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Monsters no more? Cape Cod sharks get a makeover

Why We Wrote This

Stereotypes can be difficult to live down – even when it comes to marine life. In Chatham, Mass., educators are working to help residents and vacationers shed their misconceptions about sharks.

Grace Elletson/The Christian Science Monitor
‘Sharks in the Park’ displays local artists’ musings of the often misunderstood predators on Main Street in Chatham, Mass., on Aug. 7, 2018. In recent years, many residents and business owners in Chatham have embraced the great white shark as an unofficial town mascot.

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If the sight of a shark fin cutting through the water sends chills down your spine, you aren’t alone. Generations of moviegoers have been trained to fear these ocean predators. But in one beach town on Cape Cod that has become a hot spot for great white sharks in recent years, educators are working to counter people’s fears with facts. Visitors to the Chatham Shark Center in Chatham, Mass., learn that shark attacks are extremely rare. Only one person in the Cape Cod region has ever died in a shark attack, in 1936. Marine scientists have worked to debunk the “man-eating” image of sharks for decades. But fears have been persistent, especially among adults whose first introduction to the great white came in the movie “Jaws.” Younger generations, however, have had much different initial encounters with fictional sharks, from the rehabilitated great white Bruce in “Finding Nemo” to the outrageously comical “Sharknado.” And those who have attended education programs are armed with the knowledge that sharks aren’t typically a threat to humans. As 7-year-old Colton Chorey says, “I’m not scared. They only bite people on accident.”

America’s favorite summertime villain is back on the big screen this weekend in “The Meg,” which tells yet another exaggerated tale about the perils of one of the ocean’s most feared predators – sharks.

But despite decades of negative portrayals in pop culture, perspectives may be shifting for the often misunderstood species, and one Cape Cod town is leading the effort.

Chatham, Mass., a town on the outer elbow of Cape Cod’s arm, has long been a destination for beach-loving tourists. But in recent years, an influx of seals has attracted some new seasonal visitors: great white sharks. 

For scientists, the arrival of the great white signals a welcome opportunity to study the notoriously elusive animals in the waters along the East Coast of the United States for the first time. But for many residents and vacationers, the sight of their iconic dorsal fins cutting through the water stokes anxieties seeded long ago in movies like “Jaws.” Educators at the Chatham Shark Center are working to counter those fears with facts.

“Knowledge is power. And I think that there is a fear of what people don’t understand,” says Marianne Long, education director of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which runs the Chatham Shark Center. “And so when we’re able to educate them and give them more of a background, it can really help to ease those fears.”

A predator’s habitat: where great whites roam

SOURCE: International Union for Conservation of Nature
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The reputational rehab appears to be working, as many residents and local business owners have adopted the great white as an unofficial town mascot. Visitors can find shark-related apparel in almost every shop lining Chatham’s Main Street. An art installation called “Sharks in the Park” provides a school of artfully decorated shark cutouts for passersby to admire. And according to Ms. Long, shark ecotourism is thriving. 

But still, visitors can be hesitant – the center has received calls from people in support of a “cull,” or an organized killing of sharks to control populations. Culls can actually create more problems says Long, which is why the center is constantly reminding people that the presence of sharks is actually a positive sign of a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem. She and her colleagues also spend a good deal of their time assuring visitors that shark attacks are incredibly rare, especially off the coast of Cape Cod. 

The great whites are drawn to the area by the presence of seals, their preferred food source. Scientists believe most shark attacks are actually “test bites.” That’s likely what happened to Cleveland Bigelow in August 2017 when he was stand-up paddleboarding off of Marconi Beach in nearby Wellfleet and a shark took a bite out of his board, knocking him into the water. Mr. Bigelow wasn’t hurt – sharks have taste buds, so once it realized the board wasn’t food, it swam away. His board, with bite mark and all, can be now be observed up close in the Chatham Shark Center.

Grace Elletson/The Christian Science Monitor
A seal follows a fishing boat as it goes to dock at Chatham Fish Pier, in Chatham Mass., on August 7, 2018. Chatham, a small town on the coast of Cape Cod, has become a hotspot for shark sightings given its growing seal population.

According to the Global Shark Attack File, there have only been five recorded, unprovoked shark attacks in waters off of Cape Cod dating back to 1800. The only person to ever die from a shark attack in the Cape Cod region was bit in 1936 when swimming off of a beach in Mattapoisett. Globally, there were 88 unprovoked shark attacks in 2017, which scientists say is an average amount.  

Marine scientists have worked to dispel the “man-eating” image of a shark for decades. But fears have been persistent, especially among adults whose first introduction to the great white came in the movie “Jaws.”

Younger generations, however, have had much different initial encounters with fictional sharks. Many young children first learn about sharks from Bruce of “Finding Nemo,” a rehabilitated great white with the mantra “Fish are friends, not food!” Young adults today are more likely to have laughed their way through “Sharknado” or have attended an aquarium or shark center educational program by the time they see “Jaws.”

Colton Chorey, 7, visited the Chatham Shark Center with his parents and says he now knows sharks aren’t typically a threat to humans.

“I’m not scared,” says Colton. “They only bite people on accident.”

His mom, Lauren Chorey, says she wants her son to learn more about sharks so that they can have a respect for the animals without having to be constantly afraid while enjoying the ocean on Cape Cod.

“When I grew up [sharks] were villains,” Chorey says. “But attacks are so rare. We shouldn’t be scared.”

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