Recent months have seen a media frenzy around the return of great white sharks to the waters surrounding Cape Cod. And with good reason: over the summer, great whites were routinely spotted off the iconic vacation destination’s most popular beaches. In 2018, a Cape boogie boarder died after being bitten by a shark—the first fatal attack in Massachusetts since 1936. But behind the headlines about freaked-out tourists and angry locals, the real story on the Cape is about how we learn to live with fear—or, just maybe, get past it. Produced in collaboration with our friends at the Outside/In podcast, this episode investigates the extreme reactions we have to living alongside one of the world’s most terrifying predators.
Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are Dispatches, stories from our writers in the field.
Peter Frick-Wright (host): Hey Sam.
Sam Evans-Brown: Hey Peter.
Frick-Wright: Everyone. Let me introduce you to Sam Evans-Brown, a host of the Outside In podcast at New Hampshire Public Radio, a fellow last name hyphenate, and friend and occasional collaborator with the Outside Podcast.
Evans-Brown: And you are Peter Frick-Wright, and you host the Outside Podcast to which people are listening right now.
Frick-Wright: Yes, yes I am. But, you are actually going to be the central storyteller today. I'm just along for the ride.
Evans-Brown: That is the case. So, Pete, you live out in Portland, Oregon and you surf, right?
Frick-Wright: Yes. I'm a dedicated surfer, but as such, you'd think I would be better at it.
Do you surf?
Evans-Brown: I have surfed maybe a half dozen times, mostly in Maine in the fall, which means a lot of neoprene. It also means I've never had what I think is a rite of passage for surfers, which is a shark encounter.
Frick-Wright: Yeah, I have. So, like a lot of learning to surf comes from talking with surfers about surfing and everyone has a shark story. But they all sort of begin the same way-- like I was out there and I just kind of felt a tingle on the back of my neck that I couldn't explain. And I looked around like between sets and there was nothing different. But like, there was something like, it's just this sense, and they call it out here, they call it the Sharky feeling. And when you describe, what's the surfing like in Oregon? Well, it's cold, dark and Sharky. Cause it's just a feeling that you get.
Evans-Brown: The thing that to me is funny is that by all rights it seems like we should be scared of sharks. They're undeniably predators; they can swim at 30 miles an hour; you can't see them coming when you're in the water; and all that’s scary. And as someone who lives in a part of the world that has been shark free for decades, it seems to me like fear of sharks is rational.
Frick-Wright: It's totally rational on a personal level. I mean they're huge. They regrow teeth constantly. They're constantly regrowing teeth because they use them so much. But on another level, being afraid of sharks is stupid because when you actually look at the numbers, you're just not going to be bit by a shark. I mean it's so rare even in Sharky places.
Evans-Brown: But isn't that one of those things that's like, you can see the statistic, but the question is can you actually know it? Can you turn off that deep reptile part of your brain that is afraid of predators?
Frick-Wright: It depends on how the waves are most of the time. (laughs) Most of the time, yes.
Evans-Brown: Well, you know where people are having a hard time doing that right now is Cape Cod.
And while shark attacks are rare, last year one study says there were 53 unprovoked shark attacks in the U.S. That's more than any other country in the world.
Evans-Brown: Last year was the first fatal shark attack in the state since 1936 and the whole region is kind of experiencing a full blown freak out.
It was the first deadly shark attack in Massachusetts in more than 80 years.
Evans-Brown: Now, whenever there's a shark spotted, the beaches shut down and whenever the beaches shutdown, it makes the news.
On the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, it is shark week. Quite literally. More than a dozen Great White sightings in just the past two days, over a hundred in the past month, and the peak season is just getting started.
Evans-Brown: I personally think the return of Great White sharks to the waters of Cape Cod is one of the most covered natural phenomena of the new millennium. In the past few months, there have been stories in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker, essentially every national outlet you can think of -- but today we are going to tell you what's really going on out there, or at least what I think is really going on.
Frick-Wright: Scientists don't know, but Sam does.
(music starts playing)
Evans-Brown: Last year two people were attacked by sharks on Cape Cod and one died. The result has been a media frenzy that you have to see to believe. But when you look past the headlines, the situation on the Cape is really a clash between these two stories we tell ourselves about sharks. Is this about us learning to live with fear? Or is it about whether it's possible for us to get over our fear?
(music fades out)
Okay. Pete, so you're a West coast guy, yes?
Frick-Wright: Yes. Born and raised and lived and never left for more than a vacation.
Evans-Brown: Have you been to Cape Cod?
Frick-Wright: No. Well, um, where is Cape Cod?
Evans-Brown: (laughs) Massachusetts. If you look at a map of the U.S., it’s that hook that's jutting out into the ocean at the bottom of New England.
Frick-Wright: Gotcha, gotcha. No, definitively have not been there.
Evans-Brown: Okay. So in your imagination, what is Cape Cod like, as somebody who only generally knows where it is?
Frick-Wright: It's full of chowdah and fishermen.
Evans-Brown: Cape Cod, it's a place I can't help but love, but also kind of hate it because it's so goddamn quaint. Like they're all of these very well-kept little downtowns surrounded by historic homes with immaculate cedar shingles for siding. But it's also very touristy. The stat that I've read is that it's like four or five million tourists go there each year. So it's got that feeling that a lot of places with a tourist economy have like--
Frick-Wright: Nothing's really real.
Evans-Brown: Yeah. I mean it just feels like a service economy. But as you point out, Cape Cod's economy did used to be all about fishing. There were so many cod that colonial farmers and native people used to use the fish for fertilizer.
Frick-Wright: Oh wow.
Andrea Bogomolni: The waters were rich. They were abundant with all kinds of wildlife and marine life. One of my interesting tidbit facts that I love is that, they were not common, but there used to be walrus, even in the Gulf of Maine. In the Southern. .
Evans-Brown: To give us the long view here, This is Andrea Bogomolni, who heads up the Northwest Atlantic Seal Research Consortium.
Bogomolni: So I grew up on the West coast. And then I moved out 20 years ago to the East coast to start a master's degree and fell in love with Wood’s Hole. And I fell in love with this place and I stayed.
Evans-Brown: So, when Europeans first arrived here in New England, there were great white sharks.
Bogomolni: Correct. We look to the written record or images in order to document what we see. And one of my favorites is Thoreau who wrote Cape Cod and described such an abundance of sharks that, why would you go swimming in those waters? They were definitely here and they were in great abundance as well.
Evans-Brown: But as the scale of fishing started to ramp up, that abundance started to disappear. And it happened fairly early, like even before steam-powered boats and fine mesh nets and factory trawlers -- all these things that we associate with overfishing -- back when it was just sailboats, fishermen started to notice that there were fewer fish. And so, in response, in 1888, they started to kill seals.
Bogomolni: So seals were bounty hunted, so the state of Maine and Massachusetts put bounties on seals. And so you could bring a seal nose into your town hall, either a $1 or $5 a nose kind of thing. It did a very good job of wiping out all gray seals.
Evans-Brown: At a dollar a nose for about a decade around the turn of the century, Maine and Massachusetts were paying out for a 1000 or 2000 or even as many as 5,000 seals a year. It was as the seals start to disappear that the great whites disappeared to
So this was this brief ecological anomaly in the state of Massachusetts. I mean the seal bounties ended in 1962. What are some things that happened in those intervening years? So, 1962 to today is when the seals came back. Like, maybe we could sort of speculate wildly here.
Frick-Wright: So they stopped offering money for killing them. I mean the whole environmental movement started around ‘62, ‘66, with silent spring. What else would they do?
Evans-Brown: There was the Endangered Species Act, but interestingly, neither seals or great white sharks were ever listed. But there was the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 that made it a crime to kill a seal.
Frick-Wright: Okay. Wow. What a turnaround for the seals.
Evans-Brown: Yeah. But there was one other event that actually had nothing to do with the seal recovery that happened in between.
Frick-Wright: I don't know. (theme from Jaws starts to play) Oh, they made Jaws.
Evans-Brown: Yeah, they made Jaws. (laughs) Have you seen Jaws?
Frick-Wright: Yes. In my formative years.
Evans-Brown: This is funny, I had actually never seen it until two years ago, which, when I was reporting this story and just sort of poking around, I discovered, put me in this tiny minority. Four out of five Americans has seen the movie Jaws.
Frick-Wright: Yeah. Well, I mean, have you never had cable TV? Like, how do you avoid like -- you're probably someone who's just never been home sick from school.
Evans-Brown: (laughs) But when I finally did watch it, it's a really good movie.
Frick-Wright: Oh yeah. Good movies have very clear enemies and complications and like there's nothing more simple or uncomplicated than a shark. They got to get the shark.
Evans-Brown: And that really is set up in this one very striking scene, which is Captain Quint’s monologue.
Audio from the film Jaws: Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. It was comin’ back, from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb.
Evans-Brown: And for the 20% who don't know, Quint is just this like archetypal fishermen. He's actually a shark hunter that the town hires to kill the shark. And he's motivated by, what a coincidence, having been the fictional survivor of what is a real world event, what's alleged to be the worst instance of shark attacks in human history: the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in World War II.
Audio from the film Jaws: Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.
Evans-Brown: This, like Jaws generally, but then Captain Quint specifically, is sort of our original American shark story. Like the story is that sharks are scary, they want to eat us and that we need to take action in order to keep ourselves safe. But in the years since Jaws, another shark story has been taking hold.
So do you know the story of the author of the novel Jaws?
Frick-Wright: No. I know it's Peter Benchley.
Evans-Brown: Peter Benchley, East coaster. Before writing fiction, he was a journalist. He was a speechwriter for LBJ. And after writing Jaws, he was filled with regret and he wound up devoting the rest of his life to ocean conservation. And actually, here he is in 2004, he's being interviewed two years before he died.
(audio from 2004 Peter Benchley interview)
Interviewer: So is that true? You feel like you couldn't write that novel now, Jaws, knowing what you know?
Peter Benchley: No. I've got to remember how long ago that was. There was no Earth Day when I was writing that book. There was no environmental consciousness at all.
(fade out of interview)
Evans-Brown: The book actually came out after the first Earth Day, but Benchley says he started thinking about it well before then. He wrote at one point, “No, the shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain. It would have to be written as the victim, for worldwide sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressor.”
(fade in audio from 2004 Peter Benchley interview)
Benchley: Now, we still don't know a great deal, but what we do know,. I couldn't demonize the animal.
(fade out of interview)
Evans-Brown: Every year, tens or even hundreds of millions of sharks are killed. Many for consumption, for their fins at least, but others just for sport in these macho shark fishing tournaments, and 17% of all shark species are endangered or vulnerable.
Benchley became racked with guilt that he had made this worse and started pushing for a new narrative.
Jaws was famously shot on Martha's Vineyard and Martha's Vineyard, for those who don't know, is an island just off of Cape Cod. And when it came out, there was this fear that the movie was such a smash hit, it would scare people away from the Cape because they were associated now with sharks. But of course, that is not what happened.
Kevin McClain: The original Jaws in 1975 was a huge hit here in Chatham for obvious reasons.
Evans-Brown: So that's Kevin McClain. He runs a local independent movie theater in Chatham, which is out on the Cape, sort of the heel of the Cape. They had a movie theater that was turned into a CVS for a while, but in 2013, they reopened it. It's called the Chatham Orpheum.
McClain: And of course, everybody in town, their first thing was, you got to show Jaws. The first movie has to be Jaws. You know, that has to be the first movie. It's kind of the quintessential Chatham movie.
Evans-Brown: When you wander around downtown Chatham right now, it's bananas. There's shark stuff for sale everywhere. The tourist shops, the gas stations. There’s shirts with like shark bites out of them, there’re hats with shark bites out of them. There are little plush sharks. It's kind of become the mascot. And in the Chatham Orpheus, they have screenings of Jaws all summer long. And Kevin says they almost all sell out. And some of them are like The Rocky Horror Picture Show where the audience is like shouting their favorite lines. And there's this one scene where Quint crushes the beer can and people buy Narragansett beers and they crush them at that moment during that scene.
Frick-Wright: I love it.
McClain: People start emailing me in April and May. We're coming to Chatham in August. We want to know when the Jaws screenings are.
Evans-Brown: People freaking love the sharks.
McClain: There's a great line in the movie where they're standing in the middle of the street and he says, if you yell shark on the 4th of July, we're going to have a stampede on our hands. People are going to run from the beach.
But what's happened is that it’s sparked a curiosity for sharks. It was an inspiration for people. And so I always tell people, you know, that was back in 1975, absolutely. Right now, you yell shark, they run to the beach.
Evans-Brown: So, to me, this is a hypothesis, right? Like back in the 80s in particular when when they started to sell the shark memorabilia, they were thinking about the idea of a shark. But now, we stopped killing the seals and the seals came back amazingly fast. This is Andrea again.
Bogomolni: They came from somewhere. They rebounded because they were able to recolonize and they came from Sable Island.
Evans-Brown: So Pete, are you at your computer right now?
Evans-Brown: Can you pull up a Google map tab?
Evans-Brown: Google, Sable Island. Tell me what you see.
Frick-Wright: I see like a half moon crescent, like the thinnest sliver of a moon, but it's an island in the ocean.
Evans-brown: Scroll out. Tell me how far it is from stuff it is.
Frick-Wright: 10 scrolls out. (laughs) Wow. It's way out.
Evans-Brown: Sable Island is a very weird place. So it's tiny, it’s 12 square miles. I mean, it's barely in Canadian waters. Sable Island has 400,000 seals on it. And also randomly 500 feral horses.
Frick-Wright: (laughs) How did the horses get there?
Evans-Brown: We only got time for one species in this podcast, Pete.
Now seals are not migratory. But they do disperse, which means if there's someplace that's crowded, like say a tiny half-moon sliver way out in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, they do try to find someplace new. And what we know is that some of the seals that wound up repopulating Cape Cod and the islands came from Sable Island because some of the scientists would actually brand the seals that were up there with numbers to keep track of them.
Bogomolni: There were people paying attention here on Cape Cod and noticed that one of these branded animals was on Nantucket. And so people started noticing these animals coming back.
Evans-Brown: So the bounty ends in 62. By the 90s, there's some seals popping again on the Cape and islands. And today counting both harbor and gray seals, we're up to somewhere between like 100,000 to maybe 110,000 out on the Cape. And with the seals came the sharks, which means that we now get to test Kevin's hypothesis, this idea that if you yell shark, people run to the beach and not away.
So I want to introduce you to Captain Darren.
Darren Saletta: Captain Darren Saletta, Monomoy Sportfishing.
Evans-Brown: What's your boat's name?
Saletta: Rising Sun.
Evans-Brown: He's a charter boat captain. Tell me, just tell me about your business. What do you do and how do you make a living?
Saletta: I run primarily fishing charters and eco tours. We do a combination of fishing charters, whale watching, and we do a great white shark tours as well.
Evans-Brown: Great white shark tours.
Saletta: So we work with a private spotter plane and then the spotter plane locates the sharks, puts us on them and we can get up to a safe distance of the sharks. So we're not bothering the shark, but you get a good view depending on the clarity of the water.
Evans-Brown: So Pete, how much would you pay to go see a great white shark?
Frick-Wright: How long is the tour?
Evans-Brown: Two hours.
Frick-Wright:Two hours? Uh, I would pay $40.
Saletta: You're hiring the boat and an airplane, it makes it a little bit pricey. But, the trip is $1,400. It's about a two to two and a half hour trip.
Evans-Brown: How popular is that business?
Saletta: It's a product in high demand.
Evans-Brown: So how this works, they hire this plane, I did not know this. This is a whole side hustle for anyone who's got a Cessna and a pilot's license is you can be a fish spotter. And the primary duty of a fish spotter is to find big swordfish and tuna for those fishermen, for whom landing a single fish can be worth thousands of dollars. But in this instance, their job is to go and look at sharks. And I actually spoke with one of these fish spotter; his name is Wayne Davis.
How high are you flying and how do you spot a shark? Like what's it look like from the plane?
Wayne Davis: It looks like a shark. A dark gray body against the sandy bottom.
Evans-Brown: Wayne as a spotter is mostly working for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which is this nonprofit that popped up in 2012. It funds shark conservation and research and is currently working on a census that's trying to estimate the shark population off the Cape.
Davis: You know, at any beach, at any time, believe me, there can be a shark a hundred feet away.
Evans-Brown: And that's his takeaway is that having been up there and looked down at the beaches, they are everywhere.
Davis: 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. And it made me aware that these aren't the term ‘man eater.’ It's what's one of the dumbest things that was ever created/
Frick-Wright: Outside just published a thing, like you're usually much closer to a shark than you think. And now that people like kite surfers are now putting GoPros up in their kites that look back down at them in the water, the number of sharks just sort of following them and watching them. It seems like every other week there's someone in like Monterey, California and the police helicopter is like above them on the megaphone saying like get out of the water.
It's like as our ability to see into the ocean has increased, the number of, or the nearness of sharks is like just now becoming apparent.
Evans-Brown: So the question is, if that's the reality, if there are sharks everywhere, if it's cold, dark, and sharky out there, what is the story that we're telling ourselves? Is thisSteven Spielberg's Jaws like, this is scary and we need to do something? Or is this Peter Benchley’s revised Jaws where the shark is the victim and I want an answer to that. So I went to a beach with a microphone.
(audio from beach interviews)
Can I get your names?
Fred Baumgartner: Fred Baumgartner.
Amy Bailey: Amy Bailey.
Evans-Brown: (voiceover) And, I asked folks how they felt.
(on beach) So had you heard about the situation with the sharks here on the Cape prior to arriving?
Clive: No. No, not before we got here.
Evans-Brown: (voiceover) And obviously a lot of them are freaked out.
(on beach) And what did that make you think?
Woman: We might be getting in the water. (laughs)
Bailey: He did go in, but not very far.
Baumgartner: Basically this side of the Cape, we stay out of the waters.
Evans-Brown: You know, it's funny, I actually found a single public opinion poll that kind of quantified this. Found a couple of things. 51% agree with the statement, I am absolutely terrified of sharks. Which I’m kinda like, yeah duh. But this surprised me: 38% of people say they're afraid to go into the water because of sharks.
Man on beach: I'd stay real close to shore. I don't think I go up to my waist.
Woman on beach: Yeah, I would stay where I can touch at least.
Evans-Brown: But when I was talking to folks on the beach, the thing that was really surprising to me was the degree to which Peter Benchley’s remake was what I was hearing from people.
Man on beach: It's just nature. You're in their territory now, so you just got to know
Man on beach: It's nature -- you can't impede nature.
Woman on beach: We just have to let nature take its course in that respect.
Woman on beach: The ocean is where they live, so you can't really tell them where to go.
Woman on beach:It does not bother us.
Evans-Brown: I think the poll bears this out. 82% of people say they agree that sharks perform a vital role for ecosystems and 75% say they should only be hunted or killed if it's absolutely necessary.
Man on beach: Seals eat the fish. Sharks eat the seals. We're just here visiting.
Evans-Brown: My conclusion after about a week of interviews down there was, we are living in Jaws 2: the Jaws in which the shark is not the villain.
Just as in Jaws, there's been a fatality now in the Cape. Last year, a 26 year old kid from Brazil who was getting his masters in engineering up in Massachusetts was bitten and died while boogie boarding, but instead of the reaction that you see in the movie where the town hires a shark hunter to take revenge, I'm just hearing this narrative of ocean conservation from the laypublic.
Or at least that's what you get when you ask tourists on the beach. When you talk to folks who are out in and on the water a lot, it's a different story. To some, sharks are still out to get us. That's after a short break.
Evans-Brown: If you Google sharks on Cape Cod, you'll see a lot of quotes, a lot of op-eds, a lot of new stories about folks who want something to be done about the sharks,
John Cartsunis: The original name of these creatures in the marine biology bibles that we use to educate marine biologists up until the 70s -- their name was man eater. And that particular phrase or description has been struck by the so-called conservationists. But prior to that, they were called man eaters.
Evans-Brown: So that's John Cartsunis, who is a surfer who lives in Wellfleet, which is out on the outer Cape towards the end of the hook. And he's involved with a group of local residents who launched something called, Cape Cod Ocean Community. It was formed after the fatal attack that happened last year. And the central message is essentially, you have got to do something about this.
Cartsunis: September 15th was Cape Cod's 9/11. That was the day that changed everything here on Cape Cod, we lost our innocence.
Evans-Brown: I interviewed this group, there are four of them all together. Uh, and some of the statistics that you hear about shark attacks, like you're more likely to be killed by heat stroke or lightning strikes or train crashes. There's actually even a statistic that more people are killed each year being crushed by a vending machine than die from shark attacks.
They hate these statistics.
Cartsunis: That's complete propaganda and more misinformation. If they took the sample of people that actually recreate in the water on Cape Cod and the amount of shark encounters as the Conservancy likes to call them and spotted sharks and beach closures. If you take all of that, then the chances of someone being affected by sharks that are marauding our beaches are very, very high. This is the misinformation that spewed out there to basically hoodwink the public to say that you know what, you're going to have more of a chance of getting into a car accident then getting bit by a shark. Yeah. If you live in Nebraska, I agree. But if you live in Wellfleet, they're completely wrong and they're doing the public here a huge misservice.
Frick-Wright: So if this new narrative is that sharks are actually dangerous, like what do they propose that people do about it?
Evans-Brown: Well so, for one, they're pushing for surveillance. There's a thing called Clever Buoy, which is the sonar buoy that uses machine learning to detect sharks and tell people if there's one in the water. It’s an Australian company that's being piloted down in California though. But essentially so far we don't even really know if the thing works. Like we don't know if it's got false positives or false negatives. They kind of recognize that. Like they think, let's just give it a try.
So this is Drew Taylor, he's another surfer from Wellfleet.
Drew Taylor: Do we have an obligation to put something in the water that we're not going to stand behind as far as this is a hundred percent safe and guaranteed, but just use it as a pilot study. Use it as a study that’s, like we're kind of starting to use as our little quote, “better than nothing.”
Evans-Brown: And I think something along those lines could happen. The National Seashore is conducting a study right now of technological solutions to keep people informed about shark activity. Is actually expected out like any day now. Like I was hoping they would put it out before we put this story out, but surveillance is just the near term goal for these folks.
Longterm, they've got their sights set on the thing that's attracting the sharks. They've got their sights set on the seals. This is Chick Frody who also has a house out on the outer Cape.
Chick Frody: If somebody from outer space came down here and they saw our whole world, they wouldn't say, well, nature's here and the humans are here. They'd actually probably think we were part of nature.
Evans-Brown:He says Cape Cod's fishermen knew that and they did not feel conflicted about reshaping the ocean to better suit their needs.
Frody: So yes, they culled the seals and that allowed a fishing industry to be really good here. And people say, well that's their ocean, we shouldn't be doing that. Well that used to be our ocean until it was changed with a stroke of a pen in 1972.
Evans-Brown: So these local residents have joined forces with an already existing constituency, commercial fishermen who have been calling for reform to the Marine Mammal Protection Act for a decade, and they want fewer seals. This again is Captain Darren who runs shark tours, but his primary business is fishing charters and he's also a surfer.
Saletta: I think it really is going to come down to reducing the prey. It's obviously a concern for me and my son and I want them to have the experience that I had growing up. And right now it's certainly not a safe environment for anyone to be going in the water. Anyone that thinks they can without a high risk of being preyed upon is getting brave or kidding themselves.
Evans-Brown: There have been calls by people who live on Cape Cod to return to the days of the seal bounty.
Bogomolni: There's historically been this desire to scapegoat seals. It's not new. This has been happening through time. Go back to the 1800s when there was this perception that the fish were gone because of the seals. And part of that scapegoating is when you know you're angry at something or things have changed and you don't know where to put that anger or that frustration. And I see that almost every day with the seals.
Evans-Brown: That’s Andrea again, the seal researcher, she agrees that seals eat a lot of fish. Nobody would deny that. But she says that the reason fisheries declined was overfishing not seals.
And I think what I'm arguing here is that sharks now have this whole architecture of conservation that's been working to rehab their image. And so it's not terribly popular to hate on the sharks. And so the anger just kind of moves down the food chain and it lands on this other creature that is more common and historically has just been like a receptacle for the dislike of ocean communities. It's landed back on the seals.
Frick-Wright: That's interesting. It's like we can't be angry at the sharks anymore because we know how important they are.
Evans-Brown:And how endangered they are.
Frick-Wright: As you're saying, calling for killing sharks is going to mean backlash, but you've already got the fishermen who are calling for fewer seals. So killing the seals is actually the path of least resistance.
Evans-Brown: Yeah, but I think the real question here, is how would that work? Andrea thinks that if you wanted the sharks to actually leave, you'd have to kill a lot of seals.
Bogomolni: You would have to eliminate pretty much every pup you could, every adult you could, which is why the bounties were successful back in the 1880s to 1962 -- there was this effort to do that at every single location.
Evans-Brown: You'd basically have to cull them down to zero again. And that is ultimately a political question. Like you've got a whole legal framework that is going to have to change if we want to move the needle here, which is why I called Bill Keating.
So this is a call with Bill Keating. He's on his cell phone. He's the Congressman for Cape Cod. And I figured that if anyone's going to be on board for this, it would be someone in his position because surfers and fishermen aside tourism to the Cape is the goose that lays the golden egg. Right. And sharks might threaten that, but even Bill Keating is not on board with this idea.
Bill Keating: It would be a nonstarter because the scientific evidence is clearly saying right now it wouldn't do any good.
Evans-Brown: Like just imagine this shit show. It would be like, you've got to convince not just like surfers and bathers and environmentalists in New England that it's in their best interest to cull seals. But you're going to need congressmen from the West coast voting for a bill that's about killing seals, right? Like this is just not an easy political fight to take up.
So it's like, here we are, right? Like it doesn't seem like anything's going to change. Like the sharks are back on Cape Cod and that's just the new reality.
Frick-Wright: Hmm. And they're protected because the thing they eat is very cute. Very charismatic.
Evans-Brown: Exactly. So now what they're doing that, I mean, they're stocking lifeguard stations with tourniquets. They've like sprinkled landlines along the beach and spots where cell service is bad. They've got these great big, terrifying signs everywhere warning about sharks. It's crazy. Like the whole region is just buzzing. Every time a beach is closed, it's in the news. Every public meeting that someone's talking about the response to the sharks is just swarmed with reporters. And it's bananas. It's a circus. It's a total circus.
Frick-Wright: I have a friend who's a surfer in New England and he has an app called Sharktivity.
Evans-Brown: That was made by the White Shark Conservancy.
Frick-Wright: He looks at it before he goes surfing. And what he does is he goes to a beach that doesn't have any sharks at it or like any reported shark sightings. Yeah. And it took him about two trips to realize that the reason that these beaches don't have any reported sharks is that there's just no people there. Because after on his second trip or something like that, a shark showed up. (laughs)
Evans-Brown: Which sort of gets you to it. It's like so far every measure we have is imperfect. And so my question is sort of like, I just felt like I wanted to point out this fact that I feel like is very rarely pointed out in stories about sharks and Cape Cod, which is that if you look -- so there's this thing, the international shark attack file keeps track of every confirmed unprovoked shark attack.
Frick-Wright: Is there such a thing as a provoked shark attack?
Evans-Brown: A provoked shark attack would be, for instance, if you were to catch a shark, bring it into your fishing boat and then it bit you. So they distinguish.
And over the last 20 years, on the whole East coast, there've been three bites. Three people have been bitten by a great white shark. One of those was fatal. And on the West coast in that same period over the past 20 years, there've been 34 and four of those were fatal. And it's just like, why is this a new story, every time someone sees a shark on Cape Cod?
I called up the shark attack file and I talked to Tyler Bowling, who manages the dataset. He's down at the Florida museum of natural history.
On the West coast, it seems like there's greater risk, but there isn't this outcry and East coast there is. And like them being just used to it, I guess. I like, I guess that's true.
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Tyler Bowling: I think it is. There's more of a surfing culture over there, so they're exposed to it more. And if you talk to these surfers, the majority of the time they're like, yeah, we see them all the time. We know they're there, we know the risk. I'm still going out. And you talk to these guys who get bit and they're like, yeah, I'll be out as soon as I'm out of the cast. They just accept the risk and they're more aware of it. And I think that it just seems like the Cape Cod area and, it's just, I don't want to say the word ignorant, but they were just sort of blissfully unaware and suddenly the sharks were kind of more prevalent and it was a little scary.
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Frick-Wright: Well, sure. That's an awfully easy answer.
Evans-Brown: It's funny, I wanted to talk to surfers out on the Cape. But the surf was terrible while I was there and I would wander into surf shops and as soon as I walked in they would just like, literally as soon as I walked in with my microphone and I said I was working on a shark story, the guy just said go away. And there were a few of them I just hung around, I pestered and I turned the microphone off and they would chat with me for a few minutes, and one of them sort of told me offhandedly that like, no one wants to talk to you because no one wants to be the shop that says it's okay to go back in the water and then like somebody gets bit.
But clearly like that's what a lot of surfers already think. So when I was out on the beach just talking to tourists, there was one woman who I was immediately like, ah, yes, you're a fellow traveler.
Amy Chambers: My name is Amy Chambers.
Evans-Brown: Where are you from?
Chambers: I grew up here and I currently live in Vermont.
Evans-Brown: It was like Patagonia gear, sweet beach tent set up, very engaged in the conversation right away. She’s a boogie boarder and surfs a little bit.
(to Chambers) What do you make of the whole shark thing, the whole shark zeitgeist?
Chambers: It's really interesting that you ask, cause I've been thinking about it a lot, but it hasn't swayed my decision to get into the water until yesterday. I got in, but a seal had just swam by that had gotten bit. But previously the lifeguards -- scarred, but it was a big old gash. Like it looked bad, but he seemed to be doing fine. And it was the first time that I questioned getting in the water ever.
Evans-Brown: But did you -- when you say you questioned, did you change your decision or were you just sort of like--
Chambers: I still went in but there was a moment where the tide was changing and there was this really deep spot and I just found another spot to go, but I still went in. I do other things that are dangerous. I go skiing, I drive, I fly in planes. 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. I think it'd be really cool to see a shark. I just don't want to be right next to it when it pops up honestly and have it mistake me and my wet suit for a seal.
Evans-Brown:And honestly, there have been reactions on the extremes folk saying they'll never go in the water again. Folks calling for the killing of sharks or seals and, like it's possible that Cape Cod may be about to become some sort of global shark attack hotspot and prove me wrong. But I think for now, behind the hype and sensationalism, most of the people out on the beach are in a different place today than when Jaws first came out. Most of us are a little concerned, but also just kind of mesmerized.
Frick-Wright: That's Sam Evans-Brown, host of Outside In. This episode was produced by Sam and me, Peter Frick-Wright, with help from Jimmy Gutierrez, Hannah McCarthy, Justine Paradise, Taylor Quimby, Mike Roberts, and Erica Janick. Music by Robbie Carver and some Blue Dot sessions.
This episode is brought to you by Honey Stinger making fuel for athletes of all kinds using delicious honey and organic ingredients. Find firstname.lastname@example.org slash hive life.
The outside podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We'll be back next week.
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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, and have since expanded our show to offer a range of story formats, including reports from our correspondents in the field and interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and the outdoors.