LISA FRANZ HAS A LITTLE PROBLEM. The newly refurbished theater on Chatham’s Main Street is showing Jaws this summer. And the movie isn’t exactly on message. There’s the shark’s-eye view of a swimmer-cum-snack, and the blood in the water. Even if the 38-year-old mechanical villain seems dated, the music still evokes a sense of impending doom.
“I don’t know if that’s a really great idea,” Franz says with an air of resignation. “On the other hand, there’s a lot of interest, and people are going to go see it.”
Such are the headaches for the chief of the chamber of commerce in a Cape Cod town trying to become the great white shark capital of New England. Four years after the first white shark was tagged by biologists nearby, the beast’s toothy maw and distinctive silhouette are omnipresent in this town of 6,100. Merchants hawk everything from shark-shaped lollipops to T-shirts declaring Chatham the “Summer Playground of the Great White Shark.” More than 50 artist-decorated PVC sharks sprouted from a park and the lawn in front of the library this summer. Bars are concocting shark-themed drinks (red syrups are a common ingredient). The school district recently adopted the white shark as its mascot. When Franz meets me on a hot July morning, she has just left a meeting to map out a gala fund-raiser for a planned educational shark center. She dreams of eventually seeing a vast aquarium that will draw visitors year-round.
It’s all part of a seemingly improbable experiment rebranding one of the planet’s most awe-inspiring predators. Though great whites have long been portrayed as merciless killing machines, Chatham is now casting the shark as a town emblem, T-shirt punch line, and eco-icon. The town has hit on the idea that great white sharks sell. But do they sell if they’re swimming in your backyard? “Chatham as a town, I think, has embraced the whole shark concept,” Franz says. “As long as nobody gets hurt.”
IF CHATHAM HAD FOLLOWED the movie script, the plot would have gone something like this: White shark shows up. Town curses shark and downplays its presence, fearing hysteria will empty beaches and tourist shops. But in 2009, when state biologists tagged five great whites several miles from the town’s Lighthouse Beach, something else happened. People jammed Main Street. Hundreds of binocular-toting tourists trekked to the beach hoping to spot a fin slicing through the waves. Along the way, they bought a lot of lattes and whatever shark memorabilia shops had on hand.
At first, there was uncertainty about how much to publicize the new neighbors, Franz says. But it became clear the sharks were there to stay. Biologists tagged five the first year, six in 2010, seven in 2011, and a whopping 17 in 2012. And the crowds kept coming. Chatham, sensing a trend, responded. “Why not make something positive out of something that could not [be]?” Franz asks. “The great white shark is sexy.”
Until recently, white sharks in New England were more plentiful on the screen than in the water. Jaws and two of its sequels were set in the fictional town of Amity Island and filmed on Martha’s Vineyard. The last death in Massachusetts from a shark was in 1936, when one bit a 16-year-old boy swimming in Buzzards Bay.
Then Congress passed the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and banned the killing of seals, sea lions, whales, and other sea mammals. Gray seals, hunted nearly to extinction in this country, mounted a comeback worthy of the 2004 Red Sox. Today the animals inhabit much of the New England coastline and number as many as 16,000 on the Cape and Islands. A major gathering point is Monomoy Island, a small federal wildlife refuge off Chatham. As the Cape’s seal population grew, the number of great white sightings rose as well.
“When you open up the cafe, the diners will come,” says Greg Skomal, who might be the white shark’s best ambassador on Cape Cod. A 51-year-old wisecracking biologist for the state’s Marine Fisheries Division, he’s spent the last 30 years studying sharks. Wearing brown cargo pants and an untucked short-sleeve shirt, graying bangs swept across his forehead, he might be mistaken for a well-groomed surfer. His easygoing manner and unbridled enthusiasm for this fierce fish attract standing-room-only audiences to his talks. He’s appeared in half a dozen episodes of the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week.
On the evening of July 3, more than 80 people pack the Orleans town library, just north of Chatham, to hear the latest from Skomal. In a series of PowerPoint slides punctuated with jokes, he paints this picture: Scientists hope to tag another 20 sharks in a program that began at the end of July. If the seal population keeps growing, the shark numbers might do the same. And some of the sharks are awfully close to home. One map shows yellow dots where sharks have been tagged along Cape Cod. It looks like the southern tip of Chatham has broken out in yellow chicken pox. The marks extend north along the Cape’s oceanside beaches to Orleans. “If you live on Cape Cod, see if your house is anywhere near one of these yellow dots,” Skomal says, to uneasy chuckles from the audience.
As of press time, 2013 has seen confirmed shark sightings on the Cape but no attacks on humans. That was not the case last year. In July 2012, beachgoers watched as a dorsal fin trailed a kayaker at Orleans’s Nauset Beach. Later that month, a great white bit Chris Myers, a visitor from Denver, while he was swimming about 400 yards off Ballston Beach farther north, in Truro. (Read his story.) He survived, with 47 stitches in his legs. It was the first confirmed shark bite in the state in 76 years.
THOSE CLOSE CALLS haven’t dampened Chatham’s enthusiasm. A visitor to the town’s Fourth of July parade might wonder if sharks played a role in the Revolutionary War. Amid the marching bands and Uncle Sam costumes are shark hats, inflatable sharks, an enormous shark made from crushed aluminum cans, and someone in a shark costume who circles a flatbed truck topped with shrieking people while the Jaws theme plays.
Great whites, Chatham has learned, are celebrities. The Discovery Channel showed up in Chatham in 2010 and 2012 to film Shark Week episodes. Ocearch, an ocean research nonprofit, is spending the month of August on a boat nearby tagging great whites in conjunction with Skomal and filming the action. Shark sightings still draw crowds.
It’s hard to gauge how much money this is pumping into the town. Worldwide, shark tourism generates as much as $314 million a year, according to one recent study. Much of that comes from cage diving, where people jump into submerged metal cages for a close look. Local officials show little interest in the activity, fearing that bait used to lure sharks to the cages could attract them to swimming beaches.
The town’s appetite for sharks isn’t confined to memorabilia. The ritzy Chatham Bars Inn, an oceanside resort where rooms start at $495 in summer, sits less than a mile from Lighthouse Beach. After the July Fourth parade, kids frolic at the inn in a guests-only holiday carnival. A line of children leads to the centerpiece, a mechanical bucking great white shark, jaws spread wide. It is the most visible illustration of the inn’s newfound interest in sharks. Its glossy magazine features a headline on the cover declaring “Great Whites, Why We Love Them.” Guests can hear a lecture on white sharks while taking a boat out to see data downloaded from a new buoy near the resort beach that hears “pings” from tagged sharks. So far, none have been detected. Kids can take a class on sharks called Jawesome. For the big spenders, the resort in 2013 started offering a $5,000 boat trip accompanied by a spotter plane to try for a close look at a great white. The overall goal is to educate guests about sharks and how to conduct themselves in the water, says Lori Gilmore, director of leisure operations at the resort. “You don’t linger in the water a long time, and you don’t go far offshore,” she says.
All the shark talk doesn’t worry David Benson. The New Yorker, at the resort to celebrate his father-in-law’s 70th birthday, says years of surfing have taught him that sharks are common. But he keeps quiet on their presence where his 5-year-old son, Jonah, is concerned. The boy has just dismounted from the mechanical shark.
“What do you think of sharks?” Benson asks his son.
“I rode one,” comes the reply.
“What about if they were in the water? Would you go in the water?”
“No,” Jonah replies without hesitation.
“Don’t worry, there’s no sharks,” Benson says. Then he turns to me to explain the white lie. “I’m trying to get him to want to surf with me when he’s older. I don’t want to turn him off.”
LOCAL BUSINESSES FACE a similar conundrum. But instead of a 5-year-old, they’re thinking about the tourists that fuel the Cape’s economy. When is it OK to crack a shark joke? Is it going too far to sell a charm bracelet with a foot poking from the fish’s mouth? “I think it’s a fine line between taking something and putting a positive spin on it and having nobody want to come to your beaches,” says Sandy Wycoff, owner of the 35-year-old Chatham Clothing Bar, a Main Street clothing store. Some of her best sellers are shark T-shirts, like the one with a gaping set of jaws on the back. But she is quick to say that “it’s a public-safety situation first and foremost. And you really hate to make light of a situation which is really serious.”
Other Cape Cod towns have given the beasts a more low-key treatment. In Orleans, a quick survey of gift shops turned up shark logos on just one T-shirt and a few hats. Chatham promoters will tell you that’s because their town is where most of the sharks have been tagged. “Chatham’s really the only town that really could call itself a shark town,” brags Franz.
But there could be another reason. Chatham has less to lose if a shark panic strikes. Orleans relies on long stretches of oceanfront beach to attract visitors. Beach parking lots are major sources of revenue in some towns. Orleans’s 900-car parking lot at Nauset Beach is jammed on weekends, bringing in $650,000 a year. Chatham, by contrast, doesn’t charge for parking at Lighthouse Beach. Its other beaches are far from where sharks have been spotted.
Still, there’s a sense that Chatham is swimming into unfamiliar waters. Franz hopes that teaching people about sharks, as well as selling souvenirs, can help inoculate it when a shark bites again. “Sooner or later it’s going to happen,” she says. “It’s not like they’re going to go away if we don’t talk about them.”
Sharks evoke fear and attention completely out of proportion to the danger. In the last decade, an average 67 people were reported bitten by sharks around the world each year, and five died. Compare that with the 337 traffic accident deaths just in Massachusetts in 2011. Long before Jaws, people had been taught to view sharks as a menace. Christopher Neff, an Australia-based expert in the politics of shark incidents, found that before the 1930s, shark bites were often described as “accidents.” Soon after, as some pushed the idea that sharks hunted swimmers, they became known as “attacks.” Today, when a great white bites someone, biologists say they were probably mistaken for a seal.
Perhaps Chatham’s shark fever is part of a shifting view of the animal and a new appreciation for its role in the ecosystem, says Stephen Kellert, a Yale University professor emeritus who has written extensively about the relationship between people and the natural world. But he predicts our shark infatuation would diminish if someone were killed. “There’s nothing more primordial in people than the fear of being eaten alive.”
THE DAY AFTER the parade, a few hundred people loll in the sand at Chatham’s Lighthouse Beach. Though it’s hot, only a few bathers splash at the edge of the frigid water. The spot is known for a strong riptide. I have come to see where all the excitement was and maybe, just maybe, spot a fin. The wind and waves play tricks with the light, casting tantalizing shadows on the water. Fran Wasley, visiting from Los Angeles, stands with her two children and a niece and stares at a curved dark shape underwater.
“Is that a shark?” asks her 13-year-old son, William.
“I think it would be moving,” she replies.
They still come to Lighthouse Beach, but the sharks and the riptide mean they go elsewhere for swimming, Wasley says.
Half a mile down the beach, where the narrow channel opens to the ocean, lies a tiny slice of sand on which seals sunbathe. I spot their heads bobbing in the water, like oversize Labrador retrievers. Skomal’s crew had tagged several sharks within sight of there, but I see no sign of the fish.
On the return trip, I stop where a buoy rocks 30 yards offshore. I strip off my shirt, doff my sandals, and step into the water. The buoy is so close. I routinely swim a mile in lakes. Just a minute of quick swimming would get me there.
With all the lifeguards and cozy sand, it’s easy to forget the ocean is a wilderness. Swim a few yards from shore, and you’re entering the most untamed terrain in New England. Still, there is almost surely not a shark there, I tell myself. I dive in and swim a few strokes, then stop with the water up to my chest, my toes obscured in the dark blue water. A visceral anxiety begins to bubble. What is down there? Is something looking at my legs right now? I stare at the buoy. I tell myself it’s silly to worry, like a child afraid of the dark. Then I turn and swim back to shore.
Warren Cornwall is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, and The Seattle Times, where he was an environmental reporter. Send comments to email@example.com.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified the material used to make shark sculptures displayed in Chatham. They are PVC.