ORLEANS — “Hey, have you seen any sharks today?”
That’s the question every summer at Liam’s at Nauset, in Orleans. In 24 years of running the clam shack at Nauset Beach, owner John Ohman said he has never been able to answer yes.
But after a lifeguard at Nauset Beach spotted a dorsal fin about 150 yards offshore Sunday morning, forcing the closure of the beach, sharks seem to be on the minds of local residents and tourists alike.
“There is a great curiosity that you might be able to see a great beast of the deep,” Ohman said. “Nauset Beach has a majesty that includes sealife, and great white sharks are part of that 2013 culture.”
On an overcast Monday afternoon, Nauset Beach was lightly populated with beachgoers, but many of them said they were keeping an eye on the water in hope of spotting a shark.
“I was kind of hoping to see a fin pop up from the water,” said Matt Weyer, 30, of Denver, Colo.
Weyer said that the reports of a shark sighting would not keep him out of the water, but admitted he “wouldn’t want to be the first one back in the water” after a beach closure.
Others said they came here specifically because of the recent shark sighting.
“It’s why I wanted to come here,” said Irena Rietveld, 15, who is visiting with family from Northfield, Ill. “I’ve always thought that people think that sharks are mean and vicious, but they’re really not.”
For local officials, shark sightings are about balancing public safety and benefits from the rise in “shark tourism.”
“I’m anticipating that it will be a draw for people,” Orleans Harbormaster Dawson Farber said. “We recognize the fact that there are sharks in the area, and we really feel the need to raise the education level of the people who come down here so they’re reminded that there is an inherent risk any time you go in the Atlantic Ocean.”
At Nauset Beach last summer, a 41-year-old man from Manchester, N.H., on a Cape Cod vacation with his family, was “chased” by a shark while he paddled in a kayak. On Friday, the state Department of Fish and Game announced the first tagged shark of the summer: a 13-foot-long great white detected off Chatham.
Also last summer, a Boston man swimming in Truro survived the first shark attack in the Commonwealth since 1936.
That risk, Ohman said, is both good and bad for his clam shack business, where he sells his famous onion rings and T-shirts just steps from the dunes.
“I’m anticipating that there will be a surge of people interested in looking for a great white shark,” he said, adding that on Sunday he served a line of customers who all carried cameras or binoculars. “But that will be counterbalanced by the family who won’t come here or won’t let their kids in the water because of a shark sighting.”
Cape Cod residents said that shark sightings have been on the rise in recent years and that the increase in sharks is tied directly to an increase in shark food: seals.
“We used to walk on the beach all the time, but we never saw sharks or heard of sharks in the water. That’s only been the last couple of years,” said Janet Besse, who has lived in Orleans since 1977.
Last summer alone, at least 15 sharks were tagged for the first time in waters off Cape Cod, according to the Fish and Game Department.
For surfers, who often paddle into deeper water and could be mistaken by a shark as food, reports of shark sightings and beach closures are a sort of blessing in disguise.
“The safest time to be surfing is now through the summer because that’s when people are looking for them,” said Matt Rivers, owner of the Pump House Surf Shop in Orleans. “There are research boats, spotter planes, and all the lifeguards are looking for sharks to protect the swimmers.”
Farber, the harbormaster, said he does not anticipate having any serious issues with sharks as the weather warms and the beach attracts more guests. But he added that swimmers should always be aware of their environment.
“We’re guests in their ocean,” he said, “not the other way around.”