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Consensus lacking on strategies to prevent Cape shark attacks

After last year’s attacks, Cape residents and surf shop owners want action

A memorial in Wellfleet last fall honored Arthur Medici, the first person killed by a shark in Massachusetts since 1936.
A memorial in Wellfleet last fall honored Arthur Medici, the first person killed by a shark in Massachusetts since 1936.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file)

There will be tourniquets and blood-clotting bandages on the beaches this summer, packed inside medical kits in case of attack. Beach parking lots will have 911 call boxes, while roving EMTs will patrol remote areas that ambulances cannot easily reach.

Cape Cod officials stress they are doing everything possible to try to keep safe the 4 million visitors who will arrive this summer, one year after a 26-year-old on a boogie board was attacked by a shark off Wellfleet and died before rescuers could get him to a hospital. But some residents remain anxious, frustrated, even angry — concerned that officials have been slow to act, given the increase in great white sharks seen over the last five years.

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After Arthur Medici was killed last September, there was talk of deploying elaborate safety measures such as nets, shark-detecting sonar buoys, or drones. Some even pushed to cull the large herds of seals that attract white sharks to the coastline, but that would require changing the federal law that protects marine mammals.

Cape officials suspect costly buoys and nets may be ineffective. Still they have asked a consulting firm, the Woods Hole Group, to study those options. But that report is not expected until September, toward the end of the tourist season — ludicrously late, in the opinion of some.

“It’s a joke. It’s an absolute joke, as far as I’m concerned,” said Charles “Chick” Frodigh, a 66-year-old surfer who was headed to Newcomb Hollow Beach an hour after Medici was killed and later attended his funeral service.

“For the last five years, we’ve been standing around, waiting for the attack to happen,” he said. “The barbarians are at the door. I’m not an expert, but something has got to be done. They should have hit the ground running sooner than this, and the day after Arthur died, there should have been one decision made after another.”

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Fear, even among veteran surfers, has become commonplace.

Olaf Valli, owner of SICKDAY, a surf shop in Wellfleet, said several of his instructors have already told him they are not going to teach lessons this summer because they don’t feel comfortable taking children into the water.

Some adults who come into his shop to buy wax for their boards also tell him they’re not going to let their children surf anymore.

Valli said his business could suffer. He said he was particularly alarmed after Ian “Kanga” Cairns, a champion surfer from Australia, said at a recent community meeting in Wellfleet that surfboard sales dropped by half after a deadly shark attack in the Australian beach town of Mandurah.

“Those are really scary numbers,” Valli said. “So that kind of thing is definitely a stressor, and we’re trying to figure out this season how we’re going to adapt.”

Unfortunately, Valli said, there is no easy solution to prevent shark attacks and no way to restore the carefree feeling a day at the beach is supposed to offer.

A warning sign at Nauset Beach. Officials say more pointed signs will be added at the Cape Cod National Seashore.
A warning sign at Nauset Beach. Officials say more pointed signs will be added at the Cape Cod National Seashore.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

“What everybody wants is to go back to not questioning, or thinking, or looking, just jumping in the ocean,” Valli said. “I don’t think that will ever happen again.”

Medici was the first person killed by a shark in Massachusetts since 1936. A month before his death, however, a New York doctor swimming off Truro was bitten in the leg. He survived after punching the shark in the gills, but he needed nearly 12 pints of blood and six surgeries.

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Medici’s aunt, Marisa Medici, said she fears another attack is likely.

“I know something is going to happen,” she told WCVB last week. “What is more important? Human life or seals? Cape Cod now is a nest for sharks. I think human life matters.”

Officials say they are taking the threat of another attack seriously. At the same time, they say, they are trying to avoid wasting money on products that may not work and may give beachgoers a false sense of security.

“We’re working collaboratively to make science-based decisions using available technology, and I think we’re moving absolutely in the right direction,” said Representative Sarah Peake, a Provincetown Democrat, who last week joined 50 officials from the Cape and the Baker administration to discuss shark-attack prevention measures at the State House.

“I understand it’s a scary thing,” Peake said. “It’s a change in the way people behave in the water. But we are proceeding with all due diligence and with the appropriate sense of urgency about having a plan in place this summer.”

Some changes are in the works.

Wellfleet is installing call boxes at its four ocean beaches. The town is hosting “Stop the Bleed” trainings to teach residents how to make a tourniquet and pack a bite wound. At Town Meeting in April, officials plan to ask for funding for a dune vehicle that can get to a victim more quickly than beachgoers sprinting across the sand.

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Orleans has banned surfing lessons at Nauset Beach, where it will have a 911 call box and new shark-warning signs. EMTs will be dispatched to remote beaches, where medical kits with tourniquets and hemostatic bandages, which help blood clot, will be installed. Research shows that most shark-bite victims survive because of first aid initiated by bystanders, said Nathan Sears, Orleans’s natural resources manager.

Sears said Orleans is investigating barriers, nets, and buoys, as well, but “it is important not to simplify this issue.”

He noted that Cape beaches are exposed to the wrath of the North Atlantic, which could rip out buoys or nets anchored to the ocean floor. Those systems might also be difficult to deploy because the sandbars where waves break, drawing surfers, constantly shift. In the meantime, Sears said, lifeguards will keep swimmers in shallow water, where sharks are less likely to venture.

Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, said his agency is adding six call boxes and more pointed signage, similar to the kind that warn hikers about bears and mountain lions in the West. Warning the public about sharks is critical, he said, even though attacks are so rare — much less likely than a drowning.

“This is an ongoing effort to inform the public that this is a natural, wild environment — a great place to recreate, but you have to do so with caution,” Carlstrom said.

Cape officials say they need help from the state for more expensive projects aimed at the shark threat.

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Last week, Carlstrom, along with the town managers of Truro, Wellfleet, Chatham, Eastham, Orleans, and Provincetown, sent Governor Charlie Baker a letter asking for help funding cellphone service at beaches, satellite phones and dune vehicles for lifeguards, shark research, and a public education campaign.

The letter did not specify a price tag, but Cape visitors spend $1 billion annually, lifting the entire state economy, “so there’s an understanding that little Truro or Eastham shouldn’t have to go it alone,” Peake said.

A Baker spokeswoman said the administration “looks forward to working with the delegation and local officials to keep people safe.”

Some locals, however, are not waiting for Beacon Hill to respond.

Heather Doyle, a Wellfleet resident, is helping to raise money to test the Clever Buoy system, which claims to use sonar to detect sharks and immediately alert beachgoers. She said the goal is to find out how many sharks are actually in the water, beyond those tagged and tracked by state wildlife officials.

“We’re trying to up the game to make the beach safer, so tourists aren’t thinking we’re twiddling our thumbs with body bags on the beach,” she said.

Katy Weeks, owner of Sugar Surf Cape Cod, a surfing school in Wellfleet, said she bought several devices that attach to surfboards and release an electric current designed to repel sharks. She said she tells her students to stay in waist-deep water, and reassures them that an attack is very unlikely.

“Yeah, people are worried, but I think it’s about people not being super-educated,” Weeks said. “Nobody should be going deep — that’s where it starts to get dangerous.”


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.