This morning just before 6 a.m. Eastern Time, a 13-foot adult male great white shark named Breton was detected off the southern tip of New Jersey near Delaware Bay. Weighing in at over 1,400 pounds, Breton was last detected five days ago off the coast of North Carolina and has traveled over 100 miles in the past three days. Last night, just before 11 p.m. ET, a 6-foot-7-inch juvenile great white named Monomoy turned up in the northern reaches of the Gulf of Maine. And not even a half hour earlier, a 9-foot-8-inch sub-adult great white named Cabot was swimming miles off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. These are just three of the roughly 70 sharks currently being tracked via small electronic transmitters by OCEARCH, a research organization that collects and shares real-time data through its popular shark-tracking app.
A recent uptick in shark encounters is not a figment of an overactive imagination. Sightings of great white sharks — as well as biting incidents — have been making headlines on both U.S. coasts recently. Two weeks ago, a popular beach on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, was temporarily closed to swimmers after a beachgoer shot a video of a great white shark coming within just a few yards of shore to hunt and devour a seal. And on the west coast, a white shark bit a man in the leg as he swam off Grey Whale Cove State Beach, about 18 miles south of San Francisco, and another bit a 15-year-old Boy Scout while he kayaked off Catalina Island in Southern California.
“This is summertime, and this is when people get bitten,” says Bob Hueter, chief scientist at OCEARCH. “The first thing to remember is that the ocean is a wild place.” It’s only logical that there are more shark encounters when people flock to oceans, he says, just as you would expect more bear encounters when summer attendance rises at national parks.
Yet when white sharks bite humans, insist researchers, it’s virtually always a case of mistaken identity. “The typical scenario there is that a surfer or swimmer is bitten by a great white shark that’s immature, that’s a juvenile. These are small white sharks, maybe about six feet long,” says Hueter. “Those animals still have not learned what’s suitable, and they will bite and release.”
Statistically, human encounters with sharks are incredibly rare. “Recognize that you face much greater risks you when you go swimming in the ocean from things like undertows and rip currents and lightning, which kill more people than sharks ever do,” says Hueter. And it’s not a close call. Beachgoers are more than 100 times more likely to drown at the beach than be killed by a shark, according to statistics kept by the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack Files.
So why is the public’s fear of sharks so out of whack with the actual threat? “We tend to fixate on these low-probability events,” says Greg Skomal, a senior fisheries biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries whose research has featured on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week specials. “I always ask folks to think of risk in the context of what’s real and what’s probable.”
Skomal, who has been studying great white sharks in the waters off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for more than 30 years, notes that while estimating the great white shark population is notoriously difficult, it appears that more of these big fish are living in our oceans today than in recent decades. “These are highly migratory animals covering a very broad area,” he says. “The white shark population appeared to decline in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, into the ‘90s. And then, thanks to protections put in place in the late ‘90s, it appears to be recovering.”
Skomal’s research is used by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, whose Sharktivity app tracks great white sharks tagged off of Cape Cod. Tagging and tracking sharks helps researchers understand how and when sharks feed, reproduce and migrate, which in turn is crucial to learning how humans and sharks can co-exist.
“What you’re looking for is patterns,” says Skomal, who is working toward one day being able to create a probability map of where great white sharks are most likely to appear by analyzing how patterns of environmental conditions — time of day, turbidity of the water, water temperature, and other various weather conditions — correlate with shark sightings.
“If you can establish those statistical relationships, that allows you to forecast moving forward,” says Skomal. “So, you’ll be able to say that, given the conditions of today, the likelihood of a white shark being in this area during this these times is quite high. And you can actually put a number to that in terms of probability. That’s the goal.”
In the meantime, Skomal hopes people won’t let galeophobia — an irrational fear of sharks — ruin a trip to the beach. “People are just inherently afraid of sharks but the first thing people should realize is that the risk of shark bites is not the same everywhere you go.”
Common-sense risk assessment includes knowing what kind of sharks, if any, are known to swim nearby. “I always think that it’s important to educate yourself as to what species might be in the area,” says Skomal. “But if there’s no documented shark attack in an area, the real-world probability of being bitten is extremely low.”
How to avoid sharks this summer
The simplest way to avoid shark encounters, say researchers, is to stay out of the food chain. That requires being mindful of natural surroundings to minimize the chance that a shark might confuse you with prey. For example, if you see seabirds diving, it could be a sign that there is a large school of fish in the area, which in turn can attract sharks. If you see fish jumping, it could also be a sign that a shark is in the area. Likewise, say experts, don’t swim or surf near fishing areas and piers, since bait or a struggling fish can attract sharks.
Most of all, steer clear of one of the great white’s all-time favorite snacks. “If you’re foolish enough to go swimming among a group of seals frolicking in the shallows, then you’re putting yourself at risk,” says Hueter. “There’s no question about that.”
That’s because sharks are both opportunistic and highly capable of learning, says Skomal. “If you’re coming to New England as a big white shark, you’re quickly going to learn that New England has a summertime when you have access to a really robust food source in seals.” And while seals spend most of their time on land, they eventually need to head into the water to feed. Once a great white locks in on its prey, it will be ruthlessly single-focused, says Hueter. “It will try to pin a seal down and go right up on the beach if it has to.”
“If you’re concerned about sharks, stay shallow, don’t go too far from shore and don’t swim alone,” advises Skomal. Those are also the top shark-avoiding tips from the University of Florida, which notes that sharks most often bite lone individuals.
Other tips include removing shiny jewelry before entering the water. “The reflected light looks like shining fish scales,” says the University of Florida’s tip sheet.
Researchers hope that their work will help educate the public about the critical role sharks play in keeping oceans healthy and balanced.
“Remember, sharks are not the interlopers. We’re the interlopers,” says Hueter. “We should celebrate the fact that these sharks are coming back. This is a very good thing.”