Animals

How does a town recover from a fatal shark attack?

Cape Cod knew it could happen any day, but reality has set in. Now the community must grapple with what it means to be a great white shark epicentre. Tuesday, 27 November

By Jason Nark

The ocean was flat and black during Arthur Medici’s memorial. Dozens of surfers went in with flowers on their boards, a “paddle out” for Medici that many, including the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, thought wasn’t the best idea—there were still sharks around in late October. Organisers had hoped to secure a spotter plane to scan for great whites, but the sky was a blanket of thick, leaden clouds.

Seals popped up in the surf close to shore, their dark eyes surveying the beach. “They're going out there?” a striped-bass fisherman down the beach asked as he watched them go.

One month had passed since Medici, 26, was killed on Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, the victim of the state’s first fatal shark attack since 1936. The white cross up in the sand dunes and boogie board fastened to the fence in the parking lot hadn’t begun to weather yet. Few at the memorial would say the word 'shark' aloud, but it swam beneath the surface there, and everywhere else on Cape Cod.

For the past decade or so, a “sooner-or-later” vibe has pervaded the tourist beach community. While longtime Cape Cod surfers told me that growing up, they'd seen sharks from time to time, it has only been in recent years—with the growth of the grey seal population—that the possibility of a fatal attack started to seem more real. One surfer said he saw 25 sharks this summer alone, and scientists have documented their growing numbers each year. Just weeks before Medici was killed, William Lytton, a neurologist from Scarsdale, New York, was attacked by a great white shark 10 feet off the shore of Truro Beach. It bit into his thigh, the sharp teeth scratching Lytton’s femur. He underwent six surgeries and lost a great deal of muscle from his leg.

Now “sooner or later” has been replaced with a new reality: the wild has returned to Cape Cod. The community is left grappling with this single incident and how it could change local beach culture, tourism, and its relationship with the wild and dangerous animals that live there. How does a community whose identity is based on its quaint towns, tranquil beaches, and idyllic lifestyle adapt to a new normal in which great white sharks once again swim in its waters?

RARE BUT INEVITABLE

September 15, 2018, was a postcard-perfect Saturday, with glassy, two- to four-foot waves rolling in all morning. Medici, an avid and skilled boogie boarder, had come to his “happy place” with Isaac Rocha, 16, his future brother-in-law.

He was about 10 metres offshore just before noon when it happened. A great white bit him on both legs. He suffered massive blood loss. News reports said Medici was pronounced dead at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, but Nina Lanctot, an off-duty lifeguard who was surfing that morning, said Medici was gone before Rocha dragged him to shore.

“To me, that Saturday was the last peaceful summer day we’ll ever have on the Cape,” Lanctot told me after the memorial.

As of late November, Medici’s death remains the lone fatal shark attack in the United States this year, and attacks remain rare around the world. The Florida-based International Shark Attack File, a comprehensive database of shark attack records, recorded 88 unprovoked attacks globally in 2017, most of them in the U.S., in Florida. The rest were mainly concentrated in Australia, South Africa, and California, regions that have long been dealing with the presence of sharks at popular beaches. (Learn more: Why great whites are still a mystery.)

With millions of people around the world visiting beaches and swimming in the ocean each year, it’s clear sharks don’t see humans as a regular food source. But with the human population growing—and more humans therefore going to the beach—it means more opportunities for people and sharks to come into close contact with each other.

“The number of shark attacks in any given year or region is highly influenced by the number of people entering the water,” the International Shark Attack File’s website says.

WHAT TO DO?

Now two months past the fatal attack, Cape Cod has a long winter to think about sharks, to ruminate on these shocking moments, and to figure out how to move forward. Not everyone agrees on what should be done.

“I haven’t seen Jaws in decades, but this is just like [the fictional town of] Amity,” said Drew Taylor, a self-described 'waterman' who helped organise the memorial for Medici. “People are in denial. I don’t think most people realise the impact this is going to have.”

No surfer I spoke with was in complete denial about the shark situation—they were certainly warier. Some are waiting for winter, when the sharks migrate elsewhere, or travelling to Maine and Rhode Island for waves. Shawn Vecchione, who makes custom surfboards in Orleans, said he went surfing on the Cape again just before the memorial and saw 10 great whites. Two of them breached the surface.

"It's just nerve-wracking," he told me. "It's like walking into your house and knowing there's a lion in it."

The community is considering a variety of ways to ensure safety at the beach.

“I think it’s very important that we project to the public that we have safe beaches and we’re going to do whatever we can to make them safe and keep them safe,” said Dean Nicastro, chairman of Chatham’s board of selectman. Some of the suggested approaches are less controversial than others.

For a start, there are calls for greater precautions: everything from drone patrols along the surf to adding even more signage. Large warning signs with an image of the great white greet visitors at many Cape Cod beaches today. Cape towns are trying to be better prepared for attacks too, and that could mean better mobile phone coverage on remote beaches like Newcomb Hollow and beefier first-aid kits available at every parking area. Beach-goers can also check an app called "Sharktivity," which allows people to track tagged sharks and sends out notifications if buoys pick them up close to shore.

Local officials say Cape Cod is not Amity, but they are concerned about tourism and know how deeply shark attacks can stain the psyche. That has led to some to push for more extreme actions.

Last year, for example, a Cape Cod county commissioner suggested culling the sharks—though there’s little evidence it’s an effective strategy and may in fact have far-reaching ecological consequences given sharks’ role at the top of the food chain. Australia and South Africa, two other countries that deal with shark attacks, have tried shark nets to keep them away from the shore, but they’ve drawn criticism for leading to the deaths of sharks and other marine life that get tangled in them. One newer approach is the use of 'smart' drumlines, or baited hooks attached to buoys, that send an alert to a nearby boat crew when a shark is hooked so it can be tagged, towed further out to sea, and released.

In Cape Cod now, surfers, lifeguards, spotter planes, and fishermen all report shark sightings and even bitten seals to one another, law enforcement, and through social media. Beaches were closed several times through the summer, with purple and white flags raised as a warning.

RETURN OF THE SEALS

The night before the memorial, a dozen people learned how to pack wounds at a 'Stop the Bleed' training up the road at Wellfleet Fire & Rescue. The training was promoted by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a research, conservation, and public safety organisation based in Cape Cod. Trainees left with military-grade tourniquets to put in their beach bag with towels and sunscreen.

“A lot of this was triggered by the fatal shark attack and people wanting to know what to do and not feeling helpless in situations. But as far as prevention, we haven’t come to a consensus,” said Michael Banghart, a 49-year-old chef from Wellfleet who attended the training.

Many in Cape Cod see the grey seal—great whites’ preferred prey— as the problem. The seals number 50,000 or more in Cape Cod today, a stark contrast to life before 1972, when bounties were offered to kill them. By the time the Marine Mammal Protection Act came into force, they had practically disappeared.

Now seals line the outer beaches and harbour and have even shown up in the bay and ponds. It’s the growth of the seal population that led marine biologist Greg Skomal to tell National Geographic in 2016, that “it’s not if but when, in terms of somebody being fatally attacked” in Cape Cod. “We’ve got seals being eaten within 100 metres of surfers."

The Atlantic Human Conservancy, a twist on the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, was formed after the attacks with an aim of keeping the interests of people above those of sharks and seals. The group has held small meetings at local libraries and its founder, surfer Karl Hoefer, has called for seal culls, citing exemptions to the Marine Mammal Protection Act given to fisheries in the northwest.

“I mean they look cute, and that’s about the only thing I think of when it comes to why people like them,” the group’s founder, Hoefer told me at an Orleans coffee shop.

The seal population has also caused frustration among Cape Cod fishermen because they’re competing for the same resources.

“Kill ‘em all,” fisherman Chris Ciccarelli said of the seals as he watched a boat unload lobster at the Chatham Pier Fish Market. “I have no ill feelings towards the sharks.”

THE NEW NORMAL

Skomal, a fisheries scientist at the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game and the public face of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, said sharks are nature’s way of controlling the seal population. Most bites on humans, he said, are cases of mistaken identity.

“It’s still a relatively low risk,” Skomal said. “Some will always be willing to accept the risk. Those who are willing to leave the shallows and go out to deeper water, like surfers, kayakers, perhaps paddle boarders and windsurfers and boogie boarders, obviously, will be most at risk.”

The issue plays out almost daily in local media, and news of the attacks made headlines around the world. Some residents are worried these media reports hurt tourism. Vecchione says shark attacks and the subsequent media attention they garner have already hurt his business and he may shut down his storefront.

Another surf shop owner in Orleans accused me of having a “fearmongering agenda” and told me to stay off Cape Cod.

“You shouldn’t be here,” that man’s wife later told me.

On the other hand, sharks are a draw for some tourists. Sharks appear on shirts, coffee mugs, and artwork in shops all along the cape. The Chatham Bars Inn offers shark-viewing excursions in a boat that follows the conservancy's research vessels. The cost for five guests is $2,500.

“THIS HAS GOTTEN REAL”

At Medici’s memorial on the beach, Marc Angelillo, an Orleans resident and former competitive paddleboarder, stood barefoot at the surf’s edge, looking anxious. He spends hundreds of hours on the water each year, lately as an extra set of eyes for younger surfers. Angelillo would like to help Cape Cod come to a better place where humans, predators, and their prey can co-exist with the help of science and commonsense—a collective acceptance of sharks one might find in Australia and California. He carries reams of shark and seal research around with him.

“You have to be conscientious and prepared,” he told me. “I’m not going to live in fear, but the game has changed. Five years ago we used to laugh it off, but it was inevitable that this was going to happen.”

Rocha, the friend who pulled Medici’s body ashore, stood in the crowd with family during the paddle out. Then he ran up to the parking lot and returned moments later in a wetsuit. While some tried to offer him a long board, which would provide a bit more protection from sharks, he plunged into the ocean toward the circle of surfers, his legs kicking wildly off the back of a boogie board. It was the first time the teenager had been in the water since Medici died.

“They need to say a little prayer and get the hell out of there,” Angelillo said.

When the paddle-out ended, each surfer embraced Rocha. The last man out of the water resembled a sun-bleached Santa Claus with little purple flowers in his beard.

“This was really powerful for us to get out here this morning,” Chuck Cole told me. “This has gotten real. For some people, it’s become too much. There’s too much anxiety, and people surf to get away from anxiety. It could have been any one of us."

Jason Nark, a freelance writer based in New Jersey, covers rural issues and the outdoors for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Follow him on Twitter.