On Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the app Sharktivity, there have been at least seven great white shark sightings off the coast of Cape Cod. Last summer, we saw two attacks, including one that led to the tragic death of a 26-year-old man.
How are the increased shark sightings, and last summer's lethal attack, impacting Cape Cod tourism and business?
On why we fear sharks, even though the likelihood of a shark attack is low
"Expert psychologists will tell you that there is a very primal emotional fear that overrides the rational assessment of risk. In part, it's the idea of an animal with — I don't know how many — hundreds of razor sharp teeth chewing you to death, grips the human imagination as a very unpleasant, painful way to die. On top of that, there's the lack of control factor that a human being has in the water. You're in this murky water, this beast creeps up on you seemingly from nowhere, shadowy. It's in its element; you're not. It's a better swimmer than you are, and it seems as if you're helpless. There's nothing you can do. So that helplessness and the unpleasant way to go makes our fears override our risk assessment."
On how increased shark sightings affects business and tourism on Cape Cod
"According to the [Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce] ... they didn't expect a huge decrease in tourists, but there might be some behavioral changes among swimmers — whether that's not going in the water at all, swimming at your inn's pool, going to a pond or lake on the Cape as opposed to the water, or just going in up to your ankles to cool off and talk with friends. They had some sense that people might alter their swimming patterns.
"That said, I also heard from an innkeeper in Chatham, which has been shark central in recent years, that we talked you for our series, and he said his business so far has been slightly off. He can't really explain at this point why, it's too early to say. He did say that the streets of Chatham were jammed over the Fourth of July weekend. And anyone who I've talked to, some people who've driven to the Cape this summer ... they say that the bridge traffic going over is as crazy as it's ever been. So it's all anecdotal at this point, but there may be some small decrease in some businesses. The main hit, I think, has been surf shops. ... As surfers go out farther, they are more risk averse, some would say. ... I'm not a surfer either, but a well-known surfer some months ago — well before this season, after the attacks of last summer — put out the word that he thought surfers should avoid the Cape. And one person who owns a surf shop on the Cape who spoke with my colleague, Joel Brown, for another story in the series, told him that his business was off, and he attributed that to the concerns about sharks."
On what the message has been from Cape businesses to visitors
"If you look at some of the websites that businesses on the Cape [in the] hospitality industry ... their message has been: 'We're still open for business.; you should take some reasonable precautions.' Their websites have information about sharks. Some of the beaches have put up shark alert signs. A number of them have put first-aid kits with shark-specific materials like tourniquets on or near the beaches. My family's not going to the Cape this year for reasons totally unrelated to sharks. If we didn't have alternate plans, I would certainly consider the Cape. I might not go out as far as I did."
Prior to last summer, shark-onomics had actually been driving up so-called shark tourism. Chatham merchants peddled T-shirts and tours to see the seals that are the sharks’ main fare. The nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which works to conserve white sharks, runs shark-watches. “In 2018,” says board member Cynthia Wigren, “we had more trips in the off-season that we’ve had in the past.” Wigren anticipates no drop in demand this year.
But the conservancy also provides shark safety info at its Chatham center and on its website. After all, if you’re a parent who lets your kids frolic in the waves at Longnook, Nauset, Head of the Meadow, or Race Point Beach, that proactive approach, BU experts say, is urgently necessary.
“Because shark attacks are emotionally evocative, tourists will probably overestimate the risk of experiencing” one, says Carey Morewedge, a Questrom School of Business professor of marketing and Everett W. Lord Distinguished Faculty Scholar. “And perhaps base their choice of vacation location on this kind of risk, while neglecting riskier kinds of activities that are less evocative, but even more dangerous—like the amount of driving they will do to get to their vacation.”
Sharks have taken a toll on certain businesses, like surfing shops. At Wellfleet’s Sickday Surf Shop, co-owner Olaf Valli says sales of surfboards and accessories have fallen off. He’s still pushing ahead with a long-planned move to a new and bigger building, his declining board business partially offset by a new product for the reality of the 21st-century Cape: devices for surfers that use electromagnetic fields to repel sharks.
This segment aired on July 11, 2019.