Green Guide

Experts say Cape Cod's wild side on full display

Posted September 12

— The emergence of great white sharks over the past decade nudged Cape Cod a step further from the classic vacation destination— surf, sun, sand and food —and a bit closer to a wilderness experience, where the feature attractions could actually cause some harm. Consider this past summer, when shark sightings routinely closed beaches, with some of these large, toothy predators swimming within 5 feet of shore.

"I think the white shark does highlight the wild nature of the Cape Cod environment," said Greg Skomal, the lead shark researcher for the state Division of Marine Fisheries. "Folks want to see the sharks and hear about them. To these people, it gives them a good feeling, it shows them there are merits to conservation, even if it takes decades."

Except for the handful of hot spots around the world, it's exceedingly rare to ever see a great white. Public safety officials, helped by the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, have taken the position that education offers a measure of protection for people and sharks, highlighting the Cape's unique situation while emphasizing personal responsibility. The conservancy's new shark app has more than 40,000 subscribers, and that's an audience for their message of the great white's importance to the ecosystem and the need for beachgoers to be smart about where and when they go in the water.

Cape visitors and locals responded by uploading videos, photos, and sightings to the app. Some also experienced the relatively rare sight of watching from shore as a shark swam by, or attacked a seal. Last summer, hundreds had an even more hands-on experience when they helped rescue two beached great whites, in Chatham and Wellfleet.

"With predictable access to (Atlantic) white sharks, which occurs really only on Cape Cod, we have, for the first time, the means to study their life history and natural history, and we are pretty lucky to be in that position," Skomal said.

But great whites are not the Cape's only attraction. Gray seals have made a remarkable comeback and are now commonly seen at beaches, with 800-pound males with huge horse-shaped heads and 300-pound females with curious big-eyed stares swimming among the bathers enjoying the surf.

Jutting 40 miles out into the Atlantic, the Cape has one of the best views on ocean life of any place on the East Coast, naturalists said.

"We've always been at a really unique point in terms of our biogeography," said Owen Nichols, director of marine fisheries research at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. The Cape marks a boundary where warm-water species exist at the northernmost point of their range and cold water species are at their most southerly point. Our ocean is also warming at a rate faster than anywhere else on earth, bringing even more changes.

"It's a fascinating time in our natural history," Nichols said. "So many different things are happening right now in our ecosystem."

This summer offered some proof of that with two sightings of killer whales— the first, a solitary male named Old Thom, and then a pod cruising about 12 miles off Chatham. Last month, a manatee visited harbors along the Nantucket Sound. Those in boats, and occasionally on shore, spotted tropical sea turtles, massive leatherbacks and loggerheads, sometimes in distress as six were freed from entangling fishing lines this summer, including one by beachgoers in Woods Hole.

While visitors have known for a long time that they can view the spring passage of North Atlantic right whales, the world's most endangered great whale, from shore, over the past five years an ever increasing number, as much as 60 percent of the right whale population, have been coming to Cape Cod Bay to feed on zooplankton.

"Particularly on the Outer Cape, the opportunities go on and on," said Tony LaCasse, the communications director for the New England Aquarium. "You can have that experience with relatively little effort."

LaCasse recalled walking the breakwater in the West End of Provincetown a couple of years ago and finding a couple of decayed Atlantic white-sided dolphins that died during the winter.

"There was this massive whooshing sound behind me and I jumped 18 inches off the ground," he recalled. "It was a right whale surfacing not 50 yards offshore."

LaCasse travels to other destinations all over the country and the world to experience nature in the wild, but finds the Outer Cape to be one of the great wildlife viewing areas in the U.S.

"There's an experience to be had on the Outer Cape at every turn. It's remarkable," he said.

Naturalist and educator Peter Trull agrees, placing the Cape as one of the top spots to view wildlife in all of eastern North America.

LaCasse and others attribute the wildlife appearing on land and offshore to habitat protection and species protection laws put in place generations ago, like the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

"Conservation is working, is the main message with many of these animals," said Bob Prescott, the director of Massachusetts Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

Trull pointed to the ascendance over the past 40 years of oak trees taking over the forests from the pines, which attracted raptors like the hawks and other woodland birds. Plus, ospreys, eagles and falcons all have returned.

"More people are becoming aware of the wildlife around them," Trull said, whether on their own or taking organized bird walks, seal watching and whale watching tours.

"They all bring a tremendous awareness of how magnificent Cape Cod is in terms of wildlife and beauty," he said.

Prescott said the protection of species at the base of the food chain like herring and menhaden are also helping species and creating more opportunities for nature watchers.

Provincetown has become a birding mecca, Prescott said, with many exotic sea birds gathering offshore to spend the winter. Mediterranean and northern shearwaters, puffins, alcids. "They are here because of the food," he said.

"Nature is coming back. The ocean is pretty healthy around here," Prescott said.

But it's not all good news. Commercial fish like cod, some flounders and other species have been decimated to the point where fishermen are relying on skates and dogfish for income.

The few manatees that do come here are at the furthest extreme of their range and don't have any food unless they come across the occasional patch of sea grass, said Erin Burke, an aquatic biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries protected species program.

"I wouldn't expect to see any big aggregations of them in the future," she said.

Despite the recent news about our subpopulation of humpback whales recovering to the point where they can be taken off the endangered species list, they are still suffering through entanglements in fishing gear, researchers pointed out. And the news on right whales is not encouraging, with a dramatic drop in the calving rate and physical signs that adults may not be faring well either.

Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of the Center for Coastal Studies' right whale habitat program, hypothesized that right whales might be gathering in Cape Cod Bay in increased numbers because the food sources elsewhere were dwindling.

Burke said that the restoration of marine species, particularly large mammals and sea turtles, also creates additional burdens on fishermen and regulators as a larger population means more opportunities to become entangled in fishing gear. Nichols pointed out that fishermen have also been affected by the predation of commercial stocks by the ever increasing seal population.

Scientists warned that it is not necessarily true that our good fortune at being able to see these species always translates into a measure of abundance.

"The more we look, the more we see," Nichols said.

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