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TOM KEANE

Tourists flock to the Cape for more than beaches and clams

A great white shark, lower right, patrolled off  Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach on Aug. 30, 2012.

Will Osier/facebook.com/wSoPhotography

A great white shark, lower right, patrolled off Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach on Aug. 30, 2012.

The frightened folks on Amity Island — the fictional location of the film “Jaws” — desperately tried to deny the existence of the great white shark in their midst. “You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July,” worried the town’s mayor. He was wrong. This is Shark Summer on Cape Cod, and rather than fleeing, the crowds are flocking.

Chatham, the quaint village beset each winter by storms that constantly remake its coastline, is ground zero for the big fish. Sightings are up this year. The warmer waters (for most, another sign of global climate change; for a few, just another incredible coincidence!) are attracting seals, and seals attract sharks. Who, after all, can resist an all-you-can-eat buffet?

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The Cape depends upon summer. Each year roughly 4 million people visit the sandy peninsula (now, thanks to the canal spanned by the Sagamore and Bourne Bridges, technically an island). Half of those come during June, July, and August, says Wendy Northcross, head of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. A few weeks of rain or a cold spell can put them off, ruining a business owner’s year. A string of hot days, on the other hand, and the cash comes pouring in.

Not surprisingly, 2009 — the year of the Great Recession — was a nadir. The Cape is a vacation place and while, as the slogan goes, it’s “a short trip to far away” it’s still a trip and the newly unemployed and financially shell-shocked weren’t inclined to go anywhere — and even if they did, they weren’t spending much.

Last year marked a big comeback, with economic activity bouncing up to pre-crash levels. While Northcross doesn’t have solid data yet — those don’t come until after the year is over and, of course, the high season still has more than two weeks left — there is a feeling among those she talks to that this summer could be better still. Retail is down, she says, for reasons that are unclear. But other sectors of the Cape’s economy are booming. Restaurants are crowded, hotels and inns are full — and there’s no need to offer discounted pricing.

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The summer didn’t start well; June’s showers seemed a gloomy harbinger. But July turned brutally hot and the timing of Independence Day (it fell on a Thursday) meant that lots of people took long weekends. One visible sign: the epic traffic jam on Sunday, the 7th, which stretched 25 miles down Route 6 and lasted for hours. A mini-version was replicated the next morning, as those who couldn’t make it out on Sunday made another effort.

“Only in my world is a bridge backup a good thing,” says Northcross, and I understand her point. During the worst of the financial collapse, commuters in cities across America were suddenly aware that jams were smaller and their rides were shorter. The unemployed have no reason to be commuting. The same logic follows for the Cape. If it’s easy to get on and off, that’s because no one is trying to get on and off.

Northcross rhapsodizes on about the new Boston-Hyannis train service, the Cape’s hundreds of miles of beaches, and the charm of its variegated topography, but in truth, I really just want to talk sharks. “They’re here, they’re a fact of life, and they’re not going away,” she acknowledges. Cape officials are trying to be sure that everyone knows where the sharks are and are closing beaches when needed to keep people safe. How very much unlike the response of Amity Island, I think. Indeed, Northcross points out, Chatham is “turning lemons into lemonade,” creating a number of tourist events around the sightings.

All of which means that this summer the Cape has effectively undermined the premise of a movie that the American Film Institute ranks in its top 100. It turns out that the right response to something new in our midst is not to cower in fear, cover it up, and try to kill it. Rather, we celebrate it — indulge our curiosity, marvel at the mysteries of nature, perhaps even pay some reverence. Sand, ice cream, lighthouses . . . and now sharks. Instead of a reason to stay away, the predators off the shore are another of the Cape’s many attractions.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.
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