I woke up this morning to a surprising email from my friend Ana at the MIT Outing Club who sent news of a shark-kayak encounter at Nauset Beach on Cape Cod. Thankfully, the 12ft-long, great white shark was just curious and the paddler was frightened but unharmed during the encounter. As Ana said in her email: “That’s one way to get some power 10 strokes in!” The full story can be viewed at:
Shark sightings have become more frequent on the outer shores of Cape Cod over the last five years. This is mainly due to the resurgence of the seal population in that area which has increased from 10,000 to over 300,000 since conservation efforts began. The abundant food supply coupled with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream draws large sharks to the area during the summer months and into the fall. Local authorities have gone to great lengths to make the area beaches safer by setting up monitoring buoys and tagging sharks with special beacons to alert officials when they approach shore to feed.
Shark-kayak encounters are extremely rare on Cape Cod but there are at least two important lessons to be learned from this particular encounter:
1) The best way to avoid a shark encounter is to stay away from their food. On Cape Cod, this means that you should avoid paddling in areas where seals are present during the summer and early fall. Officials reported that seals were spotted in the area soon after this encounter and that’s likely why the shark came so close to shore.
2) Aside from the fin, I think that the second most striking thing in the image is that the man was not wearing a PDF. Imagine if that shark gave him a bump to investigate if he was food and he ended up in the water (great whites are “smart” and often do this before they bite to make sure that they’re eating something tasty). At that point the shark would probably have determined that he was not food and become disinterested but the swimmer wouldn’t register that in the moment. Now he’s a paniced swimmer with that 12foot-long shark, a swamped kayak and every lifeguard on Nauset Beach giving him their best wishes from shore. Bet he would wish he had his life jacket on then…The bottom line is that life jackets save lives but they must be worn all the time do do so.
Anyway, I’m glad that this encounter had a happy ending and that I was able to use it as a teaching opportunity. In general, shark-kayak encounters are extremely rare and highly avoidable so I wouldn’t let the fear of sharks keep you off the water.
Happy and Safe Paddling!
Update: August 20th, 2012:
There have been a few notable developments since I wrote this post. First, the shark involved in this encounter was identified as a Basking shark (a harmless species), not a Great White as previously indicated. Second, there was a legitimate shark attack by a Great White on a swimmer in Trurro, MA a few weeks later. The victim survived the attack and recovered from his injuries. Seals were spotted in the area at the time of the attack. Finally, I stumbled across this quote by George Burgess of he University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File: “Falling coconuts kill 150 people a year, 15 times the number attributed to sharks.” An interesting statistic but the sharks still have a slight edge given that there are no coconut palms on the cape!