Great whites inspire local art scene on Cape Cod

A lot has changed since 'Jaws' kept swimmers out of the water – the town of Chatham, Mass., celebrates its local sharks with public art and educational efforts.

Courtesy of Robert E. Kennedy

The sight of a dorsal fin silently slicing through the waves is every beachgoer’s nightmare – unless the place is Cape Cod, and the time is, well, summer. In just a few years, Chatham, Mass., has transformed itself into a happy “Shark Town.” 

A lot has changed since Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie, “Jaws,” about a fictional Massachusetts island village terrorized by a great white. Since 2009, biologists have been tagging and tracking migrating great whites off the coast of Cape Cod that are – so far – only interested in a large group of gray harbor seals hanging out on a sandbar near Lighthouse Beach. The toothy fish range from 13 to 17 feet long, and they’ve been given such names as Genie, Mary Lee, Betsy, and Katharine, which brings to mind an afternoon tea party rather than fearsome beasts.

For local artists and shop owners, the arrival of the sharks has provided new material beyond scenes of gulls and beaches. Last summer, 56 sharks designed by local artists “swam” through town in a public-art display called “Sharks in the Park” before being auctioned off at a Shark Gala to raise funds for the still-to-open educational Chatham Shark Center. All along Main Street, galleries display oil paintings and pop art depicting the creatures. In the Fourth of July parade this year, shark-themed floats proliferated alongside those featuring lighthouses and salty fishermen. The Orpheum Theater, Chatham’s art-house cinema, plays “Jaws” nonstop throughout the summer and reports it as one of its highest-grossing films.

“Instead of scaring off our summer crowd, I think [the great whites] ... are having the opposite effect and bringing in many curious families hoping to catch a glimpse of a black fin slicing through the deep after her next meal,” writes local artist Bob Kennedy in an e-mail. “I am always on the alert for new subject matter for posters and paintings,” he adds, and his poster of a great white rearing its gaping mouth next to a surprised swimmer – more funny than terrifying – has proved to be a popular seller.

Meanwhile, scientists hope to devise a system that would send a notification when a shark draws near. Until then, don’t swim near that seal buffet.

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