Learning to live with the great white shark | Global Ideas | DW | 13.09.2016
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Global Ideas

Learning to live with the great white shark

Long, sandy beaches, turquoise water, and … great white sharks? Over the past decade, communities along the Atlantic Coast of the US have been learning to live with one of the most feared creatures of the deep.

Yellow rubber ducks line the top of a wooden cutout shark, which is propped up on sticks so that it floats above the ground. Another features a buoy bobbing in calm waters, another Disney's forgetful fish Dory.

In front of more than a dozen wooden sharks, all with a different design, is a white sign, marked with bite marks and a picture of the giant fish. It reads: Welcome to Chatham - the summer home of the great white.

The "Sharks in the Park" display is just one way this small town is coming to terms with its new neighbors. Less than a decade ago, the biggest draw to Chatham - a tourist haven on the "elbow" of Cape Cod on the East Coast of the United States, were its beaches and quaint main street. Now, it's the great white shark.

"There are a lot of people in the community who don't want to be known as the shark town, but the reality is that we are, and so we have to find a way to deal with it," Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, told DW.

Shark close to Chatham shore

Despite fear of sharks, people are more likely to be killed by each other than by sharks. Research suggests that around 100 million sharks - of different species - are killed every year.

Local fishermen have long reported sighting great whites offshore - but until the mid-2000s, when seal carcasses began turning up on local beaches, there was little hard evidence of their existence.

Although initially it was just a few, by 2009, marine biologist Greg Skomal says it was clear there were large numbers of the predators in the area.

"I'm sure white sharks were starting slowly to become aware of the presence of seals," he told DW, adding that they trickled in over the course of the decade. "I imagine it is a slow learning experience - it's not like they have social media to work with."

Fast food

Last year, Skomal tagged more than 140 great white sharks off the coast of Chatham and off a town just to the north, Orleans. But it is still unclear how many more could be in the waters along the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod.

Grey seals are thought to be the main magnet for the predatory fish. A main source of food for the sharks, seals had been hunted to the brink of extinction along the US East Coast, but the introduction of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 changed that. Over the last 40 years, their numbers have swelled.

The coast of Cape Cod has consequently become one a few places in the world - besides Western Australia and South Africa - where white sharks congregate. But while Australia recorded 33 attacks in 2015 (two of which were fatal), Cape Cod has seen just one since 1936.

A fierce-looking great white shark

The great white shark is the world's largest predatory fish. It has 300 teeth - although they don't chew their food, according to WWF.

This was in 2012, when a man was swimming with his son a in Truro, up the coast from Chatham. They were looking for a good body-surfing spot a couple hundred meters offshore when a great white bit him. He survived the encounter.

Nonetheless, Skomal says it's just a matter of time before someone is killed. "Almost anywhere in the world where you get these concentrations of white sharks, you do get interactions - you get bites. And in some cases, they are fatal," he told DW. "We try not to bury that fact even though we emphasize that the probability is extremely low."

Bringing business

It was this probability of bites and potential fatalities that first brought fear to towns like Chatham. The communities faced the real possibility that the sharks could drive tourists away from an area that relied on their money.

“When they first started spotting the great white, it was a great concern to us as a community as to how it was going to be perceived, were we going to lose business?” said Franz, of the chamber of commerce.

But instead, the reaction was largely one of curiosity, with people flooding to the town eager to catch sight of the giant predator with razor-sharp teeth.

"We had traffic jams of people coming in and trying to see the sharks," she said. "We had to find some way to make people feel at ease about it, and I think the community has really come together."

An indication of that are the shark t-shirts, cuddly toys and other related merchandise on sale in the local shops.

Chatham Chamber of Commerce - a quaint weatherboard house

The quaint architecture of the coastal town was once its greatest attraction. That has changed now

And rather than trying to drive away its new marine residents, the town has implemented measures such as tracking apps and early warning systems to raise the alarm if they get too close to swimming beaches, says Dan Tobin, parks and recreation director for Chatham.

"So far there have been no problems, there's a good communication system now when sharks are spotted and everybody is in the loop as to being notified about this very quickly," he told DW. "The modern age of technology has been very helpful and continues to improve as each year goes by."

Fascination with fear

Skomal credits the town's ability to embrace the arrival of the feared sea creature to awareness campaigns and information on the marine animals' whereabouts. "There's a lot more fascination than fear. People may have stopped swimming 100 meters from shore, but they haven't stopped going to the beach.

"Many folks come to the Cape hoping to see one of these animals - it's really quite amazing to me."

The regular appearance of the sharks has given scientists like Skomal a rare opportunity to study the mysterious species and learn about its movements, reproductive biology and behavior.

Yet for all that, the marine biologist agrees it is important to be cautious - after all, even he has nightmares about sharks.

"I think it's natural and healthy to have some level of fear of animals that can bite you, because otherwise the survival of our species would be in jeopardy. I have a healthy respect for them."

So far, the experience across the Cape has been largely positive. Even the one bite was blamed on the actions of the swimmer, rather than the shark. But Skomal says the real test will come if there's ever a fatal attack.

"It will depend on the behavior of the victim and who that victim is," he said. "[But] I think Chatham is dealing with it quite well and they are pushing hard on the spirit of coexistence. I think it's working."

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