You don't need to watch Jaws to see Matt Hooper face the shark; every week is Shark Week for the real-life Matt Hooper. Here on the Cape, we have our very own shark scientist, Dr. Greg Skomal. If you are an avid Shark Week and now Sharkfest watcher, you already know him and how cool he is!
Growing up, Skomal became fascinated with the ocean and sharks from watching Jaws and Jacques Cousteau on National Geographic. For those reasons, he chose to study marine biology at the University of Rhode Island. He also has a Masters from URI and a PhD from Boston University. He has been working for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries for over 31 years as the Recreational Fisheries Program Manager and is heading up the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. Since the rebounding seal population has drawn sharks to New England waters in recent years, Dr. Skomal now has many opportunities to spend more time studying them in these waters, rather than traveling to the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, or Guadalupe off the coast of Mexico. Skomal and his colleague, John Chisholm, were the first people to successfully tag and track Great Whites in the Northwest Atlantic as part of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. The conservancy is able to track local and long range movements, study behavior and ecology, and estimate the Great White population size in the area.
Skomal had to start somewhere. His career as a technician for the National Marine Fisheries Service Apex Predators Investigation in Narragansett, RI, kickstarted his training to become a fisheries biologist. In an article for CapeCod.com, he said:
“My interest in shark research, as it relates to fisheries, is driven by my desire to produce results that are directly applicable to sustainable management of these resources,” he said. “I like all aspects of my job, but our white shark research is the most riveting, as we are making new discoveries about these fish almost every day.”
Greg and his team have successfully tagged 200 sharks on the Cape and implanted tons of receivers on the waters. Now, anyone can track the Great Whites on the conservancy's app called Sharktivity. It is a helpful resource for planning safe beach and fishing excursions, as well as learning more about the sea’s apex predator.
Skomal and his crew go out on their boat, leaving from Chatham twice a week, and sometimes go up as far as Provincetown. The boat that they tag off of has a long pulpit that Greg stands on to tag the sharks. He uses a long pole with a sharp point at the end to attach the tag to the fin. They have a spotter pilot, Wayne Davis (photo to the right), who provides coordinates of any shark he sees to the boat via radio. This gives them the opportunity to have ‘eyes in the sky.’ They are then able to go up right next to the shark to get Go-Pro footage, identifying special markings and a well-placed dorsal-fin tag. Once the tag is attached they are able to track the shark for as long as the tag is designed to track them for. Every time a shark passess by a receiver, it sends an electrical signal and we are notified on the Sharktivity app. Some shark scientists actually remove the shark from the water to tag it and get tissue samples but, I think that the way that greg does it is safer for the animals.
I have been fortunate enough to hear Dr. Skomal speak at events about sharks/seals myths and ideas on how to make the beaches safer , and I am always captivated by the energy he brings when sharing what he does everyday and why he feels so passionately about shark conservancy. If you have not seen the video of a shark lunging at him, you should definitely click on the link above! When asked about what the experience was like and if it affected how he works with sharks since, he said, “What if I was a swimmer? We need a better understanding of the predator and prey relationship so people don’t become collateral damage.” It is important that we have people researching and studying this relationship to not only keep the marine ecosystem balanced but, to ensure that people and sharks can coexist.
Currently, Dr. Skomal and his team are taking it one step further than simply tracking the population of sharks on the Cape. They are focused on movement and behavior with an emphasis on public safety. Ever since Arthur Medici was bitten at Newcomb Hollow beach in Wellfleet, the conservancy has been working with town officials to make the beaches safer and inform the public on what they need to do to stay safe. While there are countless books and articles about how to dive and surf safely with sharks, we need to remember that whenever you mix two different predators in one environment, there is always room for misunderstandings to occur. There are many shark repellents and methods these books talk about but no singular thing has proven to be a 100% effective solution. Thankfully, we have people like Dr. Skomal working everyday to ensure our safety and our oceans safety.
Cover Photo:National Geographic Channels
2nd photo: Universal Pictures/Getty Pictures
3rd photo: Ocean Aerials
Video: Atlantic White Shark Conservancy