Skomal, 50, is a marine biologist, author (“The Shark Handbook”), and senior fisheries expert with Massachusetts Marine Fisheries. As the state’s leading shark expert, he’s spearheaded efforts to tag and track great white sharks off Cape Cod. Skomal, who has a PhD from Boston University and teaches at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford, has studied sharks from the Arctic Circle to the Central Pacific and been featured in numerous films and television programs.
Q. I recently swam at Ballston Beach in Truro, just days after an encounter with a great white shark there left a man with 47 stitches in his legs. Was I nuts?
A. Depends on how far out you went. We know these sharks prowl close to the beach — but tens of yards away, not yards away. Staying close to shore and avoiding seals is generally a good idea. You don’t want to put seals between you and the beach.
Q. I stayed close to shore, believe me. Still, didn’t you once say, “If you think you’re going to get bitten by a great white, it won’t happen?”
A. I may have been misquoted (laughs). It has happened, though, obviously.
Q. When and how did you acquire your scientific interest in great whites, which inspire so much fascination and fear?
A. Lately it’s dawned on me that seeing “Jaws” when I was 14 had the opposite effect on me than it had on most people. It drew me into the water rather than pushed me out. My curiosity about these animals was piqued. Also, my parents took us to the Caribbean when I was young, where I acquired a love of studying fish.
Q. As a diver and photographer, what’s been your scariest shark moment?
A. Probably working on Greenland sharks, under six feet of Arctic ice. The water was about 29 degrees. The environment was scarier than the animals. It’s vulnerability that really makes us fearful of sharks. Not knowing when and where they might be at any given moment, in an environment we’re not meant to be in.
Q. Have you ever been scared watching a shark movie, fictional or real?
A. I don’t watch many films now. But “Open Water” is a good example of a shark movie being more frightening than most because it’s closer to reality. If I see animated or CGI-generated sharks, they’re completely fake-looking to me.
Q. What have you learned from tagging and tracking these animals?
A. In terms of where they’re going over time, we’ve produced a lot of data. On average, we’re talking five or six sharks a year, however, and that’s not a big sample size. Through transmitter tags, we’ve identified their winter habitat as stretching from Georgia to northern Florida. Acoustic tags are giving us a better handle on what they’re doing while they’re up here.
Q. How so?
A. Three sharks we tagged last year are back. It sounds like a so-what question, but coming back to a very specific spot tells us this particular [seal] restaurant is quite important to them. It also gives us a better sense of their seasonality and where they want to be. Off Monomoy? In Chatham Harbor? Nauset Beach? Truro? Are they patrolling the length of Cape Cod every day? Parking themselves in one particular area? Ultimately we hope to see patterns that may be helpful to a beach manager or harbormaster.
Q. Jawsfest, Jaws Week, shark-fishing tournaments: Do popular attractions like these concern you as a scientist?
A. Bottom line is, sharks sell. Hollywood knows that. The media know it. It’s something we have to contend with. But we’ve also seen a change in public attitudes. To some degree, we’ve moved away from “the only good shark is a dead shark” mentality to a certain level of respect and reverence for these animals. That’s great. We’re not there yet, but I’m very optimistic we can balance conservation with exploitation.