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Here’s where to get the lowdown on the Cape’s most feared — and misunderstood — visitor

Signs like this one at Nauset Beach warn beach-goers about sharks. If you see seals in the water, get out — seals are shark food. You don’t want to end up in danger due to a case of mistaken identity.Diane Bair

If you’ve been to the Cape Cod National Seashore recently, you’ve seen those signs with the menacing picture of a great white shark, pointy teeth a-glistening, and the word “WARNING” in uppercase letters. These apex predators hunt seals in the shallow water here, and “people have been seriously injured and killed by white sharks along this coastline,” as the sign says.

Beachy bliss, meet Great White Buzzkill! Frankly, you’re probably at greater risk of getting conked in the head by a wind-tossed beach umbrella than you are of encountering a shark. But shark awareness, and learning to coexist with sharks, is becoming a way of life on the Cape. Nobody knows this better than the folks at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. To that end, they want visitors to know that “Jaws” was entertainment, not fact; great whites aren’t the mindless killing machines they were once thought to be. Sharks play an important role in the oceans. They are not newcomers to Cape Cod waters, by the way — there have been sharks in the area for 420 million years, dating back to the extinct Megalodon.

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Shark-curious? At the conservancy’s Shark Center Chatham (plus a new center opening in Provincetown in late May), exhibits examine the Cape’s most feared visitor, an increasingly-frequent guest thanks to a growing population of seals. “During the summer, sharks seem to be in the news nearly every week,” spiking public interest, says Marianne Walsh, the AWSC’s education director. Videos reveal how researchers tag sharks for observation and study, using shark-tagging poles to insert tags so they don’t have to actually catch the fish. For those who would love the chance to see sharks in the wild, the AWSC offers private, 2.5-hour shark-spotting eco-cruises. A spotter pilot helps sight sharks from the air and radios the location to a naturalist onboard. At $2,500 (for up to six people), it’s a splurge, but if you’re shark-obsessed, it’s a thrill — although less thrilling than jumping into one of those shark cages. There’s one of those on display at the Shark Center Chatham, too.

Talk about "Jaws" — the new Shark Center Provincetown will feature a display of shark jawbones.Handout

For most of us, a visit to this shark-centric facility will be an eye-opener, never mind going out to see sharks on purpose. Touch-screen videos of “white shark feeding on whale” and “up close with a white shark” taken by the crew will remind you why this creature is so powerful, and so feared. “All I ever knew about sharks, I learned from watching ‘Jaws,’” a visitor from Taunton told us at the center. In fact, the movie wasn’t exactly a primer on shark facts; on display at the center is Bruce, a model of the shark puppet used in the movie, and built larger than life to spark fear in viewers. Bruce is ginormous, much larger than actual great white sharks, which reach lengths of 15 to 18 feet long, as far as we know, “although we still don’t really know the average size for white sharks” in our region, Walsh notes.

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The new Shark Center Provincetown will open on Memorial Day weekend on MacMillan Wharf.Handout

“Swimming noses”

You might say that sharks are victims of bad press. A display on Sharks and the Media shows headlines about “bloodied waters” and “vicious shark attacks,” when the actual story was simply a shark eating a seal, a totally routine occurrence in nature. The AWSC aims to clear up misconceptions, the biggest one being sharks are extremely dangerous and like to eat people. Not true. And not all sharks are apex predators who control the food chain from the top down, only some. Whale sharks, the really massive ones, are at the bottom of the list shark-wise.

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We felt like school kids on a field trip as we wandered the small space. In fact, the Shark Center Chatham (open year-round) is a popular rainy-day spot for families. You’ll discover everything you ever wanted to know about sharks, and then some, like “Why are sharks two-toned?” (Answer: camouflage. They can move undetected in the water because their gray upper body blends in with the sea floor, and if prey is beneath a shark, the shark’s white underbelly blends in with the sunny surface of the ocean.) They swallow their prey whole, sometimes thrashing it around first to break it into smaller pieces, and must bite into everything to determine if it is food. They’ve got a lateral line that prevents them from crashing into other fish, and an electromagnetic sense that alerts them if prey is near, plus a great sense of smell, which is why they’ve been called “swimming noses.” There’s also a strong environmental message about the harmful impact of plastics in the ocean, including an exhibit by Cape Cod artist Sarah Thornington, who creates art from debris she collected on the beach.

A model of Bruce, the shark featured in “Jaws,” is larger than life, meant to be terrifying. At the shark centers, you’ll learn the real story about sharks, and probably gain some respect for them.Diane Bair

The main takeaway: “Sharks are awesome,” according to a 7-year-old we met while watching video of a breaching shark. There will be more shark awesomeness on display when Shark Center Provincetown opens on May 28, through Columbus Day weekend. The new 3,000-square-foot space at MacMillan Wharf has been designed to give visitors an underwater-like experience, through special lighting, life-size shark models, and imagery, Walsh says. Visitors will start their journey learning about what conditions create an ideal research day, and “will then turn a corner to ‘dive’ underwater and discover the sharks in the area.” Exhibits connect to ongoing research projects, and several have interactive components, she adds. Features include a 12-foot-long replica of a white shark, a collection of shark jaw bones from species found around New England, and a hands-on sand table that reveals how sharks and seals travel around sandbars on the outer Cape.

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“Sharks drive curiosity,” Walsh says. “Whether from fear or excitement, when people hear the word ‘shark,’ they feel something, they think something. AWSC is using that curiosity to engage the public and provide them with an educational experience.”

Shark Center Chatham, $10 per person, age 5 and under, $1, 235 Orleans Road, Chatham, 508-348-5901; Shark Center Provincetown, adults and children under age 5, $12, 16 MacMillan Pier, Provincetown, 508-348-5901 (for both). Reservations recommended; reserve online at www.atlanticwhiteshark.org/shark-center.


Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com