"The more you look, the more you see them. They move around and are closer to populated areas than we probably expect."
The waters along the shoreline of the East Coast tend to be murkier and shallower than the West Coast. Maybe our hope is that the shallowness of the water or the murkiness will somehow make it less likely that we’ll have a direct encounter.
Well, really, I think they run the whole range. We have sharks in San Francisco Bay where it can be shallow and murky. The Farallon Islands, the waters are much clearer and right along the edge of the Continental Shelf. So I don’t think they display much of a preference either way. Greg Skomal in Massachusetts can talk more about this, but the fact that they’re seeing more sharks on the East Coast seems to be tied to the fact that more seals have been hauling out in the northeast. Of course, here in Central and Northern California, where they haul out, we have a lot of sharks too.
Really as a surfer, I consider it more dangerous to actually drive to the beach than actually being in the water. But there’s this morbid fascination—the idea that you’re not in control. That there’s this larger, wild animal that could get you. You don’t feel that way driving a car, but it’s many, many times more dangerous to drive than to paddle out.
Dr. Greg Skomal, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries
Dr. Jorgenson pointed out that we know far less about the movements and habits of white sharks on the East Coast than most other so-called hot spots around the world.
It’s true. The bottom line is that we don’t know a lot about this particular species in the Atlantic. Up here on the northeast coast, we’ve known that in the summer months you can find lots of blue sharks. More recently we’re finding the same is true of white sharks. There’s a changing dynamic up here, and in the last few years we’ve had unprecedented access to these animals, and that’s let us put tags on them.
Because of the increase in seal populations?
Like many other parts of the world, we’ve had a restoration of the seal population up here—a high seal abundance and thus a high predator abundance. They’re being drawn in close to Cape Cod. We’ve tagged 34 sharks in the last four years, but the ones that get the most attention are the ones that are tagged by OCEARCH because you can track them in real-time.
It’s nothing really new that they do occur off the southeastern coast in the winter, but what’s bringing it home to people is the fact that it’s now being brought to them live so to speak. They’ve been there, but they’re just not a conspicuous species. Not a lot are caught. They keep to themselves and don’t spend a lot of time very close to shore—they tend to stay a few miles out. You don’t have seals piled up on the beaches like we do up here, which draws them up on the shoreline. Off the southeast, they’re shifting gears, to feed on porpoises, dolphins, and big drum and amberjack. And they love to scavenge dead right whales.
I guess it’s as much an issue of being comfortable in your ignorance than when you can see them right there on the screen—right offshore.
Folks up here have said, "Jeez, I felt a lot more comfortable when I didn’t know these things were around." Some don’t like to surf up here in the summer because it’s a psychological issue. We haven’t had an attack on a surfer ever, but last year we did have an attack on a swimmer. Up here, because the seals are drawn right up on the beach, those fears may be a little more founded than yours.
The other tags you’ve put on sharks have been done without actually capturing them. But you helped tag Genie, the shark that pinged off Savannah, by getting her aboard the OCEARCH platform. The video of that capture was remarkable.
That was my first time tagging a shark that way. It was amazing. It’s probably the same feeling you would have looking at really big waves. It has to do with how insignificant it makes you feel. We put big, black towels over their eyes to keep them calm. Then, to see an animal in excess of 2,000, 3,000 pounds before your eyes, just laying there, docile like a big old St. Bernard, and being able to tag it, take tissue samples, test for parasites. It’s just remarkable.