Sharks Off Cape Cod: No Need to Panic


Gray seals off the beach on Cape Cod.Gray seals off the beach on Cape Cod.

Kayakers checking out the gray seals near North Truro, Cape Cod, last year. Me, I wouldn’t be in the water near a seal colony. Photo by Brad Moon.

The news has been full of stories about the great white sharks spotted off of Cape Cod this summer, along with the recent shark attack on a swimmer at Cape Cod Beach. I’ve been following this one closely because the Cape is one of my family’s favorite vacation spots and the beaches are a big part of the attraction. While great white sharks make for great headlines (unless you own a business that suffers as a result), I’ve noticed a trend in recent years and they’re just part of it: wild animals are becoming a bigger factor to consider in many vacations. It’s not just the potential for extreme weather we need to be aware of; extreme animals can be something to watch for, at least in natural settings. Last year at the Cape we went to see huge seal colonies, this summer we were dealing with black bears at our campsite and a few years ago, it was masses of jellyfish on the beaches of Prince Edward Island. Seals and jellyfish and bears, oh my!

Basking shark swimming off of Cape Cod.Basking shark swimming off of Cape Cod.

A basking shark: the only shark we’ve personally seen on our repeated trips to Cape Cod. Photo by Jody Moon

As a parent, what seems to be an increase in animal population extremes is both something to be aware of — we want to be prepared for animal encounters and make plans that will avoid ones that would put the kids in obvious jeopardy — and a learning opportunity. When there are great white sharks cruising the beaches where seal populations have gathered, it’s probably a good parenting decision to either avoid those beaches altogether and swim elsewhere; or go ahead and visit the beach, but at the same time limit water access to shallow wading. This is the visit to build sandcastles, pick up stones and watch for interesting wildlife instead of getting out into the surf. We don’t want to take the approach of demonizing the sharks, or of making our kids terrified of them. They’re a part of nature and if they happen to be inconvenient at the moment, well, you just make the best of it. The idea is to mitigate the risk and take advantage of the situation to explain ecosystems.

In the example of Cape Cod, it’s an easy explanation with a twist that helps to illustrate how complex nature is, teaching the lesson of how one action by humans can have unanticipated consequences. Seals were nearly extinct off the New England coast but have been protected since 1972′s Marine Mammal Protection Act. Since that time, the seal population has exploded and that has had ripple effects through the marine ecosystem. Among the ripples is the fact that thousands of seals now hanging out on sandbars just off the beaches of Cape Cod will attract increasing numbers of the sharks that prey on them. The shark populations themselves aren’t increasing, they’re just honing in from a distance onto a ready source of food, making them more visible within a concentrated area. Sharks don’t tend to specifically hunt humans (especially when there are thousands of much bigger seals to be had), but have been known to attack a human after mistaking them for a seal. So, you stay out of the ocean when it’s frequented by seals.

Bear cage outside Killbear provincial park.Bear cage outside Killbear provincial park.

No longer a rare sight for Ontario campers. Photo by Brad Moon

The black bear population in Ontario is another classic example of human actions having unforeseen ripple effects. Once a rarity that was typically found only in the Northern Ontario wilderness and some of the most remote provincial parks, the province’s black bear population has been on the increase and the bears have been the move southward. One was recently shot by police in London, the city of 353,000 where I live — that’s only a few hours west of Toronto. Southward migration and population growth have put bears on the radar for most camping trips in Southern Ontario. There have been several factors blamed for the increase in bear population in the province, but the cancellation of the spring bear hunt has been the most commonly cited factor (and a favorite target of rocker/hunter Ted Nugent). Whatever the reason, bear encounters are just something you now take for granted when camping in much of the province. Rather than avoiding camping, we teach our kids how to be bear-smart, follow bear-smart camping practices and carry an air horn to scare nuisance bears away.

Jellyfish littered some PEI beaches in 2009.Jellyfish littered some PEI beaches in 2009.

A jellyfish on the beach at Prince Edward Island. Photo by Brad Moon

When I was a kid, I don’t think I ever saw a jellyfish outside of an aquarium. Today, swarms are increasingly turning up on beaches. We ran into one of these local population booms when we visited Prince Edward Island a few years ago. On one of the beaches, what I initially took to be a line of red seaweed turned out to be masses of jellyfish on the sand. Rather than turning and leaving, we reviewed the potential dangers of jellyfish and kept a respectful distance. Life goes on; that doesn’t mean the beach is now toxic. Climate change and direct human intervention (warmer temperatures combined with overfishing of predator species) have led to conditions that are ideal for these jellyfish swarms. Again, we take the opportunity to use this as a teaching moment: cause and effect.

We try to spend as much time as possible outdoors with our kids, and as much of that time as possible in natural environments. This has become noticeably more challenging than when I was a teenager, for example. With expanding urban boundaries putting pressure on animals for food sources and range, climate change impacting their environment, population growth in some species and the resulting ripple effects through the food chain, planning a trip that involves spending time in nature requires more forethought than ever. Especially with kids. Sometimes it’s merely a case of the media blowing up a minor issue on a slow news day and having to explain that to them. (Look at how many articles have been published over the one confirmed Cape Cod shark attack.) But rather than avoiding the outdoors because of weather, animals and other inconveniences, we prefer the approach of embracing the opportunity. Just be prepared, know what you might be encountering, make adjustments where prudent and play it smart.

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