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Sun, sand, and sharks: Cape beachgoers are wary about jumping into the water

At Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, warnings about sharks are prominent, making some people hesitant about going in the water.
At Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, warnings about sharks are prominent, making some people hesitant about going in the water.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WELLFLEET — It was a postcard-perfect morning at Cahoon Hollow Beach: sun shining, waves lapping gently, rainbow beach towels and umbrellas dotting the warm sand. There was just one problem.

“What lives in the water? Why are we not swimming?” Jessica Smith, 38, quizzed her 5-year-old son, who was running back and forth between the waves and the blanket, bringing back various treasures (saltwater in a jar, sand).

“Sharks,” Max answered dutifully. He was wearing a blue T-shirt with a large white shark on it, and he knew about the creatures, too. “They have fins and sometimes their teeth fall out and you can find them,” he explained.

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Every week seems to be shark week on Cape Cod, with about 24 shark sightings in the past seven days, according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Sharktivity app. In the past five years, around 300 white sharks have been identified by researchers along the coast of Cape Cod. And a number of terrifying photos and videos have gone viral in the past few weeks, documenting great white sharks leaping out of the water or turning the ocean red with seal’s blood.

With Sharknado-esque predators on the loose, how are weary vacationers supposed to relax? Although the water was nearly 70 degrees, there were practically no swimmers. This summer’s Cape getaway just isn’t the same for many visitors.

“We’re not swimming like we do in Rhode Island,” Glennis Bohn told her 10-year-old daughter as they surveyed Whitecrest Beach from a sand dune above it.

A State Police helicopter patrolled Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro.
A State Police helicopter patrolled Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Bohns had planned to bike along the road and stop to cool off in the water, but after spotting seals just feet from the shore, they were rethinking their plans. Seals often mean that sharks are close behind.

“There’s no reason to buy that beach pass for $60,” Bohn said, shrugging.

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Other vacationers found that they weren’t having the Instagram-worthy trips they had planned. Smith had texted a friend back home a classic jealousy-inducing beach photo, showing her lounging in shallow water in the bay. What are you doing today? she teased her friend, who was still at work.

“Yeah, until a shark eats you,” her friend shot back.

Smith was still enjoying the beach, but neither she nor her children would be going into the water. If they were older, she said, “it would be harder to say no.” After all, one has certain expectations of a beach.

Vacationers and officials have been on high alert since last year, when Arthur Medici, a 26-year-old who was boogie boarding, was bitten by a shark off Wellfleet and died from his injuries. He was the first person killed in Massachusetts by a shark since 1936.

In response, officials installed bright yellow 911 call boxes and medical kits with blood-clotting bandages in beach parking lots, and hosted “Stop the Bleed” trainings for residents. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy advises beachgoers to swim close to the shore, in groups, and to avoid seals. By the lifeguard stand, a purple flag featuring a shark warned visitors of the potential danger.

Few people were in the water at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro.
Few people were in the water at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Some visitors were gamely trying to incorporate the shark scare into their vacation memories. At the entrance to Cahoon Hollow, a stream of families took photos in front of a “WARNING” sign featuring a ferocious great white shark with its teeth bared. “Oh, there’s sharks!” cried a little boy upon seeing the sign, as he dragged a boogie board larger than he was down the dune.

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Joey Armenti remained optimistic that the sharks were generally good for business. He was selling “Cape Cod Shark Patrol” T-shirts; $1 from each sale would go to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

The sharks “bring people down here,” he said. “I think it’s cool.”

As he chatted about his hopes for creating a line of hats, a State Police helicopter whirred ominously overhead, scanning the water.

Other beachgoers still intended to brave the water — they just wouldn’t swim too deep.

“When seals are here, you gotta run away from them,” said Elliott Bugala, 8, who’s something of a shark expert, though he has never seen one in the wild. “I read a book about who would win, a tiger shark or a hammerhead. It compared their stats,” he said.

Lifeguard Ellie Hartmann kept watch at Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet.
Lifeguard Ellie Hartmann kept watch at Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

For about an hour, Elliott and his sister were the only two people daring enough to get in the water along a stretch of Cahoon beach; they were on boogie boards, kicking their feet and splashing in the shallows. Their father, Paul Bugala, 43, watched keenly from the sand. They had been visiting the Cape since before Elliott was born, and they knew the deal with shark sightings.

Some vacationers were being extra vigilant. With all the attention on peril in the water, a person could be forgiven for seeing snouts and fins and slippery creatures everywhere.

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“Some people mistake birds or whales” for sharks, said Ellie Hartmann, a lifeguard at Cahoon Hollow. A few miles down the shore, Anne Beckstram scanned the waves with a pair of green Canon binoculars.

“There was a fin out here, but I guess they’re saying it’s a sunfish,” she said.

From afar, a group of swimmers with their paddle boards looked suspiciously like a pod of seals, their heads bobbing up and down in the waves.

Ultimately, maybe the best strategy for relaxing in the zone of a predator is simple math.

“You have a better chance of hitting the lottery than getting bitten by a shark,” said Karen Treadup, who was tanning by the water’s edge. She’s not particularly worried.

But she will still check the Sharktivity app every day of her vacation.

Max Smith, 5, was ready for anything while at Cahoon Hollow Beach.
Max Smith, 5, was ready for anything while at Cahoon Hollow Beach.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.