Living in amity with sharks

Greg Skomal teaches us how to coexist with the Atlantic great white.


Amity means “friendship,” and Dr. Greg Skomal believes we can coexist peacefully with the ocean’s great apex predator, the shark. This big fish has gained a lot of media attention over the years, and with it a particularly bad rep.

Skomal lived on the Island for 23 years, and is one of the leading shark experts in the country. He is an accomplished marine biologist and underwater explorer, working to reveal the true nature of the ocean’s most charismatic and controversial predator, the Atlantic great white shark. 

In recent years, gray seals have returned to the Island’s surrounding waters, and along with them their natural predators. For the first time in centuries, these sharks can be found in large numbers along the beaches during the summer and fall months.

“If we have sustainable populations of sharks, you’re going to have the potential for negative interactions between sharks and people; because of that there’s a tendency for people to want to get rid of sharks, but that would be bad for the ocean. We need to learn to live together,” said Skomal.

In August 2012, the first confirmed white shark attack in almost 80 years occurred in the region, and since then there have been five more confirmed attacks. In response to this, some have called for shark culls, nets, drone surveillance, and other extreme solutions. On a statistical scale, these attacks are still very rare, but the sudden increase is something worth recognizing. 

Skomal believes, from a conservation standpoint, we need to know where, when, and how these sharks hunt their prey so that we can learn how to coexist with them. Skomal’s team uses three main technologies to track the behavior of the great white. 

Satellite tags reveal that great white sharks are not just a coastal species, but migrate offshore into deep ocean waters of the Atlantic. “We’re talking about a species that’s far more broadly distributed than we realized,” said Skomal.

He also uses acoustic technology, which he said is “high-frequency pings that are picked up through an array of receivers that we’ve put out throughout Massachusetts. We have a strong sense of when white sharks arrive, where they spend their time, and when they leave.” This technology has revealed that peak months are generally August, September, and October. They have also found that when it comes to Martha’s Vineyard, the great whites nearby tend to be moving through, because the Island currently doesn’t have a high density of seals. 

They also employ new camera tag technology to study behavior. “We put camera tags on white sharks and follow them around over the course of a couple of days to get a sense of how they live. We’re studying really fine-scale behavior and getting high-resolution data so we can see how the average shark spends its average day,” said Skomal. 

Skomal suggests that people look for the signs of sharks and seals in an area before swimming. “Keep in mind that the probability of a shark bite is really, really small,” said Skomal. “Don’t swim alone, don’t go out too deep, and don’t swim in areas where there’s seals.”

When it comes to shark mitigation methods, Skomal said, “the bottom line is that there is really no 100 percent effective, foolproof way that is going to guarantee your security in the ocean from a shark bite.” 

In 2021, the Martha’s Vineyard Atlas of Life was launched, which is a community-driven project of BiodiversityWorks and the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation. The program is working to document the unique biodiversity of Martha’s Vineyard, and seeks to inspire and support nature enthusiasts, with the goal of a community that understands and protects the biodiversity of the Island. 

Luanne Johnson is the founder and director of BiodiversityWorks, an organization focused specifically on wildlife monitoring and research across the Island. “We launched this atlas of life as an effort to bring all that information together and make the biodiversity of Martha’s Vineyard available to the public in one place,” said Johnson. 

“Our work here is ensuring that the next seven generations of Islanders can witness and be in awe of the abundance of biodiversity that we have here on the Island. It’s a shame how much we’ve lost already, compared with when the first people were here, and we’d like to at least preserve what’s here now,” said Johnson. 

Johnson noted that Skomal is a regular reader of the program’s monthly newsletter, and after speaking with him about the increase in fish sightings, they invited him to come do a presentation for the Island about sharks. Skomal shared his research on the evening of June 17 at the Performing Arts Center at the Regional High School.

In response to some extreme shark-mitigation methods, Johnson said, “When you start taking out an apex predator, you disrupt everything in a system. Nature does not produce any junk; it all has a purpose, it all has a niche in the environment, everybody’s got their space in the ecosystem, predators and prey all fit into the beautiful web of life, and it’s all important.” 

We have come far from the era when the only good shark was a dead shark. As Matt Hooper would say, “That shark isn’t evil. It’s not a murderer. It’s just obeying its own instincts.”