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Bill Chaprales on the hunt for the elusive great white sharks

Bill Chaprales in search of tagging great white sharks off the coast of Chatham in 2010.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Bill Chaprales in search of tagging great white sharks off the coast of Chatham in 2010.

Captain Bill Chaprales and his son, Nick, run a commercial fishing business, maintaining 800 lobster traps and hauling in bluefin tuna. As the Cape Cod Shark Hunters, they have also become a key part of the Cape’s burgeoning research into the rapid increase of shark sightings in recent years. As seen on the Shark Week specials “Jaws Comes Home” and “Return of Jaws,” father and son have been tagging great whites since 2009, using a specially designed pole that Captain Billy invented.

Q. How did you get started in the shark business?

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A. We tagged the first great white in the North Atlantic with a satellite pop-up tag in 2009. That year we tagged five, when they first showed up in numbers. Since then we’ve tagged 39, working with Greg Skomal [of the state Division of Marine Fisheries]. I did a lot of work in the early ’90s tagging bluefin tuna. Being a commercial tuna fisherman, that was crucial for us. From the beginning of this century, we got involved in tagging basking sharks. Nobody knew where these things went. Then all these seals showed up in the last seven, eight, nine years, and lo and behold, more sharks started showing up. On Labor Day weekend of ’09, we tagged three. That started the whole deal.

Q. Has the shark population around the Cape actually increased every single year recently?

A. I can’t say anything with scientific proof, but I’ve been fishing for 45 years. I’m up in the tower, 20 feet off the water, chasing tuna. We use a plane all the time, too [for spotting]. We’re seeing these sharks, and I’d say 90 percent, they aren’t sharks we’ve tagged before. And this isn’t like a “Jaws” movie, where the fins are out of the water. They’re right on the bottom. I’ve probably only spotted three of them from the boat, in all those years. You need the plane. So they’re pretty elusive that way.

Q. Do you swim?

A. Look, it’s all personal preference. They’re not there to kill people. I would go swimming, I just wouldn’t do it where there’s seals around, you know? It makes sense if a guy’s on a surfboard or a boogie board — he looks like a seal. Just be cautious, that’s all.

‘This is like the next great hot spot for great whites in the world.’

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Q. Tell me about the shark “safari” you’re offering.

A. For a guy with money, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to come out and see this. It takes a lot of money for the plane to be up in the air, and us in the boat. There’s a nonprofit set up, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. If somebody wanted to do the trip, they’d donate to the conservancy, tax deductible. We’re not taking private charters out ourselves.

Q. Do you get research money?

A. Yeah, when they can get the money for us to go do the tagging. It’s very hard to get. Whenever the occasion arises, I’m contracted by the state to do research work. It all depends how much money they can raise to go do it. These tags are $7,000; you don’t want to throw it into the sand and lose it.

Q. Now that you’ve been up close with these animals, do you have a respect for them that maybe you didn’t have?

A. All the years I’ve been fishing, the days and months in that tower looking for tuna, I’ve only seen probably two or three great whites. They’re not the kind of shark that comes up and says, “Hey, here I am, take a look.” To be able to tag 39 of them since 2009 is phenomenal. Some of them are almost 20 feet long. They’re wider than a Volkswagen, 5,000 pounds. Then they come into five or six feet of water and chase these seals? This is like the next great hot spot for great whites in the world. The baby seals, they’re not afraid; they’re like kids, they don’t have a brain. And I’ve seen these sharks cruise right through, not touch them, make them feel like everything’s OK. They’re real good hunters, let me tell you. Every time we tag a shark, it’s an unbelievable thrill. That kind of research, you’ve really got to continue for years. We’re really just scratching the surface.

Bill Chaprales tagged a great white shark in Chatham in 2010.

Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Bill Chaprales tagged a great white shark in Chatham in 2010.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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