Why Are There Suddenly So Many Great White Sharks Off Cape Cod?

Credit: Getty Images

Queue John Williams’ famous score, because the ocean’s most feared predator is set to make an appearance in the waters surrounding Cape Cod this summer. For the second year in a row, the great white shark population has increased in the historically cold waters of the East Coast Atlantic seaboard. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries began a study in 2014 that has tracked the regional shark population, and results from their research is showing that great whites are increasingly heading to Cape Cod during the summer, months after decades of declining migration numbers before 2013.

The Division of Marine Fisheries has used planes to scout for and spot great whites in the water off the coast. Last year 147 sharks were seen from the air — a count similar to that made in 2015. Those numbers are a significant increase from the measly 80 sightings made in 2014. And this summer, they are expecting even more sharks to call Cape Cod home.

Researchers are crediting a growing population for the return of the great white to the East Coast. "Last summer we saw greater numbers of smaller sharks, including juveniles, and that tells us that the population is rebuilding," Greg Skomal, one of the top shark experts in Massachusetts said in a statement to the Associated Press. The population increase can be accredited to the resurgence of the seal population in the region. After being hunted to the brink of extinction, seals became federally protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the population quickly recovered and expanded. As the seals have migrated further north on the Eastern Seaboard, the sharks have followed.

And as the number of great whites in the area increases, so does concern with human-shark encounters. The last documented attack in Massachusetts was in 2014, when two women kayaking off the coast of Plymouth were charged by a shark, but neither were bitten or injured. The last fatal shark attack documented was in 1936 — and the state of Massachusetts is doing their best to keep it that way.

After using planes the past two years to keep an eye on sharks approaching shallow waters, the Division of Marine Fisheries is considering launching a program that will use a high-tech balloon to spot sharks. The balloon is the product of Miami-based company Altametry SmartBalloon, which developed a balloon with high-definition cameras, video streaming capability, and specialized lens filters that can see under the ocean’s surface and alert officials to sharks that near the shoreline without the need for a human pilot or expensive plane. Not only will the balloon help scientists record sightings for research, but they'll also help keep the beaches safe this summer.

Currently safety protocol requires beaches to fly dangerous marine life flags (which have a picture of shark on them) every day during the tourist season. When a shark is spotted near a swimming area, the beach is immediately closed. Aside from minding warnings and beach closings, the National Park Service at Cape Cod National Seashore recommends that swimmers steer clear of seals, swim in groups, and avoid swimming at dawn and dusk — when sharks are the most active.