TRURO — In a reminder that apex predators have returned in numbers to more than just Cape Cod’s ocean beaches, a dead 9-foot great white shark was found beached Thursday morning in Pamet Harbor, a tidal inlet off Cape Cod Bay in Truro.
The shark, which washed ashore about 100 yards from the entrance to the inlet, was first seen by boaters and then found by Cooper DeNyse, 9, while walking with his parents, Mark and Dolly DeNyse of Hingham. Authorities were notified, and soon a small cluster of marine biologists, local officials, and vacationing gawkers surrounded the animal, taking photos and measurements and speculating about the cause of its death.
While great white sharks have been spotted in record numbers off the Cape’s Atlantic coast, and a swimmer recently survived being bitten by a shark at Truro’s Longnook Beach, the animals’ presence in the quieter waters on the other side of Route 6 has been less remarked upon.
But they’re there, following the seals that are a major part of a great white’s diet. Reiterated Marianne Long, the education director for the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy who quickly arrived at the beaching site, “That’s the thing we tell people: You’re not supposed to swim beyond waist deep and you’re not supposed to swim around seals.”
Dolly DeNyse, who with her husband and son have been coming to Pamet Harbor for 18 summers, said, “We’ve already stopped swimming in the bay because of him [Cooper]. We’ve seen fins and a lot of seals. But this is making me think about swimming in the inlet.”
It was unclear whether the shark had died in the waters of the bay and floated into the inlet on the high tide the previous evening or whether it had swum into Pamet Harbor and become stranded or distressed. It just lay there, beautiful, strange, and dead, as onlookers took family portraits squatting behind the animal and Bryan Legare, a biologist with the Provincetown-based Center for Coastal Studies, snapped photos to build a detailed 3-D great white shark map.
Legare was excited at the opportunity for close study.
“The thing this’ll allow us to do is get some real biology on the animal,” he said. A nearly mature male, the shark had been pulled farther up the beach at that point, a joint effort of Legare, Long, the Pamet Harbor harbormaster, and a local officer for the Massachusetts Environmental Police.
The giant fish was turned over for more photographs, revealing no visual damage to its underside, although the lower half had turned red from the blood in its body pooling from gravity.
“The rule is, don’t touch the pointy end,” Legare said.
More onlookers arrived, by boat, by foot, even by water: Four people swam across from the other side of the inlet and were told to turn back by authorities.
“I don’t know why,” someone muttered, “the shark’s dead.”
While waiting for the arrival of NOAA’s Dr. Lisa Natanson for a necropsy, Long gave the assembled kids a quick lesson in shark anatomy, pointing out that a shark’s eyes aren’t black, as commonly supposed, but a dark blue.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” Cooper DeNyse said about his discovery. He has seen sharks before but only from boats. “But I couldn’t take a selfie with one of them.”
By 11 a.m., Natanson had arrived, wearing worn floral rubber boots and armed with a no-nonsense attitude and an equipment locker with a bumper sticker that read “BITE ME.” Wielding a large and lethal-looking knife, she expertly fileted the shark’s underbelly, carving out the liver for weighing and proceeding, layer by layer, through the shark’s innards.
Could she hazard a guess on what may have caused the shark’s death?
“No. There’s nothing obvious,” Natanson said. Within minutes, the animal that had looked so magnificently surreal on a vacationer’s bayside beach had been reduced to specimens of meat bound for scientific study. As the necropsy got bloodier and photo opportunities waned, the curious and tender-minded began to wander away.
After a while, Natanson worked her way to the shark’s stomach, finding no license plates (as one onlooker, a “Jaws” fan, joked) but instead a clutch of sea grass, a number of lead fishing weights — perhaps they’d been attached to a tuna the shark had eaten — and two small but pointy shish kabob sticks.
“This is my most interesting stomach in a while,” the biologist remarked dryly to the other scientists standing nearby. For others, the discoveries served as a reminder that great white sharks dine less on human beings than on all the junk we throw away.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.