Over forty years since the release of the film Jaws, sharks are returning to Cape Cod. But the fear and the narrative around the danger of sharks could be changing.
This episode was originally published in 2019.
Cold, Dark, and Sharky
Sam Evans-Brown and Peter Frick-Wright
In 2018, two people were attacked by sharks on Cape Cod; one died. The events made headlines around the world, in a media frenzy that really you have to see to believe.
But rather than asking why there are so many sharks off Cape Cod, the more precise question might be: why weren't there sharks off Cape Cod in the latter half of the 20th century?
Seal bounties and an ecological anomaly
When Europeans originally arrived to colonize North America, they noticed the Great White sharks.
"They were definitely here and they were in great abundance as well," said Andrea Bogomolni, head of the Northwest Atlantic Seal Consortium. Thoreau even wrote about them in Cape Cod.
The absence of Great White sharks off the coast of Massachusetts in the early 20th century was a brief ecological anomaly, triggered by the fishing industry.
In 1888, even before the tools of industrial fishing like steam-powered boats, fine mesh nets, and factory trawlers, fishermen in sailboats had started to notice that there were fewer fish.
So, they started to kill seals instead.
"Seals were bounty hunted," said Bogolomni. "The states of Maine and Massachusetts put bounties on seals and so you could bring a seal nose into your town hall — a dollar, five dollars a nose kind of thing — and it did a very good job of wiping out all grey seals."
When the seals began to disappear that the Great Whites disappeared too.
The return of the seals and the sharks
The seal bounties ended in 1962. Just ten years later, seals were federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.
But as things changed for the seals, something big happened for sharks: the release of Jaws in 1975.
Seen by 4 out of 5 Americans, Jaws is an iconic film about a quest for vengeance against a man-eating, villainous shark.
But Jaws was adapted from a book by Peter Benchley, who has since stated that he regrets framing the shark as a villain.
"Worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors," Benchley wrote.
Every year, tens or even hundreds of millions of sharks are killed, many for consumption but others just for sport. Seventeen percent of all shark species are endangered or vulnerable.
Jaws, sharks and tourism
Today, Cape Cod exists in a kind of middle space in which sharks are celebrated, feared, and used as a driver of tourism.
The Chatham Orpheum offers screenings of Jaws all summer long, and according to the movie theatre's director Kevin McClane, they almost all sell out. The showings can feel like screenings of Rocky Horror Picture Show show, with the audience shouting out their favorite lines and crushing beer cans along with Captain Quint.
The Orpheum isn't the only business that offers shark-themed tourist attractions.
Captain Dareen Saletta runs Monomoy Sport Fishing, which offers two-hour Great White shark tours at $1400 a pop.
"It's a product in high demand," said Saletta.
The operation involves the hire of both his boat and plane to spot sharks from above.
"At any beach at anytime, believe me, there can be a shark 100 feet away," said Wayne Davis, a pilot and fish spotter. Davis often works for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a nonprofit that funds shark conservation and research.
From what he's seen from the plane, Davis thinks the sharks are everywhere.
"You know, other than hunger, I’m not sure what makes them react to a target, but I’ve just seen them swim by so many surfers and swimmers, and sometimes close," he said. "It’s made me aware that these aren’t the… the term man-eater… it’s one of the dumbest things that was ever created."
Plenty of commonly cited statistics illustrate the relatively low risk of shark attacks. For instance, you're more likely to be killed by heat stroke, lightning strike, or train crash. There’s actually even a statistic that more people are killed after being crushed by vending machines each year than die from shark attacks.
"That’s complete propaganda and more misinformation... they’re completely wrong and they’re doing the public here a huge misservice," said John Kartsounis, a surfer living in Wellfleet.
Kartsounis is involved with a group of local residents who launched the Cape Cod Ocean Community pushing for more surveillance of the shark population.
"September 15 was Cape Cod’s 9/11," said Kartsounis, citing the date of a shark attack off Wellfleet in 2018. "That was the day that changed everything here on Cape Cod. We lost our innocence."
There have been calls on the Cape for a return to the seal bounty, although Representive Bill Keating called that idea "a non-starter." A report released last year suggested that the education of bathers was the best way to reduce the chance of an attack.
Meanwhile, while visitors to Cape Cod are warned of the dangers with signs at the beaches, some swimmers have essentially adopted Benchley's attitude: sharks are the real victims, and when we swim in the ocean, we're just the visitors. And many still go swimming, even if there is a little twinge of caution.
"I've been thinking about it a lot but it hasn't swayed my decision to get into the water," said Amy Chambers, enjoying a day on the beach. She grew up on Cape Cod and currently lives in Vermont.
"I do other things that are dangerous. I go skiing, I drive, I fly in planes, so it seems to me that this is on the list and maybe a little bit more of a known factor, but I'm still going to go swimming," said Chambers. "I think it would be really cool to see a shark. I just don't want to be right next to it when it pops up."
This episode of Outside/In was a collaboration with Outside magazine and featured music by Robbie Carver.