By Doug Hanchett
Sunday night Discovery Channel kicked off its 32nd annual “Shark Week,” a wildly successful programming binge that draws millions of viewers fascinated by the deep’s most intimidating creatures.
But for Massachusetts’ Greg Skomal – a regular guest during the frenzy of programming – Shark Week happens 52 times a year.
The 58-year-old marine biologist is in his fifth decade studying sharks. Over the last 15 years he’s gotten up close and personal with the ocean’s apex predator while examining the influx of great white sharks around Cape Cod.
The dramatic increase of great whites around the Cape once again has vacationers and beach-goers on edge this summer. Reminiscent of the 1975 summer blockbuster “Jaws,” shot on nearby Martha’s Vineyard, it’s a case of life imitating art – this time filmed not by Steven Spielberg but by everyday folks wielding smartphones.
“The only reason the sharks are coming close to shore is because they want to hunt,” Skomal says. “And of course they’re hunting in areas where people are swimming, surfing, boogie boarding and paddleboarding. So it presents a real public safety issue.”
Skomal is a senior fisheries biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, but many of his research efforts and equipment are funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and other organizations. Over the last decade Skomal and his partners have tagged more than 200 sharks and placed more than 100 Innovasea receivers around the Cape and its environs.
“They’ve been integral to our research,” says Skomal, referring to Innovasea’s receivers and V16 tags, which are roughly the size of two AA batteries laid end to end.
More Answers, More Questions
Skomal’s tagging activity began in 2009 after fishermen started encountering great white sharks in the waters around the Cape. The initial focus was on learning about the migration patterns of the sharks and their broad scale movement – trying to figure out when they arrive, where they hang out, how long they stick around.
From there the research shifted to trying to determine the size of the summertime population around the Cape. While that work is ongoing, Skomal expects to be able to report his findings later this year.
One thing became clear to researchers right away: the sharks were now summering on the Cape because the region was being invaded by hordes of gray seals.
The seals – which can be up to 9 feet long and weigh 900 pounds – had been driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th century because of human hunting. But conservation efforts and federal protection over the last 50 years have sparked a serious comeback. Their preferred summer activity? Lounging away the day on the shores of Cape Cod, which creates an all-you-can-eat buffet for great whites.
“What we found was Cape Cod really is ground zero for great whites in the Atlantic,” Skomal says. “Big fish just don’t like shallow water unless there’s a big payoff. But when you have five hundred or a thousand or ten thousand seals on a beach, that’s going to draw them right in.”
A Deadly Direction
In 2018 a 26-year-old Massachusetts man was killed by a great white while boogie boarding at a beach in Wellfleet. It was the first fatal shark attack in the state in 82 years and it triggered another shift in Skomal’s research. With the hopes of enhancing public safety, his team is now using Innovasea technology to learn more about the predator/prey relationship between the sharks and the seals – how they hunt, when and where.
“You have this real serious overlap between the sharks, their natural prey and people,” he says. “Think of it as moving from studying the sharks and what they’re doing from week to week or even month to month to knowing what they’re doing hour to hour or even minute to minute.”
While violent interactions between humans and sharks are rare, they’re likely to continue. Just weeks ago a woman in Maine was killed by a shark – the first fatal shark attack in the state’s history. Skomal helped authorities in Maine confirm that a great white was the culprit.
But he’s optimistic his latest research will help minimize those kinds of violent encounters. He sketches out the following scenario – stressing that it’s just hypothetical:
“Let’s say that we noticed in our data logging tags that sharks go into shallow water at dusk and make multiple attempts over the course of two hours at dusk every day to attack and kill seals. And let’s say they only do that at high tide during new moons. You can see what could come from that relative to public safety. The obvious advice to the swimmers would be to avoid the water during those periods of time.
“I wish it was that simple. It’s probably not going to be that simple. There may be no patterns. They may just be opportunistic. And that’s that. But that’s the work we’re focused on right now, trying to turn that science into advice.”
In the meantime, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy has developed an app that people can download to keep track of shark sightings – whether from eyewitnesses or from Innovasea tags and receivers. The Sharktivity app delivers alerts whenever a shark is spotted off the coast of New England, and the media now uses the tool to fuel its insatiable appetite for shark stories.
Skomal is in the process of placing half a dozen of Innovasea’s new Fathom Live Hub receivers, which are housed in solar-powered buoys that deliver real-time updates via cellular network or Wi-Fi. When a tagged shark swims within about a kilometer of one of the receivers, it instantly logs the detection in Innovasea’s Fathom Live platform and sends an alert to the Sharktivity app.
“We bought six total of those receivers to put out, so it’ll be interesting to see how well they work on delivering data to us, number one, and at letting public safety officials know when there are sharks in the area,” Skomal says.
How to Play Tag with a Shark
Unlike many fish researchers, Skomal and his team do not catch sharks in order to tag them. Instead they go out twice a week during the summer to conduct an elaborately choreographed pursuit of nearby great whites by air and by sea.
Skomal and his crew ride aboard the Aleutian Dream, a 24-foot boat captained by former Alaska fisherman John King and powered by a pair of 130 horsepower Honda outboards. Pilot Wayne Davis flies overhead in his American Champion Citabria, acting as the spotter and notifying the Aleutian Dream by radio when he sees a shark.
When Davis locates one, King puts the hammer down and races to the location. When they get there, King powers down the engines and quietly approaches. Skomal grabs a 14-foot long pole with a GoPro camera attached and steps out on the boat’s “pulpit,” a narrow 11-foot walkway that juts out from the bow of the boat.
“If the shark is cooperative, what we’ll try to do first is get a little video of the shark to get a sense of who it is,” he says. “We try to identify the shark from color patterns on the animal and we’ll also listen to the hydrophone to make sure it’s not previously tagged.”
If it’s a new shark and it hasn’t been scared off by the boat, Skomal attempts to tag it using a pole with an intramuscular dart on the end. Wielding it like a spear, he’ll jab the pole into the shark, inserting a tag at the base of the dorsal fin. It’s not easy. The shark needs to be close to the surface. If it’s swimming just 10 feet down, they’re out of luck.
It can also be scary. Two years ago a great white surged out of the water and tried to snatch Skomal from his perch.
Asked what his batting average is, Skomal says on a good day they might find 10-15 sharks and tag three or four.
A Long Partnership
Skomal’s relationship with Innovasea stretches back more than 30 years. Before embracing acoustic telemetry tracking tools, Skomal would head out into the field with a waterproof log book and rely on information from fishermen and other mariners about their encounters with sharks. He’s amazed at the weapons he has at his disposal today – and marvels at what the future might bring.
“I can’t say enough about the technology,” says Skomal. “I’ve been a scientist at a time when the technology has just exploded. The Innovasea tags now last nine, 10 years. With every new type of tech that comes out, you learn something completely different. It’s amazing to think where things will be 10 years from now.”
About the Author
Formerly an award-winning journalist, Doug Hanchett is Innovasea’s director of communications and editor of the Innovasea Insights blog. Early in his career he spent more than a decade working as a newspaper reporter and covered transportation for the Boston Herald before becoming Director of Media Relations for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Boston’s “Big Dig,” the largest public works project in U.S. history. Since then he has served in various PR and corporate marketing roles, helping Fortune 500 companies and small- and medium-sized firms tell their stories in creative, compelling ways.