboard, traveling along the continental shelf on a marine north-south highway, bound for destinations as far as Nova Scotia.

“They generally follow the coastline, staying on the continental shelf, bang a right when they hit the Vineyard,” said Skomal. “Our research indicates they do swing by the South side of the Vineyard.” 

But Skomal feels sure these sharks are just passing through. The Vineyard is more protected compared to Nantucket. 

“If there’s some reason to stay around the Vineyard, they would,” Skomal said. “But they don’t, so they keep going until they pick up the scent trails of high density of seals on the Outer Cape.”  

Skomal says they travel to “South Beach, out past Katama, past Nantucket as well, but these are generally animals that we consider to be transient, which is a good thing for Vineyarders concerned about sharks,” Skomal said. 

White sharks first start to trickle into New England in May. “The bulk of sharks aren’t moving until June or July,” Skomal said.

“Some sharks will stay on the Cape for the summer, others will keep moving. We’ve had sharks go up to Maine and come back to the Cape, or up to Nova Scotia and then back to the Cape,” he said.

When asked about how many white sharks swing by the islands in the summer, Skomal hesitated to give a number. “We have identified over 600 individual white sharks off the Cape, so it’s safe to say some of them go past the Vineyard on their way,” he said. “I couldn’t say all 600, and certainly not at the same time, but it gives you a sense of the magnitude of the number of animals.”

‘Sharky Waters’

It’s not just white sharks in local waters. There are a number of other species large and small, including tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, smooth dogfish sharks, basking sharks, Atlantic shortfin makos, hammerheads, porbeagles, and more. 

For the seals, there are two species: gray and harbor seals, both of which turn up all across the Cape and Islands. 

“The Vineyard, like most of Massachusetts, gets a variety of species that for the most part are seasonal visitors. Each one behaves a little bit differently,” said Skomal. 

On the east side in Katama and South Beach, this is prime white shark highway territory, but in recent years, there have also been hammerhead shark sightings reported. 

“It’s not a species we typically think of as being in New England, but there have been more sightings in the past few years,” Skomal said. He attributed the hammerhead sightings to shark conservation efforts, changes in climate, and warming water temperatures that have occurred in New England in recent years. 

As for the northern part of the Island, Skomal says harmless basking sharks may swim by around this time of year. 

Smooth dogfish sharks, which are small, harmless sharks, may also be picked up in late May and June by fisherman targeting striped bass or black sea bass in north shore waters. Fishermen of this area may be familiar with Dogfish Bar, named for these small sharks.

Although not a shark, the ocean sunfish, also known as the mola mola or common mola, can swim with their dorsal fin sticking out of the water, which can be easily confused for a shark fin. This species has even been known to swim into Menemsha Pond from the Vineyard Sound. 

Some of the larger species, like the shortfin mako, the blue shark, and the common thrusher, are what shark researchers consider offshore species, meaning they stay out in deeper waters. Skomal assures these bigger animals very rarely approach the shoreline, if ever. “They get big, some would think they’re dangerous, but they’re not,” says Skomal. “The public need not be too concerned about them.” 

Despite the fact that the Vineyard is neither the hot spot nor the final destination for these migratory sharks, the island isn’t without its shark sightings and lore. 

“It’s a real sharky place,” Skomal said of the Island.   


The Shark Expert


A young scientist, Skomal moved to the Vineyard in the 1980’s and quickly became involved in the local fishing community and marine biological research. 

Skomal lived on the Island after he got his masters from University of Rhode Island. He worked as a regional biologist for the state division of marine fisheries and was stationed on Martha’s Vineyard in 1987, where he worked out of an office in the old state lobster hatchery building. He lived on Island for 23 years until 2010. Skomal developed the Massachusetts Shark Research program in 1988 while living on the Island. He worked closely with local anglers, fishermen and those who were catching sharks. 

Back in the days of the annual shark tournament, Skomal would take samples every year. He spoke fondly of the derby and of working closely with the Island newspapers on shark sightings and marine biology topics.

“I loved my time on the island and I miss it to a great extent. It was really where I cut my teeth as a young scientist,” said Skomal. “It was instrumental in forming my future.”

In addition to being a researcher and marine biologist, Skomal is also a photographer and author. His newest book, “Chasing Shadows,” is about his research on sharks and largely takes place on Island. “It includes a major section about the Vineyard, living on the Vineyard, and the sharkiness of the Vineyard,” Skomal said.

For summer shark sightings, Skomal encouraged Vineyarders to alert town officials, and to report the sighting to the Mass Dept of Marine Fisheries, and to the Sharktivity App, which was created in collaboration with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the Division of Marine Fisheries, and the Cape Cod National Seashore. 

The Sharktivity app allows anyone to report a shark sighting or suspected sighting, which is then verified by the New England Aquarium. All shark sightings are posted on the app for users to stay informed of possible sharks in the water. Researchers, safety officials, and the general public all contribute to it. 

To the question of whether Islanders should be more concerned about sharks than in the past, Skomal says no. 

“The Vineyard gets very crowded. It can be dangerous in so many different ways, and sharks are not one of them,” he said. “Keep in mind, the probability of a shark bite is incredibly low. The probability of getting into a car accident at 5 corners?” 



  1. Have u ever been to no man’s in the colder months there are thousands of huge seals I’ve even witnessed a killer whale beach itself in an attempt to feed and it’s partner strand him or herself in attempts to free the stuck orca unfortunately both perished this was in the late 90’s

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