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Seals Lure Sharks To Summer At Cape Cod


This is the season when thousands of visitors head for Cape Cod, that arm of land bent at the elbow sticking out from the coast of Massachusetts. Mostly, the visitors are good for business, but a particular kind of visitor is causing trouble for all the others. Great white sharks have been infiltrating the local waters during the high season. Here's Brian Morris of member station WCAI.

BRIAN MORRIS, BYLINE: Greg Johnson is head lifeguard at Nauset Beach in Orleans, Massachusetts, one of Cape Cod's most popular tourist spots. Last Sunday, a scene that could have been straight out of the movie "Jaws" played out barely 20 yards from shore. There'd been a report of a shark sighting further down the beach.

GREG JOHNSON: And as soon as I put my binoculars down that area where they said they saw it, sure enough there was a black swirl, dorsal fin came up and then the tail fin came up. And didn't look that big - 12 to 14 feet - but it was definitely a shark.

MORRIS: The shark's dorsal fin appeared ominously in the water about six feet behind a New Hampshire man in a kayak.

JOHNSON: Apparently, this shark was following the person on the kayak. It was a blue kayak, and from what I understand, sharks like the color blue. You know, it's just curious. When it sees a kayak or something, it's not looking to eat the guy in the kayak. It's just curious.

MORRIS: The man was unharmed, and the shark swam off after about 15 minutes. But the incident raised new concerns about how to keep the great white sharks and the Cape's water-loving tourist population at a safe distance from one another. The sharks are drawn here by Cape Cod's ever-growing seal population. James Powers of Cranston, Rhode Island says the sharks are just doing what they should do.

JAMES POWERS: It's a force of nature. The seals come here, the sharks follow them in. Happens yearly. They can't expect anything different. They know when the seals come, so they know the sharks'll be following. So, it's simple as that.

MORRIS: Last summer, several of the sharks in the area were tagged by researchers. Some have already reappeared this year. Although there hasn't been a fatal shark attack in these waters since 1936, harbormasters are stepping up their boat patrols, assisted by spotter planes and helicopters. And Greg Johnson points to a thin red buoy bobbing in the water directly in front of his lifeguard tower. He says it has a sensor in it that can detect the tags on sharks.

JOHNSON: And we'll be able to tell if they're in the area or not. And if they are, we get people out a lot quicker than we can if we don't know where they are.

MORRIS: A few miles south of Nauset Beach sits Lighthouse Beach in the town of Chatham at the elbow of the Cape's arm-shaped land mass. It's not far from another, protected area where 2,000 to 3,000 seals live, and where great white sharks always lurk nearby. The situation worries authorities, but most visitors seem to regard the great whites' presence as a tourist attraction. Colin Politti, a harbormaster's assistant, sits in an ATV on Lighthouse Beach, keeping a watchful eye on the horizon.

COLIN POLITTI: There seems to be an aura of excitement around everything. Everybody's hoping to see one. The most popular question down here is where are the sharks? Are we going to see one? Where can we see one?

MORRIS: On this day, the weather is postcard-perfect and there have been no shark sightings. Helen Cohen is walking in the soft sand with her husband Ben.

HELEN COHEN: We're from Houston, and we don't have sharks. So all the people back home are excited.

MORRIS: A little further up the beach, three men wade in waist-high water. One of them is Kyle King from Maine.

KYLE KING: First day being here, so I'm not really worried.

MORRIS: Most other tourists don't seem worried either. But just as these vacationers can be counted on to flock here each year, now, too, can a growing number of great white sharks.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Morris on Cape Cod.


INSKEEP: You're going to need a bigger boat. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Morris