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‘Shark Center’ in Chatham opens ahead of shark season

The newly renovated Chatham Shark Center opened Memorial Day weekend.
The newly renovated Chatham Shark Center opened Memorial Day weekend.Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

The waters off Cape Cod won’t be the only place to catch a glimpse of a great white shark this summer.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, officials from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with state wildlife officials to study and tag great whites, opened its newly renovated, 2,000-square-foot facility in Chatham dedicated to educating the public about the fearsome predators. The Chatham Shark Center also provides an inside look at the organization’s extensive shark research at a time when more of the animals are expected to return to the Massachusetts coastline.

“We really want it to be this great, interactive space where people can learn about what’s happening off the coast, and feel really connected to what’s going on here,” said Cynthia Wigren, president of the conservancy.

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The Chatham Shark Center first opened its doors in 2015. At that time, however, it offered visitors only two displays — one about gray seals, the preferred snack of the great white, and the second about the sharks themselves.

But following the merger of the conservancy and the Chatham Shark Center in March, Wigren’s organization officially took over the space, and was tasked with coming up with a more robust exhibition.

“It was the perfect marriage of the two organizations,” Wigren said.

Besides informational displays about the sharks and seals, visitors who stop by the center can peruse a room that includes a large “Jaws” head, modeled off of the villainous shark from the blockbuster film by Steven Speilberg.

The original chair that the late Frank Mundus sat in, when in 1986 he caught the world’s largest great white shark on rod and reel, resides at the center. It’s said that the character of “Captain Quint” in “Jaws” was based on Mundus.

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Wigren said having the chair on display is important, because it shows how the public perception of great white sharks has shifted in just a few decades.

“People were going out and catching great white sharks, and people were targeting them,” Wigren said.

Now, many are helping to save them. Last summer, there was more than one attempt by the public to return a beached great white back to the water.

“Things have changed,” she said.

The center also has a display of the history of great white research in Massachusetts, dating back to 2004, when a shark was discovered swimming in a salt pond near Woods Hole.

A virtual reality display at the center lets people put on goggles and experience an underwater adventure alongside sharp-toothed tiger sharks.

There are also plans to install a television that can live-stream the organization’s trips this summer while they tag great whites.

A gift shop at the space sells the purple flags bearing white shark silhouettes — the same flags that will soon fly at Cape Cod beaches whenever a shark is reported swimming nearby.

Wigren said between Saturday and Sunday, around 200 people had visited the renovated center, which will be open on weekends throughout June. In July and August, additional days will be added to the schedule, she said.

The center represents a small part of the conservancy’s public outreach efforts. In July, Wigren and her staff plan to roll out a new app, called “Sharktivity,” that when downloaded will alert beachgoers about shark sightings by using push notifications. The app will include safety tips, and a place for people to upload their own encounters, which will be reviewed by experts.

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Greg Skomal, a biologist for the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said the bulk of the great whites often arrive to the area late in the summer.

Last year, Skomal and members of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy identified 141 individual great white sharks in state waters. Researchers were able to tag 24 of them.

“We anticipate that we are going to see what we have been seeing — the same general trend of sharks, the peak season likely being August,” said Skomal. “It will be interesting to see if it plateaus, or continues to increase.”


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