A Search For Great White Sharks, Off The Coast Of Cape Cod

Let’s get this out of the way up front: I didn’t see a shark in Cape Cod. Even though I woke up hungover the day after the 4th of July, and took two planes across three timezones to go look for one. Even though the burgeoning Great White Shark population off the coast of Massachusetts has gotten international attention, prompting a study by lifelong shark researcher and marine scientist, Dr. Greg Skomal. Even though the stir has sparked visits by one of the most well-known underwater photographers in the world, Brian Skerry. Even though I was with both men on my quest. Nothing.

We came together in Cape Cod, with the express purpose of finding a shark, and we failed.

I share this not to make you feel sorry for me, but to illustrate how difficult it is to get a glimpse — just a glimpse, let alone more — of these awe-inspiring predators of the sea. As Skerry and Skomal both reiterated throughout our trip, sharks have no known predators, they are in every way at the top of the food chain, which makes them intensely fascinating to humans. It’s also part of what has made humans, often wrongfully, fear them. Still, even without seeing a great white, just the chase alone, alongside people who have devoted their lives to these apex hunters, was enough to make me fall in love.

“A colleague of mine often says, ‘We don’t need more portraits of animals in the world, we need more stories about animals,'” Skerry told me, after our search was over. We were off the boat and tucked into a back room in Chatham’s Shark Center, an educational facility devoted to helping the community understand and respect these underwater predators. “For me as a storyteller, I would be happy doing nothing more than making happy pictures, celebratory pictures, cool pictures of animals and ecosystems that just shows the beauty. But I think I need to take sort of a more realistic approach, it’s always about finding a new way to tell a cool story about the ocean or the natural world that will help people see it in a new way. My ultimate goal is to get people to understand our relationship with nature.”

While we were in Chatham searching for Great Whites, Skerry was also promoting his latest photography book for National Geographic, Shark and offering a lecture at the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club to benefit the local Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. As one of the foremost underwater photographers in the world, Skerry has won numerous awards and taken literally thousands of moving, funny, incredible and tender photos of marine wildlife, images that tell stories far beyond animal portraiture. Some of them, are also devastating:

Both Skerry and Skomal agree that sharks have gotten a bad rap in American culture, due in part to the everlasting cult fandom of Jaws, and in part to the fact that we just know so little about them. As Skerry noted during his keynote lecture at the gala, if a predator the size of a dump truck was running up and down the Massachusetts coast, we’d know every single fact and detail about them. But sharks don’t live on land, so like so many other marine animals, their lives go mostly unnoticed by a large portion of the population. Until an attack, that is.

Between the fear of sharks, overfishing, the contested Chinese “delicacy” of shark fin soup, and humanity’s terrible treatment of the ocean overall, many sharks have become endangered species. As Skomal explains, part of the reason there aren’t more protections for sharks is because they’re misunderstood and seen as a constant threat to humans — a point which deserves clarification.

“The biggest misconception about sharks is that they consume people, or that people are a dietary item that sharks target,” Skomal explained. “Most of the myths surrounding sharks are focal to this idea ‘they’re going to hurt me,’ The idea that they’ll sink boats, or ‘they’re going to get to me, they’re going to eat me.’ But there’s nothing to support that from a scientific point of view. If there were, there’d be tens of thousands of attacks every year. Sharks have evolved through literal 400 billion years to feed on animals that live in the ocean or visit the ocean frequently, meaning sea lions. They’re not consumers of human beings. They’re so scary to us because every now and then they do bite you. There’s not a shark out there waiting to eat you if you get in the water. If they attack, it’s a mistake.”

Currently, Great White Sharks — the inspiration of movies, shows, and theme weeks — are listed as a vulnerable species. Hence, my cross-country flights, fruitless trip out on the boat. As much as I, selfishly, wanted a glimpse of the majestic creature, the whole point of our mission wasn’t just to satisfy human curiosity. It was actually an attempt to tag sharks with a microchip that tracks their movements so scientists like Skomal might learn more about them. As the Great White Shark population off the coast of Massachusetts unexpectedly began to surge in the early 2000s, the opportunity to study these creatures in-depth presented itself, and Skomal took it.

“I’m a classically trained fisheries biologist, which means most of my early work was on dead fish,” Skomal told me. “I didn’t begin working with live animals until about the late ‘90s, when the technology really took off. What we do with Great White Sharks in Massachusetts, is we’re interested in deploying technologies on sharks that will reveal the secrets about what they do over these multiple scales in three dimensional space. We tag the sharks so we can study what we call movement ecology, often called migration.”

Using a fairly complex system — involving a spotter plane to locate the sharks from above, and a couple of speedy boats that race to the last spotted shark location — Skomal and his team have a delicate plan in place for tagging the animals off Cape Cod. On a revised, ten-foot-long Whalers platform (or “pulpit,” as they call it) jutting off the front of the boat, Skomal stands with a fourteen-foot modified harpoon that’s been re-outfitted with just a needle and an intramuscular dart. When they near a Great White, he attempts to stick this dart right at the base of a shark’s dorsal fin. If done right, the tag doesn’t cause the shark significant pain.

“Think of it as piercing an ear, but also as somebody sneaking up on you and piercing your ear,” Skomal laughed, while explaining the process in depth. “There’s a certain sense of you’re spooking the animal, and a little bit of sensation associated with it. But it’s a well-choreographed and orchestrated process, because we’ve got the plane working with the boat and the boat’s captain working with me, trying to place me over a shark so I can place that dart right where I need to place it.”

When Skerry first came to Massachusetts to try to get some pictures of the local Great Whites, he worked in tandem with Skomal to come up with a way to get close to them. It turned out that the easiest way to lure a shark at that point, was to throw a seal decoy out into the water, and drag it around. Most sharks do not eat mammals at all, but Great Whites subsist mostly on seals. This decoy did the trick, affording Skerry the opportunity to score up close access. In his mind, the only way for a natural photographer and journalist to tell a complete story is by working with scientists who devote their lives to studying these wildlife communities.

“My world as a National Geographic photographer for twenty years has been about parachuting into the world of researchers,” Skerry said. “These aren’t my stories, these are the scientist’s stories. It’s a symbiotic relationship and I need these researchers to tell the story. In my opinion, my work couldn’t be done accurately without that relationship. There are photographers in the world who are completely independent, and don’t work with researchers, and just go out and do their own thing. But I think that they’re missing the mark, because they’re not telling an accurate story, they’re not fact-checking it, they’re not getting the science right.”

Symbiotic seems to be the best description for this relationship between photojournalist and scientist. As Skomal point out, scientists have a responsibility to get their findings out to the public at large. The days of keeping science confined to peer-reviewed journals must end, in his mind, in order to enact real change in the way our country, and the world, interacts with the ocean. Working with someone like Skerry actually helps the scientific community get the word out to mainstream culture.

“The onus is upon us to get the information out there, share it with the public and translate it for the public so they can digest it,” Skomal said. “I think science is remiss in getting it done. National Geographic does a great job, this is what they’ve done for over a hundred years. I firmly believe that there’s no point in conducting science if we’re not sharing it. And what better vector than Brian to share it? There’s no better way to get the information out there. Plus, sometimes photographers like Brian see things that we don’t see.”

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Photo by @BrianSkerry. A massive Tiger Shark goes nose to nose with a diver on the sand flats of the northern Bahamas. Though these sharks have often been portrayed as monsters, in reality, they are complex and valuable predators that operate to maintain a stable ecosystem. This region of the Bahamas has been identified as a place where many pregnant female tiger sharks spend time, and it is believed that the shallow, warm water helps with gestation. Sharks play a vital role in the health of oceanic habitats, and the removal of these predators would contribute to the collapse – like a house of cards – of the whole ecosystem. Despite this fact, more than 100 million sharks are killed each year, primarily for their fins (which are used in shark fin soup). In the last sixty years, we have lost a majority of shark populations thereby decreasing the health of our oceans. My new book – ‘SHARK’ by @BrianSkerry – is currently on sale! Filled with photos and stories of my personal experiences from nearly 4 decades of photographing sharks, the book aims to give creatures such as the Tiger Shark a new reputation. We must see sharks as magnificent animals that are vital to the health of the ocean and, as a result, to the health of our planet. SHARK is available wherever books are sold @thephotosociety @natgeocreative #tiger #shark #tigershark #bahamas #diver #underwater #photography #scuba #photo #tropical #bahamas #caribbean #natgeo #onassignment #photooftheday #SHARK #nikonambassador #nikonnofilter #nikonlove

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Despite the growing concern of waste in the ocean, and the need to increase conservancy for wildlife and habitats, both men see our current era as an exciting and important time in the history of wildlife management and awareness, partially because of social media and the increased ease of information sharing. Even with a new political regime in the US, there hasn’t been a rollback on the fishery laws that are in place, and Skomal said there is “Great support in both parties in congress and the legislation to maintain conservation-based fishing practices.”

“As a consumer, sustainable fisheries are really the goal in this country,” he continued. “So, we can be putting pressure and making sure, number one, that we’re only eating sustainable seafood. Legally, anything you buy over the counter should be. Educate yourself about what sustainability is and what seafood products you should not buy. It’s a great time to live because young people are interested, they’re engaging, it’s easy to do now. They can find out where a shark is on their phones, we didn’t have that! We had to wait for Friday nights and Jacques Cousteau and his latest undersea adventure.”

Though sharks are just one part of the larger ecosystem of the ocean, they contain some mysteries that Skerry thinks may be the key to understanding our world a little better. There’s still so much we don’t know about these creatures, and perhaps they have more to teach us than we could possibly realize.

“A couple years ago Greg tagged a shark here,” Skerry remembered. “And years later, in the middle of the wintertime he told me that the shark just popped up in a Flemish cap, up in the northern reaches of the north Atlantic near Greenland. So here is an animal that might be in her sixties or approaching seventy years old, who is traveling thousands of miles a year. There’s no land predator that travels anywhere near that much. And she’s in the middle of the Atlantic in the wintertime. What wisdom might an animal like that possess? Those are the questions we need to be asking. So, most people think, mindless killer, little brain, out there to eat me, and the reality is, there’s layers of complexity that we’re only just beginning to see.”

Even if I didn’t physically spot a shark on my trip out to Cape Cod, after talking with and learning from the people who have devoted their entire lives to studying them, I feel like I’ve finally begun to see them for the very first time.

If you’re interested in learning more, like Skerry suggests, Nat Geo Wild’s take on Shark Week, Shark Fest began last night at 8 PM EST on Nat Geo Wild and runs all this week. Get a taste of it below.