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Shark breaching water not typical off Cape Cod, expert says

Researchers on a boat off Cape Cod were awestruck when they witnessed a great white shark leap from the water in an attempt to sink its teeth into a seal fleeing for its life.

“It’s really a testament to the speed and power that these animals can generate in such a short amount of space and time,” said Greg Skomal, a shark expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “It was able to literally come out of the water. It’s really amazing.”

It was a first for Skomal and researchers from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy who were also aboard the boat on Monday. They had never before witnessed a great white breach the water during a hunt.


The shark was cruising slowly beneath the emerald waves near the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham when a seal came into view. The predator didn’t hesitate to react. With a few quick movements, it propelled its body toward the potential meal, said Skomal.

As the great white closed in, chasing the gray seal toward shore, the water grew shallow. The limited space forced the seal to attempt a daring last-second escape, hurling its body out of the water, Skomal said.

The great white followed suit, gnashing its teeth within inches of its savory snack. The shark failed to capture its prey, and the seal swam off to live another day.

“I don’t think any of us anticipated the shark or the seal coming out of the water,” Skomal said.

Skomal and conservancy members make twice-weekly trips to the waters off Chatham to track great whites. For them, it’s been a busy season of frequent sightings and occasional opportunities to tag specimens.

Skomal said sharks in the area typically go after their prey by swiftly sneaking up and attacking from the side.


Researchers often arrive after it’s already over. “It’s a dead seal, or an injured seal, and there is blood in the water,’’ Skomal said. “Breaching out of the water isn’t typical hunting behavior. But it certainly — obviously — can happen.”

Skomal said people may have seen videos of great whites clearing the waves in places such as South Africa, but it hasn’t been well documented here.

“It’s not new, but it’s unique here,’’ he said.

Cynthia Wigren, president of the conservancy, was also astonished by Monday’s near-kill.

She said the sight of the shark soaring from the water drew gasps from those on board the boat.

“He just launched himself up without taking a running start. I’ve never seen it before,” she said. “We knew it was possible, but to watch it naturally occur in front of us and get it on video — it all ended up really well.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.