SMEA Summer: Are we really “gonna need a bigger boat”?

(Left) Jess at seven years old in 1999 holding her first Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) on a Woods Hole Discovery Cruise in Falmouth, MA. (Right) Jess showing her family a Horseshoe Crab shell she found on the beach in Cape Cod almost twenty years later in 2018.
Photos by Jess O’Toole.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts is known for a lot of things; sandy beaches, overfilled lobster rolls, and countless Kennedy tragedies. However, over the last few years, this summer vacation destination has become known for something else: sharks. Although sharks are not unheard of in New England, the last time sharks became  synonymous with Cape Cod was in the mid 1970s. With last year’s shark-related death and almost 300 Great Whites visiting each summer, the word “shark” is on everyone’s mind throughout the Cape. This growing tension between residents and their underwater neighbors made Cape Cod a great place for me to collect data for my thesis on Anthrozoology (the study of human-animal interactions) and public perception of sharks.

Growing up in Massachusetts, I always knew there were Great White sharks hanging around the Cape. However, actually seeing a living, breathing shark was essentially unheard of; they were mostly reduced to images on T-shirts and restaurant logos. Nowadays, it feels like a day can’t go by without a beach being closed due to a shark sighting. The number of sharks migrating through Cape Cod has increased dramatically in the 1990’s due to new federal (1997) and state protections (2005) as well as the large seal populations residing in the area. Now, humans are finding that they must share the coast with these fellow apex predators. So, how does this cohabitation affect public perceptions of sharks? And what has last year’s attack done for shark reputations on the Cape? I spent two months interviewing residents and tourists on Cape Cod in hopes to find out.    

(August 6th, 2019. Truro, Massachusetts) Jess posing alongside a shark warning sign on a coast side beach. This sign was located alongside the boardwalk, making sure everyone entering the beach had to pass it. Photo by Jess O’Toole.

During my time on the east coast, I had the opportunity to talk to twenty different people from all walks of life. I got to discuss the cultural importance of JAWS with a movie theater director, inspect shark deterrent technology with some surfers, and explore a Great White shark center with the educational director. Conversations with people ranged from quick comments about warning signs and tourist dollars to long, in-depth discussions on building a safe future for sharks and people. Most people I spoke to were extremely friendly and eager to talk to me. After a while, they not only opened up about their feelings and attitudes toward sharks, but also how and why their lives have changed in the last year following the attack. 

The majority of the people I talked to expressed concern rather than fear in regards to the “shark problem.” While they may now only wade out to their waists instead of swimming into deep water, very few people were going to let the possibility of a shark attack stop them from enjoying the ocean. In many cases, people saw the need for education, not only about sharks but how people can safely share the ocean with them. Many even took time to do their own research on the issue. There were also a small group of people that expressed a dislike for the sharks and believe there should be a way to control the Great White population, or at least keep them away from the beaches. However, this way of thinking was not very common and most people were content to share the beaches. As one of my interviewees said about the sharks, “this is their home, we’re just temporary visitors here.”

Conducting these interviews were a major part of my data collection and I spent a large portion of my summer prepping for them: planning outfits, finding the perfect wording for a question, reaching out to people, and gathering background information on my interviewees. Besides interviews I also collected data through photos, made observations at beaches and tourist areas, and recorded the changes happening throughout the Cape as people tried to adapt to life with sharks.

Now that I am back in Seattle, I have a chance to reflect on my summer a bit more. While there were moments when I felt overwhelmed by my work, I really enjoyed collecting my data and interacting with the community. I feel like the work I did this summer brought me out of my comfort zone while making me a stronger researcher and more confident interviewer, all while giving me a chance to talk to people about a topic I’m passionate about. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my summer and I’m excited to start another year at SMEA. 

(August, 2019. Cape Cod, Massachusetts) Newly erected shark warning signs appear on beaches throughout the Cape. (Left) The “Dangerous Marine Life” flag (purple) flies below the “Low Hazard” flag (green), alerting people to the possibility of sharks entering the area. (Center) Outer Cape beaches, such as Chatham, post large signs cautioning against not only sharks but seals as well,as they are the main food source for the sharks and a danger themselves. Signs also give information on peak shark activity throughout the summer months and information on how to learn more about them. (Right) Bay-side beaches post smaller signs with basic safety information as sharks very rarely enter the bay, posing less of a threat to swimmers. Photos by Jess O’Toole.


If you want to learn more about the Great White sharks on Cape Cod and the work being done with them (and don’t want to wait for my thesis) visit The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy website.