My life is at its most harmonious floating in Middle Bay, beneath the rocky, wooded prow of Serag Island, settling my heart rate after the swim from the mainland. Ocean swims are bouts of exercise and wilderness experiences; humbling and inspiring in equal measure, and iconically “Maine.”
I admit that white sharks felt, until recently, like an abstract future concern, at most. That, of course, was poorly informed thinking. There have long been white sharks in the Gulf of Maine.
The recent fatal attack off Harpswell is a profound human tragedy that thrusts white sharks into our awareness and gives humility and humankind’s place in the world a new face.
I am a biologist (albeit one who mostly studies trees) and so, in the aftermath of the attack, I turned to the scientific literature to understand white shark distributions and behavior. Here’s what I have learned.
White sharks follow warming waters north from wintering grounds as far south as the Gulf of Mexico, reaching their highest numbers in the Gulf of Maine in mid-summer, although some linger deep into autumn. White shark sightings in the Gulf of Maine date back to the early 19th century; indigenous Mainers no doubt knew of their presence long before that.
White shark numbers appear to be rebounding from historic lows in the 1970s and ‘80s. This white shark recovery can probably be attributed to legal protections for the sharks themselves combined with gains in the populations of seals and other prey. Thus, any recent increases in our white shark numbers are the result of the qualified success of conservation measures and humankind’s inability to limit global change that warms our waters, creating more favorable habitat.
I worked and played on Cape Cod in my youth and I have followed their collective response to recent white shark attacks that have occurred there. Ocean beaches on Cape Cod now practice heightened shark surveillance, with conspicuous warning systems. Education campaigns inform residents and visitors of the role of sharks in the ecosystem and how to assess personal risk. Residents contest how, if at all, to manage white shark populations.
Days after Maine’s first recorded fatal shark attack, I found myself on Cape Cod asking a long-time resident, “How has the Cape Cod open-water swimming community adapted to the presence of white sharks?” In response, she gestured to the freshwater pond over her shoulder.
Swimmers haven’t abandoned Cape Cod’s seawater altogether, but ocean events are fewer in number and furnished with warnings and precautions. It is not just swimming that has adapted. Is it a coincidence that rowing in ponds and rivers is rising in popularity on Cape Cod as their summer surfing community shrinks?
People along the Atlantic coast have taken to the ocean for recreation in unprecedented numbers during the recent decades of historically small white shark populations. Now, in Maine, we recalibrate our perceptions of risk and reflect upon our activities.
Will I swim again for exercise in Middle Bay? Almost certainly, although I will do so mindful of my attire, the time of day and year, and with greater mindfulness of the proximity and behavior of seals. Will I set off from outer shorelines projecting farther into the Gulf? I don’t know, but not this summer.
At the same time, I am exploring area ponds and the Lower Androscoggin River, now Class C (swimmable) water, a hard-won conservation success worthy of celebration in its own right. And I am getting better acquainted with my bicycle and considering more ambitious hikes in Maine’s western mountains, in doing so accepting risk in different forms.
Human communities live among apex predators the world over. That we in coastal Maine do, too, is now impossible to ignore, although it isn’t new. We can look to communities elsewhere for guidance on how we can come to terms with the associated risk and respect white sharks for the extraordinary creatures they are.
Barry Logan of Brunswick is a professor of biology at Bowdoin College.