Swimmers at Cape Cod and South Shore beaches this summer will no longer need to scan the horizon in search of fins, or wait for news reports, to know if there has been a great white shark skulking near the shoreline.
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a non-profit organization that works with scientists from the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries to conduct shark research off the Massachusetts coast, is rolling out an app in July that will send notifications to people’s smartphones when there has been a confirmed shark sighting.
Beach managers or patrols would send out the alerts after they sight sharks themselves. Researchers from the conservancy out on the water with state shark experts will also send the notifications if they spot a shark close to shore.
“The push alerts will go to people on the beach at that moment,” said Cynthia Wigren, president of the conservancy. “We’re really just trying to give through this app a good indication of movement and shark activity, and taking it a step further of what we are able to do now when working with beach managers.”
The app is meant to help educate the public as great whites continue to migrate here to feast on grey seals, sometimes putting them ever closer to humans.
Researchers have been sighting and tagging a number of sharks on their research trips near the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, which is on the outer elbow of Cape Cod, for the last few years. They rely on a spotter plane to help them locate sharks cruising through the emerald-green waters.
The last fatal shark attack in Massachusetts was in 1936. In 2012, a swimmer suffered a nonfatal bite in Truro. Two years later, two kayakers in Plymouth were confronted by a great white that bit into one of their boats.
Typically, the conservancy reaches out via phone to lifeguards and harbormasters when a shark nears a beach. The managers then relay that information to the public by driving up and down the beach on ATVs, a process that can be both cumbersome and time-consuming.
“This is hopefully a really great way of getting that information to people faster,” said Wigren.
The conservancy, founded in 2012, is funding the app, which is still being developed. It will cost around $10,000 to make and is being built by a Florida-based company. The app will only be available to iPhone users at first, Wigren said. The organization is trying to find sponsors and donors to help offset the cost of the app, and they plan to bring it to Android devices later.
Wigren said the conservancy is currently working with beach officials in Chatham, Orleans, Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown, and the National Seashore to use the app. On the South Shore the group has been coordinating with the towns of Duxbury and Scituate.
Stuart Smith, Chatham’s harbormaster and president of the Cape and Islands Harbormasters Association, said the app would improve the town’s current operations when dealing with shark sightings.
“The more information, I always feel, that you can get out to the public, the better,” he said.
The app offers other features, including safety tips; a place for people to upload their own sightings, which would be approved by experts before they can be shared with other app users; and information on where previously tagged sharks have recently been detected.
The app is only a part of state and Cape Cod officials’ efforts to swiftly notify people about the presence of sharks.
The Cape Cod National Seashore this week unveiled new purple flags bearing white shark silhouettes to hang at lifeguard posts to warn about the presence of sharks. The flags previously used were just plain purple. Not everyone at the beach knew what the flags meant, Wigren said.
“The flag has changed to make it very clear to people who are visiting the beaches,” she added. “It’s an improvement on what has been used in the past.”
The app and the flag are both ideas that flourished during meetings of a Shark Working Group, which is made up of the conservancy, the Division of Marine Fisheries, beach managers from Cape Cod and South Shore towns, and officials from the Cape Cod National Seashore. The group has shifted over the years, but has been meeting since 2012.
Leslie Reynolds, chief ranger of the Cape Cod National Seashore, said every year the group develops new tools to educate the public, but this year was especially exciting because of the new app, the flags, as well as a planned informational video.
“Anything that the working group can do to educate the public with real-time information is critical,” she said. “Because no one can eliminate all risks.”