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‘We need more details’ about Cape shark attack before determining species, shark expert says

State biologist Greg Skomal. Steve Annear/Globe Staff

The state’s leading shark expert said he’s waiting to collect additional information about a shark attack that happened off a Truro beach Wednesday afternoon before he can determine what type of shark may have been responsible for biting a man less than 100 feet from shore.

“We need more details,” Greg Skomal, a senior biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said in a telephone interview Thursday. “We’d like to learn more about the whats, the whens, and the where and how it happened.”

Around 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, 61-year-old William Lytton was standing about 30 yards offshore when he was bitten by a shark, according to Cape Cod National Seashore officials. The attack happened roughly 300 yards south of Long Nook Beach.


Lytton, bleeding from wounds to his left hip area, made it to shore, where fellow beachgoers provided first aid and then carried him up the sand dunes to first responders. He was airlifted to Tufts Medical Center in Boston for treatment.

At this point, officials have not said whether it was a great white shark that attacked Lytton.

Skomal said “in an ideal world” he would like to speak with Lytton and examine his wounds before making that determination. However, given the presence of the species in the area this time of year, it’s a “very good probability” that it was a great white, he said.

“In the interest of respecting the victim and letting the doctors do their jobs, I haven’t been in touch with the hospital yet,” he said. “But certainly it’s in my interest to get an opportunity to examine or discuss the incident with the victim, and to get a sense of the wound and characteristics of the wound. It would tell us a lot.”

A Boston native survived an attack by a great white in Truro in 2012. At the time, Skomal met with the victim and inspected his wounds to ascertain that he suffered from a great white shark bite, he said.


“It would be a good step forward for everyone,” Skomal said. “I want to give him space, but I’ve got to figure out the best way to start discussing that.”

Skomal said other factors, such as water and tide conditions, the precise location of the victim at the time of the incident, the victim’s behavior, and any other witness accounts would also help researchers with their investigation.

“What you really want to know about these things is what precipitated this event,” he added. “We have known all summer — and known for many years — the sharks are here, so what in particular precipitated this shark to do that?”

While Skomal is still looking for more information, James Sulikowski, a shark researcher at the University of New England, suggested that it was more likely a sandbar shark that bit the man, not a great white.

Sulikowski said based on the information currently available, it appears the man was in shallow waters and that he suffered puncture wounds — two pieces of information that suggest it was the smaller species with pointed teeth that would pass unnoticed by a swimmer in shallow waters.

“A small type of shark species might have been swimming in and around there,’’ he said. “A sandbar shark is not a giant shark; typically the size we see in and around the Cape looks to be around 4 to 5 feet long, max,” he said. “Puncture wounds are typical of a shark that size.’’


A great white, especially those found along Cape Cod, often are 8 feet long, which means part of their bodies would project out of 4 feet of water, the depth the man is believed to have been standing in at the time he was bitten.

Sulikowski said the shark — regardless of species — took an exploratory bite and quickly realized the man was not a prey item.

“It’s a mistaken identity type of thing,” he said. “They bite and realize ‘it’s not what I want,’ and they kind of leave.”

Like Skomal, Sulikowski said that the likelihood of someone being bitten by a shark remains a rare event in New England and across the world, even as the population of great whites appears to increase along the region’s coastal communities.

He said calling what happened to the man Wednesday an “attack” was not accurate.

“It’s not an attack. It’s not like the shark was awaiting to come out of the darkness and bite this person. It’s more of a mistaken-identity interaction, more than anything else,’’ he said. “It’s nothing to get alarmed about.”

The incident marked one of five shark sightings reported on the Cape Wednesday, according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a nonprofit.

Two other sightings were reported off Nauset Beach in Orleans, two were reported off Provincetown, one near Mission Bell Dune Shack, and one off the coast by a whale watch boat, the conservancy reported on its app, Sharktivity.


On Thursday, Skomal was preparing to hit the waters with the conservancy to continue scheduled research about the regional great white population.

He said state researchers and conservancy members, who are in the final year of a five-year study of the sharks, planned to travel to Truro, near where Lytton was bitten, during the trip.

“We will look at shark activity in that area,” he said. “It’s another day out on the water.”

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear. John R. Ellement and Danny McDonald of the Globe staff contributed to this report.