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A little over a week ago, Greg Skomal, senior scientist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, was standing at the bow of a research boat, as it closed in on a great white shark in the waters off of Wellfleet.
He was there studying the local shark population, when something unexpected happened. The shark jumped out of the water, right under him.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Meghna Chakrabarti: Let me just ask you the first obvious question. You're the shark guy! I would think that nothing fazes you about great whites — but you did jump.
Gregory Skomal: Yeah I do little two-step there. My wife didn't know I can move my feet that fast. It was startling to say the least. I was really surprised by what happened last Monday.
You had a stick with a GoPro on it, right? Were you trying to film the shark?
We've been doing this all summer — we've been doing it the last five summers. We go up to each individual white shark that's identified by our pilot in the air and then we do a few sweeps of the GoPro to determine if it's a male or a female, or has individual markings. Do we know this shark? If the shark cooperates we put a tag on it. It's a standard operating procedure.
This particular shark was swimming in incredibly murky water and I could not see it. Normally we can identify the shark from 20, 30, 40 feet away. This one, I'm looking down, thinking, where is it, and there it is! Boom! It jumps right up to the pulpit where I'm standing and I look down and I'm looking right down the throat of a gaping white shark and I got to say that it's not the most comfortable position to be in.
Anyone who's watched shark specials on TV — we've seen images of sharks jumping, but usually it's because there's bait, you know, hanging over their heads. So is this jumping behavior typical for them?
You know it's very typical in other parts of the world, namely South Africa, where they're usually feeding on seals near the surface. And so when they strike the seal it carries their body out of the water and they're breaching. Here in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts area, we don't see them breach very often. This is the third breaching event we've seen. One was associated with attacking a seal and then this one. I hope it wasn't associated with attacking me, but it really does lead me to speculate as to why this shark reacted in that way.
It's so fascinating. It's only the third time you've seen this!
Yeah. You know you know we've been out there for the last 10 years tagging these sharks and I've only seen three breaches and this one seemed to be directed at me.
Wow. I mean, you've studied shark behavior for a long time. Could it be — this is speculation I know, — but could it be because the GoPro at the end of the stick could have resembled something that looked like prey?
Well I had the GoPro and the stick horizontal and up — it wasn't down in the water. And so I'm thinking it's one of two things or maybe a combination of both. We spooked that shark in that turbid water, the shark couldn't see us. It was hunting seals. We spooked it and it just reacted by jumping and getting out of our way. That's entirely possible.
The other option is that the shark was swimming along hunting seals in turbid water and sees my movement — my reflection, my image. Something that triggered a predatory response because the shark's mouth was wide open and we typically don't see that if the sharks not trying to feed. And so it lunged up at me and then, you know, faded back into the water and swam off.
I did not get any GoPro footage of it. We did not tag it. It was all of two seconds in my life that passed incredibly quickly.
Greg, let me ask you: We've had a bunch of shark sightings this summer. I think people might remember there was that amazing image of the shark passing underneath a paddle boarder a little earlier this summer. And then just on Monday, Plymouth and Wellfleet beaches were closed to swimmers because of sightings. Yesterday the Head of the Meadow Beach and the Coast Guard beach were also closed. Are there more sightings or unusually large number of sightings this year?
Well yeah — what we're doing is, we're getting raw numbers and we don't have the analysis complete because it takes quite a bit of time, but we've been doing this for several years. And what I can say is that July of this year has been far more populated with sharks than in previous years. So we had a very strong July.
August is shaping up to be a very typical August, with lots of white sharks, and they're pervasive throughout state waters and they're close to shore. And we've seen them close to shore consistently for many years. They are here to hunt seals and there's lots because the summer has been so warm, there's more and more people going to the beach and more and more people with cameras. People are aware of these animals. We want that — we want people to be aware of them. We want them to respect them and we're getting lots and lots of reports.
So yeah, it's a little bit more this year than in previous years, but it's also potentially an artifact of just the sheer numbers of people that are out.
So just a big overlap with the sharks being here and people being on the water as well. But we were looking at a 2017 study in the journal BioScience that was talking about the growing seal population in southeastern Massachusetts, that there could be something like 50,000 seals there. Is that a driving factor in bringing more sharks into the area?
Yeah absolutely, absolutely. So if we look at the history of the seals, we had driven them to the brink of extinction over time and it's only over the course of the last 40-plus years that they have rebounded, thanks to protections we put in place back in the 1970s.
So with that growing seal population, white sharks, which are top predators of seals, are taking notice and they're moving closer to shore where these seals are amassing in big numbers. And they're doing what they used to do. They come close to shore, they feed on seals. They take advantage of this feeding opportunity. And of course, over the course of time, we know we have populated these beaches as well. So we have this synergy of three top species all in one area. And it can create problems, at least in terms of perception.
Sharks are these powerful, absolutely beautiful prehistoric creatures that have not been treated very well by humankind, I should say. But with these increased sightings and potential interactions in a summer like this one, what's your message to swimmers, beachgoers, surfers, boaters. You know, what should they be looking at for and what should they do.
Well, you know, something we've been trying to do for the last several years, working with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, my agency, and marine fisheries as well as the National Park Service and all the towns is simply get the word out. Educate the public that these are animals that are going to be here for the summer months into the fall. And we have to modify our behavior so as to minimize the potential for any kind of negative interactions between the two species.
In other words, we want swimmers and folks who recreate on the water to stay close to shore. We want them to stay away from seals. We don't want them to swim alone. Really common sense kinds of actions that will reduce that probability.
The bottom line is this: There hasn't been a fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936 so we really don't want to see that change. But with all these white sharks around, people need to be cognizant of that and we need to modify our behavior.
This segment aired on August 8, 2018.
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