Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Atlantic White Sharks
The Cape Cod fall has been spectacular especially in this month of October. The weather has been largely sunny, temperatures have been mild and the strong storms with easterly winds have held off.
With the Massachusetts Shark Research effort under the direction of Dr. Greg Skomal winding down and all tagging efforts complete for the 2013 season we decided to take advantage of a beautiful sunny day and get up in the air with veteran pilot and fish spotter Norman St. Pierre of Chatham. Our experience gives further credence to advice top wildlife guides and naturalists always say - the more time you spend in the "field" the better chance you have of seeing something extraordinary.
Field Report follows: Weather conditions were not ideal as we had westerly winds with gusts to 25 knots giving a little challenge to flying in a small plane but the east side of the outer Cape beaches were protected from the wind and the sun shined exposing clear emerald green water near the beaches. We scanned the Chatham outer beaches carefully from the Minister's Point cut in the north to Monomoy Point in the south. The tide was high and slack water occurred during our flight at around 1330 hrs.
Almost immediately we spotted a white shark in shallow water just south of the new South Beach cut . The shark was about 100 yards off of the beach. Approximately 300- 400 grey seals were hauled out on the sand and perhaps another 50 were in the water at the edge of the surf inside the new cut area on the south side of the channel. We made several passes to take photographs and then proceeded south toward "shark cove". Approximately 1 mile north of the "cove" we spotted a 2nd white shark. This shark was about 25 yards off the beach and closing on a group of seals at the water's edge. Again approximately 200 - 300 seals were hauled out in the near vicinity on the beach. Others were in the water but very close to the surf line. We again made several passes to photograph the shark and surroundings then proceeded south to Monomoy Point, circled the south end of the island but found no additional white sharks visible form the air. However a group of about 100 - 150 seals were hauled out at the south end of Monomoy. Upon returning north we approached the area of the second shark sighting just in time to observe a predation attempt about 20 yards off the beach.
We observed significant thrashing and splashing at the surface as it appeared the shark rushed a smaller seal that had strayed just a little off shore. Thrashing appeared to be created by many and very rapid strokes of the shark's tail as it accelerated in attack mode and presumably some action from the seals attempt to escape to the beach. The seal escaped to the beach and hauled out but it was not immediately clear if it had sustained damage in the attack from a first look at the images recorded. We will study the images further. After the predation event we followed the shark for a few minutes to see if it would initiate another attack. It approached another small group seals slowly but once observed by the seals (we saw them raise their heads and look )Â the shark headed away from the beach to deeper water. We then made our way north across the main Chatham inlet scanning the east side of North Beach Island to the Minister's Point cut . Finding no additional sharks in the area we returned to the airfield.
Now in thinking about the experience - it is a huge WOW! The "holy grail" in studying natural behavior in white sharks around the world is to see natural predation. Scientists, naturalists and photographers have devoted countless time and resources to witness and record these events and they are fleeting when they come if you are fortunate to see them. (See previous blog.commonflat post from August 2013 on this in South Africa). Only a hand full of people have seen Atlantic white sharks attack live marine mammals. The photographs are even more scarce because it is a rare and chance encounters that lasts only for a few seconds. Norm St. Pierre and I were very fortunate. And what a glorious environment to witness this amazing stroke of natural hunting behavior from one of the earth's greatest predators. Wild Cape Cod indeed!