How a Shark Epidemic is Changing Surfing and Community on Cape Cod

Few issues can outline a small group like a shoreline. Proximity to a physique of water and all of the byproducts that it has to supply — inspiration, wildlife and recreation — draw people collectively. Not in contrast to a mountain city’s widespread connection to a ski resort, a coastal city’s lifeblood is the oldsters who piece collectively livings regardless of the excessive value of residing and seasonal economies. Transferring away is not an possibility. Folks gravitate to an space as a result of they’re captivated with it. They’re the shakers and movers who give a place its character; they create group.

Open Barrel DeGrof
Cape Cod is a storied stretch of American shoreline and a bedrock of East Coast browsing. Cody DeGroff

Cape Cod is a group related as such. The storied New England area threads by means of North America’s story from its earliest colonization, whaling, the Kennedys, and generations of households who go to every year out of custom and love for this stretch the place land meets sea. And when that defining physique of water experiences radical change, it reverberates by means of the group. Few adjustments to the shores of Cape Cod have been as unnerving because the dramatic progress of its nice white shark inhabitants, the place surfers have been coping with the increase first, from the entrance strains.


The nice white state of affairs has unfolded over the previous few years as if following plot factors from Jaws. Scientists and locals started reporting extra and extra sightings as the grey seal inhabitants made a huge rebound, offering a veritable buffet off the Cape. Subsequent, the general public began taking actual discover with a marquee sighting: when a huge nice white cruised the swimming space at Nauset Seaside in 2012. In August of that 12 months, first blood was drawn when a shark bit a Boston man off Truro, Mass.

Later that summer time, OCEARCH, a analysis mission funded by a consortium of company manufacturers (not analysis grants), tagged a 3,500-lb., 16-foot feminine nice white off the Cape. Led by shark wrangler Chris Fischer, the crew named her Mary Lee and put a monitoring machine on her dorsal fin. OCEARCH’s extremely efficient advertising crew relayed her visits through Twitter and the ol’ woman constructed up a following of 130,000.

Mary Lee started turning up near East Coast seashores and even staggeringly small our bodies of water. The general public was fascinated. Ethical of the story: “Sure, there are sharks within the ocean. Sure, they arrive very near people. No, we aren’t on their menu.” The lesson was solely barely reassuring, particularly for watermen and -women who imagine in defending wildlife from additional hurt. The toothiest of killers, the considering went, prowl proper into our backyards, but have little interest in human meat.

However whereas OCEARCH was an efficient technique of that messaging, Boston College Marine Biologist-aquarist-photographer and Massachusetts Leisure Fisheries Program Supervisor, Dr. Greg Skomal grounded the qualitative proof with a big physique of analysis. Skomal has been learning the Atlantic nice white for 4 many years, documenting its dramatic return to the Cape. He has tagged lots of of sharks, choosing scientific methodology with beacons and cameras that transmit recordings.

Then the encounters elevated. In 2014, a shark overturned two girls in kayaks off Plymouth, Mass. In 2017, a nice white laid its teeth into a paddleboard. In the summertime 2018, one other chomped a swimmer, who docs miraculously saved in a Boston hospital. By the autumn of 2018, within the midst of hurricane swell season for the East Coast, a nice white killed 26-year-old bodyboarder Arthur Medici in a grizzly method at Newcomb Hole.

Immediately, the entire narrative modified. Apparently, people, significantly surfers, would possibly really be on the menu or no less than sometimes, a chef’s particular.

Rick Pilot/Flickr.


To grasp the rapid fallout of Medici’s loss of life, you should first perceive the Cape Cod surf expertise. There’s been a year-round surf group right here for the reason that ’60s — one which doesn’t give a second thought to taking the icy North Atlantic plunge when the swell is pumping. From December to Might, the ocean temp is 40 levels or colder, and it’s not unusual to surf consecutive swells when the air stays under freezing. On the warmest of summer time days, the ocean solely will get as much as the low 60s, providing a sparring probability to don a lighter wetsuit or courageous a chilly session in trunks.

Surfers usually are usually not terribly involved with sharks, or no less than not as preoccupied as the remainder of society would possibly assume. We’ve all seen sharks whereas browsing, perhaps ran into a few. We’re conscious that the ocean is stuffed with predators.

And as a surf group, Cape Cod was a lot like most: with a mixture of a few revered legends, of us of their 30s and 40s who’ve their very own groms, a wholesome core of late teenagers and 20-somethings who nonetheless surf every single day, all related by a couple surf retailers with various levels of road cred. The shark concern is stretching these connective tissues like by no means earlier than.

Cape Cod native Mike Archer began browsing when he was 12 and devoted a lot of his life to it. The 46-year-old father of two is now a supervisor at The Boarding House, a longtime surf-skate-snowboard store in Hyannis. The entire shark enhance has grow to be a controversial matter as regional information retailers continuously search for a sensational story (not precisely preferrred press for a enterprise that outfit surfers). Archer makes it clear that he can’t communicate to everybody’s expertise on the Cape.

Cape Cod native surfer, Mike Archer, within the spot within the days earlier than the shark downside. Luke Simpson

“My son is about to turn 14. I started him surfing when he was about 5. When he was 8 or 9, he’d be up and riding. He loved to surf in the summer and he was starting to get into the shoulder season,” says Archer. “Now, he doesn’t surf anymore during the peak season.”

Archer’s referring to the prime timeframe from August by means of October, when the Atlantic hurricane season goes into overdrive, bringing uncommon swell mixed with the warmest water temperature. What was a celebrated season is now prevented by most. In a place the place your wetsuit can freeze into a yoga pose within the mattress of your truck, winter is now the popular season.

For Cody DeGroff, a 28-year-old surfer, lifeguard and surf photographer from Chatham, the shark concern has been a issue for his whole grownup life. On the subject of his ardour for capturing from the water, he welcomes the colder water, so he can, “go out there looking like a seal and not have to worry about it.”  However even within the winter, DeGroff admits he’ll hunt down sandbars to face as near shore as attainable.

As a result of off his willingness to shoot in that turbid, darkish water in a hooded wetsuit and fins, DeGroff has grow to be the famous photographer on the Cape. Nonetheless he received’t go within the water within the summertime with out a board. “You feel a little safer on a standup board or a longboard,” says DeGroff. “Me swimming around with my camera is just too sketchy. In the month of August, sharks are seen every day. The Atlantic White Shark Conservatory uses a spotter plane. So when they fly up the coast, they will usually tell us when they are around. And they’re usually pretty close to the shoreline.”

shark beach
Cody DeGroff

For years, Luke Simpson was the man who would swim out to seize the products on the uncommon event that the surf mags would possibly need an epic East Coast shot. However Simpson, a biology trainer at Nauset Regional Excessive Faculty has not shot from the water in years.

“Honestly I don’t shoot in the water because there are no surf magazines to run the shots,” he admits, “But when it comes down to it, do I need that shot or does my kid need a father?”

Simpson is at a totally different section of life than DeGroff. As a guardian who thought he would elevate his daughter within the ocean as a lot as attainable, he’ll solely wade onto the sandbar along with her at low tide.

“Our limit is about three-and-a-half feet deep. Those things can’t get you in there,” he explains.

That restricted vary displays the recommendation that Dr. Skomal offers beachgoers on the Cape.

Dr. Skomal mapping the Nice White comeback in 2011. Picture Marc Palumbo/Flickr.

Nice whites migrate, and, although the seals are year-round residents, Skomal’s analysis exhibits the sharks present up in best numbers in August and taper off into November. Chilly has grow to be king. By late fall, the ocean temps drop into the decrease 40s and the sharks are thought to have principally moved to different areas. Even then, locals like Simpson will nonetheless maintain off. He recollects a November session, operating into a pal who witnessed Medici’s deadly assault, who talked him out of swimming to shoot. “She was like, ‘It’s just not worth it. They’re still around. Just wait a couple more weeks.’” Simpson says. “It just had that weird feeling.”

Generally the wait pays off. The surf on December 15 was a bread and butter day for the Cape, head-high to overhead medium-period south windswell with offshore winds all day and barrels. Simpson had no downside lacking out, opting to take his daughter hours away to Killington, Vermont the place she skis and he snowboards.

DeGroff swam and tried to not assume an excessive amount of about it. Nonetheless, longtime Cape Cod surfer and shaper, Shawn Vecchione reported on Instagram that he received “bumped” whereas his associates noticed a huge shadow go by means of the water.


So what modified about Cape Cod, the place a wayward summer time gaze on the ocean can now reveal a huge apex predator breaching?

Cape Cod was traditionally a nice white feeding floor, the seal inhabitants being the apparent draw. These tender morsels made a big comeback a number of many years after the Marine Mammal Safety Act of 1972. Previous to that, sure Northeast fishermen had no downside offing seals that fed on the identical fish they had been out to catch. Moreover, adjustments in New England’s business fishing rules additionally meant much less juvenile sharks had been being killed as unintended bycatch.

So the mathematics is easy: Extra nice whites reaching maturity with a endless provide of seal sushi. Even when they’re not going after people, there are going to be a few misunderstandings between species.

“It’s brutal. It’s completely changed my life. Everything was based on going to the beach with my family, whether it was one-foot longboard waves or an overhead swell,” explains Archer. “You start to weigh risk verses reward. I’m certainly not going to pressure my son to surf. And then you ask, ‘Am I being responsible by going surfing myself?’ There are a lot of variations in attitude but I feel like the greater number of surfers are shying away from it.”

Ten years in the past, on a summer time day, there may need been lots of of surfers up and down the Cape, longboarders and brief, having fun with August groundswell. Now, apart from some hard-core youthful guys, you’ll barley discover anybody out previous the sandbar. Those who do at the moment are using SUP boards.

SUP shark
Cody DeGroff

Whereas surfers used to search for these empty spots, they now surf in teams for security. They monitor the shark apps and attempt to reduce the dangers. And that’s primarily after November. Many surfers have taken a ‘Stop the Bleed’ course particularly for shark assaults.

When there’s a appreciable swell, native surfers will journey to New Hampshire or Rhode Island, which definitely doesn’t assist with the gang state of affairs round New England. Mountain biking is changing into big. Surfers positively speak about shifting off the Cape. Some have already got.


The Cape Cod Nationwide Seashore’s personal numbers present that over 4.5 million people visited in 2015. There was a decline by 2017, and final 12 months, the quantity dipped under 4 million for the primary time in 10 years.

So far as enterprise, Archer says The Boarding Home is nonetheless doing OK, though gross sales of 3-mm wetsuits and newbie surfboards are manner down.

“A tourist family will come into the shop. One of the kids will look at the surfboards and say, ‘these are cool.’ And some other family member says, ‘You’re not getting one of those. You’ll get eaten by a shark,’” Archer explains. “I hear that every week in the summer.”

Surf colleges, which at the moment are a fixture of each summertime coastal city, are not permitted by the city of Orleans.

Now there’s a bigger dialog about how the good whites are altering the economic system of the Cape. Surfers signify a small variety of guests, although native waverers are inclined to work in tourism-related industries. How lengthy will individuals hold returning to a seaside the place they’ll’t swim and recreate? Thankfully for this coast, the market is not as primarily based on households frolicking within the surf for hours like states simply south of Massachusetts. However individuals do like to surf and swim in the summertime.

Heather Doyle represents the group Cape Cod Ocean Community, which she claims has over 1,000 members, principally individuals who return to the Cape’s seashores 12 months after 12 months. The group’s mission, whereas not underestimating the hazard of the sharks, is to embrace the ocean way of life that brings them right here within the first place.

“It’s a massive group of citizens who are simply not satisfied to just stay out of the water. We’re not going to just accept only going to waist deep,” Doyle explains, “When families get pulled out of the water on a 90-degree day, they just stop coming to the Cape. I know these legacy families who have been on the Cape for generations and they feel their kids are being robbed of the summers that they grew up enjoying.”

Doyle believes that know-how and communication can hold individuals safer. She has no delusions in regards to the presence of nice whites however feels the cities and the Nationwide Seashore have mainly been paralyzed by worry of litigation. Her group advocates for drones, sonar, surveillance flights, info and something that may give individuals the arrogance to benefit from the water once more. She feels that the native authorities have principally simply carried out nothing.

Arduous to chill out within the tube once you’re fascinated by the meals chain. Cody DeGroff

For now, shark curiosity appears to be making up for among the guests searching for seaside enjoyable elsewhere. However rental markets are fluctuating and, like a lot of the East Coast, the Cape is keenly reliant on the tourism greenback. Doyle says the Eastham Chamber of Commerce is claiming a 30 p.c drop in trip leases in recent times.

Many keep hope that there’s a solution to the issue. Removed from the views of Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty, who has proposed killing the great whites with baited and hooked drum strains round common seashores, they’re hoping for scientifically confirmed deterrents and detection strategies.

“I think it’s all about liability and money,” says Archer. “Our leaders are gun-shy about employing experimental methods, fearing something could go wrong and they will be on the hook for it. But by that logic, why do we wear seatbelts or read the warning on medication? They’re all things put in place to keep us safer, but don’t guarantee our safety.”

“We can’t throw in the towel,” he provides. “Our ocean-going way of life on the Cape is just too important, from casually enjoying a day at the beach right down to the nuts and bolts of our local economy. It all matters.”

However as for the way forward for the Cape Cod surf group. Some will transfer. That core of younger chargers will nonetheless surf year-round till one thing else occurs. However what in regards to the subsequent era?

“There are no young surfers now,” says Archer, “As people get older, I don’t know who’s going to fill in behind them. But there weren’t any kids getting their first surfboard for Christmas on the Cape this year.”

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