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Globe Magazine

Sharks on Cape Cod: Just how scared should we be?

The odds of an attack are low, experts say, yet their advice today is not to go into the ocean above your waist. Are our carefree swimming days over?

(Adobe Stock)

IT WAS ONE OF THOSE idyllic Saturday afternoons in summer, when the sun gently warms a cloudless sky, and the blue-green waters surrounding the Cape and Islands beckon so seductively that Bostonians forget all the traffic tie-ups they had to sit through to get there.

A young man who had made the trip from Boston wasted no time hitting the waves with a family friend. The two men were out beyond the breakers when, suddenly, one of them looked over to see a giant eruption of water encircle the other. A great white shark had attacked the young man from underneath, leveraging the element of surprise in the classic style of the ocean’s apex predator. Snapping its jaw down on the young man’s left leg, the shark started to drag him below the surface of the water. The young man fought back, punching the shark in the face, which left him with more injuries: multiple lacerations to his hands and the loss of most of his left middle finger. Then, just as quickly, the shark let him go. The other man swam furiously toward the blood-reddened water. He used one arm to grasp his mangled friend and the other to paddle, all the while screaming for help.

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By the time they made it to land, the injured young man was in severe shock and had no radial pulse. Bystanders on the beach strapped him to a makeshift stretcher and then whisked him away.

It was too late. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

A pall descended over Massachusetts. The next day the beaches were deserted, and up and down the coast people shook their heads and predicted that nothing would ever be the same.

They were right — to a point. That incident took place 83 years ago, in Buzzards Bay. Claiming the life of a 16-year-old Dorchester kid by the name of Joseph Troy, the attack became a touchstone for coastal New England.

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In the decades since, in those rare instances when someone spotted a shark — or, rarer still, when someone was attacked by one — public officials dipped into history to use the death as psychological comfort for panicked beachgoers. Their reassuring refrain went like this: Don’t be alarmed. We haven’t had a fatal shark attack in Massachusetts — or anywhere in New England — since 1936.

The mental buffer served us well, even into this new century when shark sightings became more common. The gray seal population around Cape Cod was once hopelessly depleted thanks in part to the $5 bounties Massachusetts towns offered for killing the mammals so loathed by fishermen. In recent decades, the population has rebounded beyond conservationists’ wildest dreams. And the presence of tens of thousands of blubbery mammals has turned the Cape coastline into what shark researcher Greg Skomal calls “a gray seal café” for white sharks. As he puts it, “They want to be where the meat is.”

The “no fatality since 1936” buffer continued to offer comfort in recent years when the sightings turned into encounters: a middle-aged dad bitten on both legs when he was bodysurfing with his son in Truro in 2012; a pair of young women paddling off Manomet Point in Cape Cod Bay frantically calling 911 in 2014 after a shark bit into one of their kayaks. It even sufficed last August, when a neuroscientist from New York barely survived a gruesome attack by a great white in Truro.

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But the mental buffer collapsed last September, on another idyllic Saturday afternoon at the close of summer, when another young man and his family friend made the trip from Boston to enjoy the waters off Cape Cod. Those were hardly the only similarities between the two incidents, nearly a century apart. Bystanders at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet described seeing an eruption of water out past the surf and watching a horrified young man swim through blood-reddened water to get his wounded pal to shore. A crowd of Samaritans strapped the unconscious victim to a makeshift stretcher and got him to an ambulance that rushed him to the hospital. There, 26-year-old college student Arthur Medici was pronounced dead.

At the height of this new summer, it’s still not clear what this all means for our connection to the stretch of arresting coastline long associated with worry-free R&R. Officials are still trotting out the frequently cited statistics. How we’re far more likely to die because of a bee sting than a shark attack, for which the lifetime odds are 1 in 3,748,067. (For car crashes, it’s 1 in 103.) How, despite the spate of chest-tightening headlines, the total number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide dropped to 66 in 2018, a 25 percent decrease from the previous year. Four of them were fatal, compared with an annual average of six.

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Somehow, though, none of this packs the same reassuring punch now that we have our new touchstone: the first fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936.

Arthur Medici relaxes with Isaac Rocha (left) on Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet in September, just hours before a shark fatally attacked Medici while the friends were boogie boarding.
Arthur Medici relaxes with Isaac Rocha (left) on Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet in September, just hours before a shark fatally attacked Medici while the friends were boogie boarding.

People are jittery, concerned about the fragility of real estate prices and a seasonal economy that gives business owners just 10 weeks to make their annual nut. At a packed public forum in Wellfleet last fall, one man stood up and warned that, unless officials take action, “You can forget about the tourist industry, you can forget about property values.” A woman drew thunderous applause when she called for war on the bountiful seal population: “They’re eating all of our fish, now they’re eating our children!”

Few people sense the new urgency more than Skomal, the state’s leading shark expert. His research team is expected to release the results of a five-year study of the shark population this fall. He believes sharks attack humans because they mistake them for seals. That’s why sharks seldom take more than a couple of bites, quickly concluding that the human body is not calorically worth their effort. Skomal is confident that if researchers can find new clues about shark dining habits, they’ll be able to give swimmers and surfers actionable information on how to reduce their risk of being attacked.

Underlying all of this fear is the shark that has been lodged in our consciousness for almost half a century. It’s the same one that made Skomal decide in middle school to become a shark researcher, the same one that imprinted John Williams’s terrifying dun-dun theme onto our psyches, surfacing as we step foot in the ocean.

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Jaws, the brainchild of novelist Peter Benchley and filmed in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard in 1974, got a lot wrong about what makes great whites tick. So much so that Benchley spent the last decades of his life, and a good deal of the fortune that Jaws delivered to him, trying to repent for the ferociously effective way his fictional story demonized great whites for the rest of us.

Yet now that there’s been real blood in Cape waters, it’s worth asking if Jaws got something important right. Not about what’s in the minds of sharks, but rather what’s in ours.

After writing the bestseller that made the world fear sharks, “Jaws” author Peter Benchley became a leading shark conservationist, as did his wife, Wendy. Here she is in the chicken coop where her late husband edited his manuscript.
After writing the bestseller that made the world fear sharks, “Jaws” author Peter Benchley became a leading shark conservationist, as did his wife, Wendy. Here she is in the chicken coop where her late husband edited his manuscript.(Carrie Roseman for the Boston Globe)

SHE LEADS ME ALONG her family’s private island near Stonington, Connecticut, to a small white shack overlooking the water. A vintage movie poster — that iconic image of razored teeth rising from the deep toward the swimmer above — is propped at the edge of a spare wooden writing table. Hanging on the uninsulated wall is a framed New Yorker cartoon of a cocktail-party bore cornering an author with: “A writer? Fantastic! I wish I had time to write.”

“This is the chicken coop, where Peter edited Jaws,” Wendy Benchley explains. “He loved it here. He cleaned out this place, opened up the windows. He could look out and see Little Narragansett Bay and think of the ocean as he was editing his book.” Her grandfather bought the island nearly a century  ago, long before Jaws.

Wendy met Peter on Nantucket in the summer of 1963 at the Jared Coffin House, where she was working as a hostess and he was grabbing a smoke and a drink at the downstairs bar. She asked him for a drag. He asked her for a date. A few weeks later, he asked her to marry him. She was 22. He was 23.

Peter came from literary royalty. His father was a noted writer, and his grandfather — the humorist Robert Benchley — was a prominent member of the Algonquin Round Table. Peter went to Phillips Exeter and then Harvard, where he decided to enter the family business. His father told Peter that if he wanted to be a writer, he would need to spend every day of an entire summer in front of the typewriter. He didn’t read a word of what his son wrote that season. He simply wanted to instill discipline and make sure Peter would not succumb to writer’s block. He paid the college kid what he would have otherwise earned mowing lawns.

When Peter met his future wife, he hadn’t exactly reached Algonquin status. He was headed to The Washington Post to write obituaries. From there, he went to Newsweek and then wrote speeches for Lyndon Johnson. An LBJ aide told Wendy he hired Peter after the president had barked to him: “Get me one of those liberal, pinko Harvard-educated newspaper writers, so the press will stop harassing me!”

By the early 1970s, Peter was working as a freelance writer, and he and Wendy had two little kids. They were living in New Jersey and summering in Connecticut. He pitched two ideas for a novel to an editor at Doubleday. One was about pirates. The other was about a shark terrorizing a seaside town, an idea he’d conjured after reading a 1964 story about a fisherman catching a 4,500-pound shark off Long Island. The editor bit on the second one, but Wendy wasn’t convinced. “Honey, I think you should get another idea,” she told him. “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Peter, who had long been fascinated by the ocean from his summers growing up on Nantucket, quickly blew through his $1,000 advance. Over the years, the Jaws origin story has been invaded by a good deal of mythology, such as the notion that the Benchleys were dangerously broke before Peter managed to finish his manuscript. It’s true that their checking account was ailing, but as Wendy says, “We had two families that would take us in if things didn’t work out, so we weren’t going to be destitute and on the street.”

Of course, it didn’t come to that. Jaws turned into a runaway bestseller in 1974. The Steven Spielberg movie based on it that was released the following year — with a screenplay co-written by Peter — became the first summer blockbuster in history.

The movie, whose Vineyard connection made it part of the New England identity, differed from the book in important ways. Spielberg said he found the novel’s main characters so roundly unlikable that he found himself rooting for the shark. The movie was far clearer about who the primary villain was: a vengeful, ravenous, relentless great white shark.

While terrorizing moviegoers, the film made the Benchleys very rich. But that’s where things really got interesting. Peter, who went on to write several other thrillers set on the seas, used a big chunk of his Jaws dividend to learn more about the very animal he had turned into enemy number one.

Traveling the world to meet researchers and go cage diving with sharks, Peter and Wendy learned about the role the “magnificent,” as she calls them, creatures play in keeping the food chain in check. “You need sharks in order to have a healthy ocean,” she says. “They help to keep the balance.”

The Benchleys became leading shark conservationists and ocean advocates. They learned about the brutal business of shark finning — fishermen slice the fins off sharks to be used in soups popular in Asia and then dump the wounded animals back into the sea. “After Jaws,” Wendy says, “Peter was horrified that people would take it as some kind of license to go kill sharks.”

They celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in 2004 by sharing a cage as they swam with great whites on Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Less than two years later, Peter died from pulmonary fibrosis at the age of 65. Wendy continued their conservation crusade, serving on several nonprofit boards and becoming a respected voice for greater shark protections.

Late in his life, Peter admitted, “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today. Sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges.” (Unlike the movie, the book didn’t suggest vengeance as a motive. But Peter knew better than to split hairs when most people blended the book and movie into one piece of pop culture.) Regardless of how Peter might have recast the shark, Wendy thinks a town coping with a moral dilemma “like they’re coping now on the Cape” always would have been part of Jaws.

That piece of the story is underappreciated. Beneath all the terror and gore, Jaws is largely a morality play. About what should take precedence — public safety or the bottom line. About whose argument should prevail — the business leaders focused on tourism dollars and the pitchfork-brandishing villagers calling for blood, or the scientist as the voice of reason and the police chief as the voice of caution. And, most of all, about the limits of what humans can hope to control.

After returning from a trip to Cuba in the 1970s, Frank Mankiewicz, a former aide to Bobby Kennedy, told Peter he was surprised to have seen Fidel Castro with a copy of Jaws in his hands. When Mankiewicz asked Castro why he was reading such an emblem of the American marketplace, the Communist leader said the book spoke to him because it captured the way capitalism destroys villages through its “moral decrepitude.”

Wendy says if Peter had written Jaws later in life, the biggest difference is “it would have much more information about how sharks actually behave.”

Even today, though, how much do we really know?

“That shark didn’t seem to want to let me go,” says Bill Lytton, who barely survived an attack in Truro. He underwent multiple surgeries and intense physical therapy.
“That shark didn’t seem to want to let me go,” says Bill Lytton, who barely survived an attack in Truro. He underwent multiple surgeries and intense physical therapy.(Steven Senne/Associated Press)

BILL LYTTON IS A 62-YEAR-OLD neuroscientist  who has spent his career studying brain circuitry. “I know a lot about how rats think,” he says. A little about how humans think, too, of course. Although shark brains are well outside his expertise, as a researcher he wonders how much anyone really knows about the motivations of great whites, which can’t exactly be hooked up to electrodes in the lab. “This is very much an alien intelligence,” he says.

The physician and medical researcher from Scarsdale, New York, never thought much about sharks until last August, when he nearly lost his life to one on Cape Cod. “That shark didn’t seem to want to let me go,” he recalls. “He seemed to want to drown me.”

During his attack, exactly one month before Arthur Medici was killed just down the coast in Wellfleet, Lytton happened to be following nearly all the suggestions public safety officials offer to reduce the chances of becoming a victim. He wasn’t swimming at dawn or dusk (it was the afternoon, under sunny skies). He wasn’t swimming very far out (about 12 feet from shore) or in particularly deep waters (although it was deep enough that his 5-foot-7, 200-pound frame wasn’t able to touch the ocean floor). And he didn’t see any seals around. His only obvious mistake was swimming alone, having separated himself from the herd.

He had left his wife and two younger children on the beach in Truro to go for his afternoon constitutional. About 20 minutes in, having alternated between the side and breast stroke, he felt a searing pain in his left leg. Something fierce had attacked him from behind. His first thought was a jellyfish. Turning back, he was horrified to see a great white thrashing about, with its head fully out of the water. “It was perfectly cinematic,” he recalls. Spielberg couldn’t have framed it any better.

This can’t be happening, he told himself. And then: I’d better do something.

A shard of a memory from a documentary he had seen decades earlier flashed into his mind, about how dolphins or porpoises fight an attack by hitting the shark on the gill.

With his left hand, he took a swing at the shark’s gill, which ended up slicing the tendons in Lytton’s hand. Still, it appeared to be enough for the shark to leave him alone.

In a daze and bleeding badly, Lytton tried to paddle to shore, unable to use his left leg. Today, he says, “That’s the visual that sticks with me — the cloud of blood. I was worried I was going to bleed out.” And that heightened sense of mortality, as well as the randomness of it all, is what continues to hang over him. “The big difference between me and Arthur was three to five millimeters, from the shark’s tooth to the femoral artery.” Less than 1 centimeter in the other direction, and Lytton would have become the state’s first victim of a fatal shark attack since 1936.

A beachside memorial to Medici.
A beachside memorial to Medici. (Michael Swensen for the Boston Globe/File)

After he’d managed to swim about eight strokes, a pair of guys on the beach raced to drag him up the sand. When his wife heard a bystander screaming about a shark attack and asking “Does anybody know William Lytton?” she collapsed.

Emergency crews airlifted Lytton to Tufts Medical Center, where doctors told his wife they weren’t sure if they would be able to save his shredded left leg. One surgeon said the damage was like the injuries he’d seen after the Boston Marathon bombings.

The trauma team did remarkable work, though Lytton — who had never before in his life broken so much as a finger — had to undergo at least 10 surgeries.

Lytton now has scars across a 15-inch swath of his leg from his thigh to below his knee. He hasn’t been able to resume jogging, but otherwise he’s pretty close physically to where he was before the attack. He’ll be returning to the Cape with his family at the end of this month for their annual trip. “I think I’ll be more careful, but I will go back into the water,” he says, if his wife lets him. “My wife’s really going to be on my case.”

Greg Skomal fulfilled his junior high dream to become a shark biologist, joining the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. For much of his career, studying great whites meant traveling far from New England. Then everything changed.
Greg Skomal fulfilled his junior high dream to become a shark biologist, joining the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. For much of his career, studying great whites meant traveling far from New England. Then everything changed.(Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe)

WEARING GRAY CARGO PANTS and sneakers, Greg Skomal strides to the front of a hotel banquet room in Danvers. It’s the annual Boston Sea Rovers conference in March, and the place is packed with scuba divers and ocean enthusiasts. His kind of people. On the screen, he flashes his junior high school graduation photo from 1975 next to a movie still of Richard Dreyfuss as the shark expert in Jaws. “I decided at a pretty young age that I wanted to be like Matt Hooper,” he tells the crowd.

He flashes a set of photos from four years later. When he was graduating from high school, several shark researchers were making history by attaching the first acoustic transmitter tag to a great white. They followed the shark for a few days, eventually producing a paper that Skomal says provided the first glimpse into the biology and behavior of the animal, which remains mysterious despite having patrolled the oceans for millions of years.

Skomal fulfilled his junior high dream to become a shark biologist, joining the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and earning his doctorate. For much of his career, studying great whites meant traveling far from New England. Then everything changed.

In 2004, Skomal and colleagues freed a 14-foot great white nicknamed Gretel who had become trapped in a salt pond on Naushon, the largest of the Elizabeth Islands, not far from Woods Hole. They managed to attach a tracking device to her, making Gretel the first great white to be tagged with a satellite tracking device in the North Atlantic.

In the years since, Skomal and his team have tagged an additional 140 white sharks in the waters off the Cape (plus 18 off South Carolina) and identified more than 350. They use three types of devices: acoustic tags (which track local movements but have limited range), pop-up satellite tags (which offer fairly general information over long distances), and newer satellite tags (which transmit information in real time, but only when the shark’s fin is above the surface of the water).

The data harvested from all of these devices have made it clear that these sharks are traveling enormous distances, with some treks stretching from Newfoundland all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico and as far east as the Azores. Some, like a white nicknamed Julia, are true creatures of habit. “She comes back to the same area every year, almost on the same day,” Skomal says. “Like she has a great rental in Orleans that she doesn’t want to give up.”

In late June, on his first-ever shark-tagging trip in Cape Cod Bay, Skomal encounters at least seven white sharks. “If we saw  this many this early in the season,” he says, “there are going to  be a lot more.”
In late June, on his first-ever shark-tagging trip in Cape Cod Bay, Skomal encounters at least seven white sharks. “If we saw this many this early in the season,” he says, “there are going to be a lot more.”(Wayne Davis for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy)

Sharks are largely solitary, and most aren’t quite so predictable in their travel patterns. Conservationists who track the animals nickname them to help boost fund-raising. “Lumpy stays around Monomoy,” Skomal says. “James stays around Orleans. Cool Beans goes anywhere but likes to stay away from James.”

Sharks have been spotted in the Atlantic waters all along the Outer and Lower Cape, as well as in Cape Cod Bay down to Wellfleet Harbor. “People were surprised that the fatality last year happened in September, in the off-season when all the kids are back in school,” he says. “That’s prime season for sharks!” The big months are August, September, and October, when the water temperatures are optimal.

On expeditions, Skomal works with a ship captain and spotter pilot. Leaning out over the water, he uses a painter’s pole that has a GoPro camera strapped to it or a tagging pole that has a tracking device attached to a dart.

The debate about what physicists called the observer effect — the idea that, just by the act of studying a subject, you inevitably change it — hangs over the shark research world. Skomal emphasizes that his approach to tagging is designed to have the lowest possible impact on the animal. “We don’t chum,” he says. “We don’t drag. We don’t capture. We don’t want to stress out animals.”

That helps explain his break with well-known shark expedition leader Chris Fischer, the media-savvy founder of the nonprofit Ocearch. Skomal and Fischer collaborated on three expeditions, off Cape Cod and Florida in 2012 and 2013, aboard Ocearch’s 126-foot converted crabbing vessel. A fishing crew uses whale blubber to attract and hook a shark, guiding it toward an enormous hydraulic platform that lifts the shark out of the water, where a pit crew swarms it, taking vitals and bacteria samples, drawing blood, and affixing a satellite tag. Then the animal is released back into the sea.

When Fischer applied for a permit to return to Massachusetts waters in 2016, Skomal’s boss at the Division of Marine Fisheries denied it over concerns that it could interfere with the population study Skomal’s team was working on. Fischer came anyway, remaining in federal waters at least 3 miles offshore. The Ocearch team tagged six sharks, and, Skomal says, once they were released, all of them immediately fled the area. “That threw a wrench into our study.” Fischer applied for a permit to return this summer, working off Nantucket. Again the state denied it, this time over concerns that chumming and capturing sharks in close proximity to the Cape’s beaches might change the animals’ behavior. Fischer disputes the rationale for the permit denial and says he offered to skip the chumming. Once again, he plans to return in August and remain in federal waters.

Skomal’s ultimate goal is to develop reliable, meteorologist-style forecasting to warn people when certain areas will have “a high degree of shark activity.” While the population study was designed to determine the number of sharks locally and their migratory patterns, his team has just launched a new study on the animal’s dining habits — how, when, where, and under what conditions they hunt their prey. Surprisingly, despite the tens of thousands of seals lining the Cape coastline, footage of shark attacks on seals is rare. “We need to know what is precipitating the attacks,” he says. “How often do sharks feed? How many seals does a shark consume over the course of a summer? Nobody can answer that.” To gather the data, he’ll be using new tags that will measure the acceleration of shark movements and capture them on video.

This summer, Skomal has also begun expanding the scope of his shark trips. While he has previously focused on the Outer Cape, his new goal is to add data from Cape Cod Bay. On the last Monday of June, I accompany him out of Provincetown Harbor on one of the harbor master’s 25-foot vessels. Since it’s his first-ever shark surveillance trip in the bay, Skomal is unsure if we’ll encounter any great whites. With us is Cynthia Wigren, whose career in the online energy trading industry took an unexpected turn in 2012 when she asked Skomal how she could help. A state employee, Skomal suggested that Wigren start a nonprofit to raise funds for his research “since nobody wants to write a check to the state but they like writing checks to nonprofits.” Wigren founded the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a side hustle that quickly became her consuming focus and now helps to fund Skomal’s research expeditions. Also on board is Megan Winton, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the conservancy’s staff scientist.

 The team for the late June shark-tagging trip in Cape Cod Bay. From left: Megan Winton and Cynthia Wigren (in rear) of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Provincetown shellfish constable Steve Wisbauer, and Greg Skomal.
The team for the late June shark-tagging trip in Cape Cod Bay. From left: Megan Winton and Cynthia Wigren (in rear) of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Provincetown shellfish constable Steve Wisbauer, and Greg Skomal.(Neil Swidey/Globe staff)

The first hour on the water is quiet. Then the two-way radio crackles. Wayne Davis, Skomal’s longtime spotter pilot, flying above us in his two-seat airplane, has located a white a few miles away. Captain Steve Wisbauer powers the boat through choppy waters, and about 2 miles off the coast of Wellfleet, we spot the 9-foot shark. Skomal uses his pole to get underwater video footage of it, but the shark stays too deep for him to tag it.

The pilot calls in another 9-footer he has spotted, and we head there. “This one’s a dancer,” Skomal says as the shark, which is closer to the surface, zigs and zags in front of — and then under — our boat.

Winton puts the radio down and reports, “Wayne has six more in sight.”

In just one day on the bay, we see seven white sharks from the boat — most of them in the 8-to-9-foot range, and one a 12-footer that Skomal tagged in 2016. All of them are at least 2 miles from the coast. “If we saw this many this early in the season, there are going to be a lot more,” he says.

Interestingly, we don’t see a single seal all day. Skomal says these sharks are probably feeding on striped bass.

He expects to spend the next two years collecting data for the new study, and then another year or two analyzing them. That means the meteorologist-style shark forecasts won’t be coming anytime soon.

Until then, he advises prudence. Even in areas where his team has found high densities of sharks, like the Atlantic from Chatham to Provincetown and in eastern Cape Cod Bay, the statistical chance of a shark attack remains quite small. Still, Skomal recommends not venturing any deeper than waist-high in the water. That’s the same advice he gives to his wife and their 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.

“People are walking into a predator-prey situation,” he says. “We have to change our behavior.”

But just how capable of that are we? On the day after Medici was killed, in the same spot where it happened, Skomal saw a group of surfers out on their boards.

The explosive growth in the seal population, pictured here on Monomoy near Chatham, has attracted more white sharks. As Skomal says, “They want to be where the meat is.”
The explosive growth in the seal population, pictured here on Monomoy near Chatham, has attracted more white sharks. As Skomal says, “They want to be where the meat is.” (David L Ryan/Globe staff/File)

TWO GUYS WHO APPEAR to be in their 20s are sitting behind me during last fall’s public forum on sharks in the Wellfleet Elementary School gym. One has a beard, the other a goatee. Again and again, as someone at the front of the gym is addressing the crowd, one of the guys behind me fakes a cough and says — under his breath, but perfectly audibly — “Kill the seals!” Every time one of them does this, the other guy cracks up. Juvenile stuff, but at least someone is enjoying this endless meeting that seems to go nowhere.

Nearly every archetype of the Outer Cape is on hand for the forum — elderly couples who arrive early to get good seats, surfer dudes with the requisite dirty-blond wavy locks, Cape tradesmen wearing paint-splattered jeans, second homeowners bathed in their Anthropologie or Vineyard Vines best.

The forum takes place on the evening of September 27, after the nation has spent the day transfixed by the Senate hearings on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The action in the Wellfleet gym is a metaphor for polarization in the era of Donald Trump: Two groups looking at the same situation and drawing conclusions that are not just opposing but seemingly unbridgeable.

A woman with long sandy hair wearing knee-high navy blue boots stands before the microphone to lay blame for the fatal attack squarely at the feet of environmentalists and government bureaucrats. Through the 1972 federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, they’re protecting the lives of seals and feeding sharks. And yet, she says, “not one single government official has taken any meaningful action to provide for our safety.”

A short, balding man in sweatpants counters by denouncing people whose “arrogant, anthropocentric mentality” is ruining the planet with an “if it moves, kill it” philosophy.

As the night goes on, the kill-the-seals contingent grows louder and more forceful. After the forum wraps, I approach Andrea Bogomolni, the seal specialist who’d been part of the expert panel on hand. She looks as dazed as Ali in the 10th round against Larry Holmes. “Almost everything I heard tonight about seals,” she tells me, “was wrong.

She and local officials had tried, with little success, to explain why culling the Cape’s seal population isn’t the answer. Setting aside the heavy lift involved in changing federal conservation law, would sharks, following a seal slaughter, dutifully depart local waters? Or would hungry sharks become even more unpredictable and dangerous?

Laying all the blame on the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act turns out to be misplaced. A study by a team of Maine researchers found that the bounties for dead seals effectively ended in New England in the early 1940s, and Massachusetts enacted a law protecting seals seven years before President Nixon signed the federal act into law.

While all those seals make the Cape coastline extremely attractive to great whites, they are only part of the explanation. A 2014 paper coauthored by Skomal suggests that federal and state protections for sharks put in place in the late 1990s were among the biggest factors behind the apex predator’s rebound in population. Other scientists have tied the northern shift for certain types of sharks to rising water temperatures. Skomal says climate change may be affecting the local seal population. But because white sharks can regulate their own body temperature, he’s skeptical that it’s playing a significant role in boosting their numbers here. If officials can find some kind of middle ground to keep the seals farther from the swimming beaches without violating the law, that might keep the villager pitchforks at bay. So far, the main change since the fatality has been extra state funding for emergency and communications equipment on beaches, to improve response times in the event of a shark attack.

If there are no attacks this summer, people will probably return to their complacent selves, and the gift shops that cleared out their shark merchandise in the wake of the fatality will restock all that fin kitsch.

Skomal assesses the chances of tagging a white shark a few miles off Wellfleet, during his first shark-tagging trip in Cape Cod Bay.
Skomal assesses the chances of tagging a white shark a few miles off Wellfleet, during his first shark-tagging trip in Cape Cod Bay.(Neil Swidey/Globe staff)

Unfortunately, though, given the spike in sharks swimming near the coast in recent years, there may well be another attack, triggering more fear. How long before the familiar phrasing in Cape real estate listings — “just steps from the beach” — morphs into “just steps from a beach with no recorded shark sightings”?

When Joseph Troy was killed in Buzzards Bay in 1936, recreational swimming was still a relatively new pastime. For centuries before that, people generally stayed out of the ocean except for practical reasons, like fishing to feed their families and collecting driftwood to feed their fireplaces. They felt a connection to the sea, for sure. But they also respected its power and its mystery — something Peter Benchley seemed to be reminding us to do.

A dozen years before Benchley’s bestseller, John F. Kennedy memorably addressed the enduring mystery of the sea. In his remarks in 1962 at the America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island, the president said: “It is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins, the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came.”

It was classic JFK: stirring, poetic — and untroubled by the little details. (Seawater is about four times saltier than our blood.)

It’s true that we are tied to the sea. But it has never belonged to us.


Neil Swidey is the Globe Magazine’s staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.