Photos by Dan McCarthy & Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. Additional research by Jenna Tramonti
PART I (2012): FEEDING FRENZY
It’s a gorgeous Sunday two summers ago, and I’m parked outside the Monomy Yacht Club on Cape Cod watching chimes made of iron dock moors clank in the morning wind blowing through Hyannis.
The beach months of 2012 have been full of news reports chronicling the latest great white shark sightings in various parts of the Cape, closer and closer to the shores where hundreds of thousands of vacationers play. A massively shared image made the rounds online involving a kayaker paddling through the surf unaware that lurking just under the wave he was riding was the silhouette of a massive menacing creature (which did, in fact, turn out to be a basking shark).
In the middle of it all: the Cape Cod Sharkhunters, a small tourism and research outfit working in tandem with the state Division of Marine Fisheries and helmed by a local father and son team of commercial fisherman.
The patriarch of the Sharkhunters, Captain Bill Chaprales, is a gruff no-nonsense fisherman with a thick New England brogue. This morning he’s leading six people on board while lowering the plank positioned at the front of the Ezyduzit, a simple white commercial fishing boat, while first mate and Bill’s son Niko (who everyone refers to as Nick), a hulking one-time professional wrestler, comments on the dangers of falling off into the water while balancing up there. “I don’t have to worry about sharks,” Bill jokes, “only you.”
Also on board with us are a few marine researchers, including one from the Division of Marine Fisheries. The Sharkhunters are reviewing recent spottings of different great whites, specifically an 18 to 20-foot monster they call “Large Marge” who they had previously tagged using a special harpoon method. The captain throws a specialized pole equipped with a heavy waterproof technology called Pop-up Satellite Archival Tagging (PSAT), which emits a 300-yard signal. Those signals pass a series of 19 receivers that the Sharkhunters installed along the Cape, and relay data detailing a shark’s movements. The Sharkhunters have been at this since 2009, and so I ask Nick what can be expected in the rest of our excursion.
“Never assume anything on the ocean,” he says. “Whenever you think you have the answers, the sea just changes the questions.”
Pop culture has had a bittersweet love affair with the apex predator for decades. In the middle of the 20th Century, a large push was made to begin researching why sharks bite people, while attack prevention efforts intertwined with military conflicts as sailors were regularly mauled at sea during WWII and Vietnam. Then there’s the eponymous influence of the explosively popular Jaws, which basically amplified the notion that the only good shark is a dead shark.
When Jaws came out in 1975, the Hollywood production propagated the enduring myth that sharks are mindless killing machines. Research at the time was largely associated with preventing attacks instead of actually learning from sharks, so there was little in the way to stop the wholesale killing of them in the 80s and 90s. It was around then when fisherman everywhere discovered a vanity market for delicacies like shark fin soup, a staple dish of the affluent in China through the 50s that’s been riding a resurgent wave of popularity. Suddenly fisheries exploded, and by the 90s and 2000s the global targeting of sharks just for their fins (and later for their meat) resulted in less research of their basic biology. Rather than learn more critical information like how, when, and where sharks reproduce, they were treated like sea cattle, slaughtered and sold off to the highest bidders.
Not so anymore, as the public perception of sharks has been moving steadily toward the positive. Especially in Massachusetts, the setting for several specials on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week which starts next Monday, August 10 this year. Then there’s the stuff that’s not so academic. It seems like every other day some New England news outlet has a story about potential man-eating sharks being spotted in this bay, or a great white savaging a seal off Nantucket, and every other Jaws cliché imaginable. Beyond Cape Cod, there’s been a fever pitch of fake footage of everything from clips featuring bros lassoing a shark to surf behind, to reports of a new Meglalodon in our midst and, for fuck’s sake, not one but two godawful made-for-TV B-movie bombs starring aging Tinsel Town rejects and other useless actor meat for CGI beasts to feast on. In short, Tara Reid is considered a sympathetic character in comparison to sharks.
And that’s kind of the problem.
In a sense, the vast majority of shark sightings are blown out of proportion. Typically, people accidentally mistake things like a rowdy bluefish – or a seal’s nose breaking the surface for a gulp of air – for a jagged-toothed danger. The rise of seal numbers has been happening for some time, fueled largely by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that outlawed seal killings. Of course, that also means a lot more food, and where there’s food, there will be sharks.
Back on the Ezyduzit, the researcher on board is chatting with a technician from the Coast Guard, while Nick grabs a receiver from the water, its submerged portion shellacked in wiggling crustaceans and lobster larvae. The researcher downloads and looks at the culled data on a weathered laptop when he notices a tag was pinged around 2pm the day before, near the Monomy National Wildlife Reserve just off Chatham. Large Marge had apparently been swimming there three days prior. The guys happen to be shooting the shit about real-time tracking. Pissed about the missed opportunity, one of the Sharkhunters opines: “What good [is it] knowing a shark is in the area the day after?”
By 10am, we’ve been floating around for a few hours when suddenly the boat’s radio crackles to life. George Breen, a retired commercial airline pilot, is the eye-in-the-sky for the Sharkhunters. The crew wouldn’t be able to find much without Breen, who lives in a picturesque Cape Cod community with its own private airstrip, and taxis out his fire-engine red small spot plane to assist with the boys.
“WE GOT A SHARK!” Breen crows. “WE GOT A SHARK! GET THE TAGS READY!”
The Ezyduzit roars and the boat banks hard, hot on the trail. George checks back in: “Southbound now, it’s headed out to sea.” And that’s the game. That’s how it goes. No low-note piano dramatics with a dorsal fin protruding. Just a shadow, then a lighter one, then gone into the deep.
Contrary to pop culture stigmas, not all sharks spend a lot of time on the surface. As such, accumulating knowledge about their peculiar habits isn’t a game for the easily bored. You’d never know this, of course, from watching the benevolent hunters on the Discovery Channel, which has paid for several of the crew’s trips for various specials anchored to their brand-saving Shark Week. That funding is key to the entire tagging and research process, because at the end of the day these are blue collar guys, professional fisherman and scientists doing this on their own steam and for the good of the community.
All that altruism noted, there is some serious treasure to be made off tourism that has exploded from the frenzy over the Cape’s leading maritime attraction. Back in Steven Spielberg’s heyday, the very act of yelling “SHARK!” on a beach inspired fear and panic. But with the proliferation of new research and a re-framing of this forever notorious alpha king of the ocean, the seascape has begun to shift.
PART II (2013): THE SCIENCE
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, founded in January 2014, calls for beach-goers to “spread the white shark love!” It seems to be working: this year there were reports of a scene on the Cape where small children were ecstatic to witness a great white ripping a seal apart as the water turned red. In the past, such a sight would presumably cause people to shriek, even though the International Shark Attack File has only recorded three shark attacks in Massachusetts since 1837, with just a single fatality – in 1936. (In 2012 CNN also reported a Truro man had a great white nibble on his leg).
With the rash of attacks in Brazil over the past couple of decades, and the fact that Florida has had attack-related fatalities as recently as 2010, the increased yet non-fatal visibility of great whites off Cape Cod shores, largely thought to be associated with the growing population of gray seals, has raised questions. Offering potential answers is Dr. Gregory Skomal, a shark expert and senior marine fisheries biologist who focuses on generating data that everyone from fishery managers to the general public can use to make decisions that are good for sharks. His real-time tracking data and migration movement information on rates of life longevity and growth comprises a critical framework for coastal wildlife management. Skomal has been at the tagging game for more than five years off the Cape, and has partnered with the Sharkhunters, but I met him last summer while the doc was working with another research outfit.
“With sharks in general, we’re starting to scratch the surface,” Skomal told me aboard the M/V OCEARCH, a 126-foot former Bering Crab boat turned research vessel. A non-profit great white research organization, OCEARCH was founded by its current expedition leader Chris Fischer, and is underwritten by private donations and corporate sponsors including the industrial machine manufacturer Caterpillar. “There’s over 500 species worldwide, and we probably know a lot about 10 percent of them,” Fisher told me on the OCEARCH. White sharks, he added, have been studied extensively worldwide, whereas here on the Atlantic there’s a void of knowledge. Basic questions left unanswered.
I had hitched a ride that day with the OCEARCH team after attending their press conference at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. They were embarking on a 12-day expedition, the largest for great white study in American history, and the 17th expedition led by Fischer. This one had a stated objective to capture, tag, gather data, and release 10 to 20 great whites in the federal waters OCEARCH was confined to – three miles off-shore – after being granted a temporary scientific permit from the federal government. The special permission exempted the group from rules that prohibit the possession or removal of sharks from the water.
To connect its vast resources with its audience, OCEARCH offers real-time shark movement logistics – as well as character descriptions of the various sharks spotted – via its popular online “Shark Tracker” platform. On their end, under the special permit, Skomal, Fischer, and their team use what’s called a Smart Position and Temperature, or SPOT tag to reveal horizontal movements, as well as an additional Pop Up Satellite Archival Tag (or PSAT) for recording diving depths and water temperature.
“We have tagged 32 sharks using that method and deploying various kinds of technology,” Skomal said. “Each kind of technology tells you a little bit of different information about the sharks, but there were various technologies that could not apply with the harpoon method.”
According to Fischer, a new method was needed. One that would make the information public as soon as they had it.
Chris Fischer is something of a lightning rod in the greater shark study ecosystem. He has a reserved cocksureness, but it’s tempered by a sincere and affable demeanor. Think Jacques Cousteau if he were the captain of a lacrosse team. Fischer mentioned a love for those old reels, and for the Cape expedition in 2013 the OCEARCH was bestowed with the coveted Explorers Club flag given to those meeting the criteria of advancing field science – the same kind Buzz Aldrin carried to the moon on the Apollo 11 mission.
For the past several years, Fischer’s been involved in National Geographic and Discovery Channel shows that he convinced to fund his early expeditions for adventure specials. To date, he’s probably best known for his role in the 2012 “Sharkwranglers” reality series on the History Channel that featured his OCEARCH crew.
It was around September 2012 when Skomal first began speaking with Fischer. Together they organized a test outing to gauge the feasibility of doing a more comprehensive expedition. In part as a result of that research, they developed a massive vessel outfitted with a 75,000-pound custom shark lift that the team uses after it lures (or “walks,” as they say it) great whites with a 30-foot auxiliary boat. Seamen hook and line the shark and bring it to the OCEARCH, where the shark is lifted out of the water and placed on the deck while sea water is pumped through its gills. From there they have just under 15 minutes to conduct about a dozen scientific studies on the spot, from blood work and ultrasounds to measurement of male sex organs. The entire process is intended to be non-invasive and to yield crucial data that gives researchers a way to understand this ancient animal in a comprehensive new light.
Who wouldn’t be on board with this?
According to Skomal, the haters are just jealous.
“People are territorial,” he told me when I asked about complaints leveled at OCEARCH. “Science is full of a lot of big egos. The ones that really hold their data tight and become super, super territorial, you start to question whether or not it’s about them or is it about the ocean. I’m starting to think it’s the former more so than the latter.”
Fischer put it another way, “We’ve been completely disruptive in the approach to research … in the modern term of disruption,” he said. “You’re taking an old institutionalized system, and by disrupting it, [we are] forcing it to be resource first, which is best for mankind. I didn’t come from inside the system, [I was] more of a social entrepreneur who found a way to get work funded in the area where there was no funding for these scientists.”
Various animal rights activists and Facebook groups see things differently. There is a Facebook page dedicated to putting everything OCEARCH and Fischer does on blast, while a separate website also sprung up in 2013 called Great White Lies that is almost entirely focused on OCEARCH criticisms – from accusations that Fischer chases fame, to some regarding the handling of sharks. Detractors cite the fact that sharks are not meant to leave water, and claim their being hooked, dragged, and placed on a platform does intense damage.
In the face of complaints, Skomal considers his work above criticism. He says, “They’re basically saying, ‘Leave that animal alone. It’s a wonderful, magnificent creature.’ I admit, those people kind of piss me off every now and then. But I kind of would rather have that then guys saying, ‘Yeah, let’s kill it.’”
It’s not just animal welfare supporters who have their beefs with OCEARCH. There is a stark sense of cynicism from locals, including Captain Bill on the Ezyduzit. On my day out with them in 2012, after encountering one of the auxiliary boats that OCEARCH uses, someone mentioned the name “Sharkwranglers,” and Bill reacted with a chuckle and a quip: “More like sharkmanglers.” His crewmates snickered.
Besides the bloggers and Sharkhunters, OCEARCH has also run afoul of some former collaborators. Dr. Michael Domier, who worked with Fischer and the team on two expeditions in 2012 before there were any TV deals, has publicly distanced himself from the group.
Still, Skomal has no time for dramatics, and is confident in their tactics and care for the animals. He’s only concerned with the data that is coming out of these expeditions, and furthermore making that information public rather than being held within the ivory towers of classic academia, where findings are published in obscure journals.
“You know,” Skomal says, “[it’s like] ‘Look at me, I’ve produced this great paper that was published in Science or Nature and I’m going to die a very popular scientist.’ Well, that’s great. That’s fine, but what have you really done other than boost your own ego?”
In spite of opposition, OCEARCH and Fischer are now shark-media darlings. My day at sea with the team in July 2013 was shared with their crew of volunteers and researchers, as well as Jeff Glor from CBS News, who has Fischer come on often to discuss OCEARCH and to plug their Shark Tracker app, which has become a pop culture phenomenon of sorts.
According to Skomal, the OCEARCH interest Mary Lee may be the most popular white shark in history. [AUGUST 2015 UPDATE: At present, Mary Lee has a mega-popular Twitter handle @MaryLeeShark with close to 90,000 followers and counting.] Weighing in at over 3,000 pounds, she was tagged in September 2012 off Cape Cod, and has since been on a whirlwind tour of the western North Atlantic, traveling in excess of 15,500 miles over the last few years.
“I have people approach me and say, ‘Every day I sit with my family to see where Mary Lee is,’” Skomal said. “So if Mary Lee goes to South Carolina, Florida, or Bermuda, immediately there’s local interest like a celebrity’s coming to town. We’re learning from the public that’s learning from Mary Lee, so [the shark] is basically the leader and we’re all following her.”
If it seems like OCEARCH has developed a novel way of giving personalities to sharks to boost public interest, it’s because that wasn’t an accident. For example, Katherine, a 2,300-pound white shark tagged in August 2013 off the Cape, is so popular that its followers crashed the Shark Tracker site back in June.
“I think as soon as you start getting the data and translating it for the public, or even letting them see it like you can on the Shark Tracker, you are going to bring the public into the fold,” Skomal says. “Once you respect it, you will protect it. And you will pass that on to your children and they will understand it.”
Still, says Skomal, “I get a lot of people who write me hate mail just because I tag a shark.”
By about 3pm on my day out with the Cape Cod Sharkhunters, George is being assisted by a Coast Guard chopper, already in the area, whose pilot is helping after he spotted a great white in his plane and radioed the boat. Captain Bill stands eager like Ahab at the end of the harpoon plank. He’s had enough lost chases, in which sharks disappear back into the deep. For a lot of those failures the Sharkhunters blame the nature of the game, available sunlight, and at times “chumming” by the other guys (they claim OCEARCH attracts sharks with fish guts). There’s a palpable tension between these townies and the well-funded other crew.
Mostly, though, the Sharkhunters are in the same business as OCEARCH – waiting. Fischer told me in our time together that “you could be out here for five hours and have nothing, and then suddenly magic hour, and then two days of tracking gets one shark.” Captain Bill says the same, but in my time with them, there seemed to be other factors involved. About 15 minutes after we unloaded on shore, word got out that Large Marge had been lured out to sea, and that the OCEARCH boat picked her up and tagged her.
Later that night and the next day, the news was all over local cable, sending the message that media muscle and sponsorship are the best tools a modern day shark wrangler can have.
In the end, it felt like a slap against the work the Sharkhunters had been doing, as the the better-funded, more photogenic media darlings won the success Captain Bill and his men hunted for all morning. I asked Nick, Bill’s son, how he felt about the outcome.
“Just another day on the ocean.”