CHATHAM, Mass. — The great white sharks swimming off the waters of Chatham are boosting its economy by luring more tourists. Now the Cape Cod town is wondering whether being so popular will have a bite.
As the Fourth of July weekend kicks off the summer vacation season, Chatham is the best place on the cape to view the predators, according to Greg Skomal, shark expert at the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries. The several thousand gray seals dwelling in the area are shark prey, he said.
“The seal population has reached some critical level that the likelihood of seeing a white shark now has increased,” Skomal said.
Shops and restaurants profited last summer as busloads of visitors detoured to the town in pursuit of shark sightings, resulting in constant traffic jams, said Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce. This year, with at least two film crews visiting, some residents are bracing for unwelcome attention.
“We wanted to be known as a nice, quiet, laid-back community,” Mike Ambriscoe, fire chief of the town, 75 miles southeast of Boston. “We’ve been having this problem where sharks have been visiting us. It certainly does put you in the limelight.”
In the past two summers, state experts have tagged 13 great white sharks and confirmed the sighting of at least four others. The U.S. Coast Guard issued a shark warning last year on July 2. This year, fishermen in Martha’s Vineyard, 60 miles away, spotted a great white on May 6.
News of the sightings brought about 5,000 day-trippers into town each month last summer, said Tim Roper, a selectman.
“Folks show up and ask, ‘What’s the best place to see the sharks?’ or ‘What time do they start eating the seals?’ as if it were a circus act,” Roper said.
Great whites can exceed 20 feet in length and weigh more than 2 tons, according to the Marine Division’s website. In comparison, a Honda Insight compact car is about 14.3 feet long and weighs about 2,700 pounds, according to Edmunds Inc., an automotive information company.
Skomal said people aren’t at risk of being attacked by sharks on Chatham’s beaches as long as they visit ones away from the seals that draw the predators.
“The first year this all happened, I was really nervous about it and would say to others, don’t talk about it, we don’t want shark merchandise,” Franz said. “The second year, I embraced it. The third year, come on down, we’ll have a shark statue for you.”
The shark buzz and favorable weather boosted revenue by about 20 percent for Beachcomber Boat Tours, which ferries tourists to where the seals gather at Monomoy Island, said Paula St Pierre, owner. Chatham’s population is 6,579 most of the year, swelling to about 25,000 in July and August, according to the town website.
Chatham didn’t have as many gray seals to attract sharks before the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 made it illegal to kill them and the population began to rebound. Federal authorities are investigating the fatal shootings of six seals in the area this year, said Michael Booth, spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Wildlife. Skomal said fishermen tend not to like the seals, which they blame for eating all their catch and driving away other fish.
“People are more interested in sharks than ever,” St. Pierre said. “They have fantasies that they’re going to see something like a National Geographic show.”
No customer has witnessed a shark attack a seal in her 12 years of operating boat tours.
“I just don’t want anyone to have any fantasies when they go on the boat that they’re going to see a seal island attacked with a shark jumping out of the water,” she said. “Who wants to see that anyway? I don’t want to see that.”
Sharks have been identified with Cape Cod since 1975, when Steve Spielberg used Martha’s Vineyard as the setting for his movie of Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws.” The book was set in New York’s Long Island.
Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of the late sea explorer Jacques Cousteau, plans to spend weeks in town with a crew gathering material for a documentary, “The White Sharks of Chatham,” said Michael LeFort, co-producer. A team from the Discovery Channel already came to film a documentary for its Shark Week programming, Franz said.
Scientists don’t have much historical information on the activities of great whites in the Atlantic, LeFort said.
“Everyone has an opinion on both sides,” he said about the town’s reaction to the sharks. “I can tell you that there’s more fear than celebration.”