What it’s like to stare into the gaping maw of a great white shark that’s lunging right at you
State shark expert Greg Skomal is still curious about what may have been going on in the brain of a great white shark that launched itself out of the water toward him — its jaw agape — during a recent research expedition off Cape Cod.
“There’s an old expression called fight or flight. Perhaps bearing its teeth and jumping up was a way of protecting itself before it took off,” Skomal, a senior biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said in a telephone interview. “Part of me believes that’s what happened.”
Then there’s his second hypothesis, the one that has led to text messages from friends in his circle, asking if he still has his toes attached.
“It was in hunting mode,” he said. “It interpreted me, my reflection, my shadow, my image — whatever it was — through the water’s surface as a potential prey item, and it lunged at me.”
Both are plausible explanations. But whether the shark saw him as a tasty snack or simply wanted to get away, Skomal counts it among his top-five experiences as a marine scientist.
“I’m fascinated by their predatory behavior and how they go about living from day-to-day, and so this is up there, because I’m getting a glimpse of what these animals are capable of,” he said, still reflecting on the rare moment caught on video. “Not many people can say they’ve had a white shark lunge at them when they’re standing four feet above the water.”
Skomal had been perched on the pulpit of a small boat during a weekly ocean trip with a research team from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy on Monday, July 30, when the close encounter occurred. State officials, working with the conservancy, are in the final year of a five-year study of the regional shark population.
Wayne Davis, a spotter pilot flying in a plane high above them, was directing Skomal and the boat’s captain toward the white shark as it swam near the Wellfleet shoreline.
Skomal was armed with a GoPro camera attached to a long pole that he planned to dip into the water to capture footage of the shark, something he’s done hundreds of times during similar trips out to sea.
But the extremely murky green water made it difficult for Skomal to see the shark’s exact location that day, he said.
In the end, Skomal didn’t have to find the shark — because the shark found him instead.
“Out of nowhere, I look down and I see the gaping mouth of a white shark looking right up at me, literally within a couple feet of the pulpit,” Skomal said. “It was extremely exciting, that’s for sure.”
Video of the shark breaching the ocean’s surface was posted to the conservancy’s Facebook page Monday, and marked just the second time in five years of research that the group had captured such an incident.
The video shows Skomal shuffling backward — a “little bit of a jig” he called it — thrown off by the shark’s sudden appearance. But he quickly regained composure and refocused on the task at hand.
“Instinctively, I’m thinking, ‘That was crazy! But I’ve got to figure out who that shark was, I’ve got to get the data,’ ” he said. “You can see me put the cameras back in the water to get more information on that shark.”
Skomal, who has admittedly watched the footage “over and over,” and replayed the scene multiple times in his head, said while he was startled by the breaching predator, he never felt at risk or in danger.
“I always feel safe. That pulpit is really well-built,” he said. “I basically have an external cage with that pulpit.”
Skomal’s brush with the predator comes as more people have recorded and shared video of great whites in the area.
In early July, a shark approached a fishing charter boat in Cape Cod Bay before it jumped out of the water and snatched a striped bass being hauled aboard.
Later that month, a drone operator captured footage of a great white swimming within a few feet of an unsuspecting paddleboarder.
While they don’t have definitive numbers, Skomal said this season seems to be more active for sharks than usual.
“It has been a busier season, that’s for sure,” he said. “I think there’s more sharks around than in previous years. . . . My gut says it’s been an increasing trend, but we’ll see if the data bears that out.”
Skomal said although there have been frequent shark sightings, the probability of an attack remains extremely low. However, he cautioned, that’s not to say it couldn’t happen — so beachgoers and swimmers should remain vigilant.
“Don’t take the presence of these animals lightly,” he said. “What you don’t want is a shark making a mistake and thinking that anything else in the water, including people, or a paddleboard, or a kayak is a seal; you don’t want that. So what we have to do is minimize the chances that that could happen. Since we can’t tell the sharks what to do, we have to modify our own behavior.”
As for the intentions of the likely-hungry shark that popped up beneath him last week, Skomal is giving the animal the benefit of the doubt.
“To be honest, I would like to think it wasn’t trying to eat me,” he said. “Nobody really wants to be eaten.”