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Sharks (& The East Coast’s Biggest Seal Colony) Draw Tourists

When news got out that Chatham, MA’s, gray seal colony–the biggest on the east coast–was drawing sharks that closed beaches, a funny thing happened. Or didn’t happen. Instead of running away scared, more tourists came to this little town on Cape Cod’s elbow to see some sharks, hoping for a picture, or at least a glimpse.

“It’s a big draw,” says Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce. “We have traffic jams… People are still walking in today and saying ‘Where can we see them?'”

Tony LaCasse, a former veteran Boston TV newsman, says years ago local TV news would’ve been filled with scared would-be swimmers. But that was before years of education that drilled home how very unlikely it is to be bitten, let alone eaten, by a great white shark in New England. (Last fatal attack: 1936) Now we get shark tourists. “It’s a long way from Jaws,” says LaCasse, where the premise was they couldn’t possibly close the beach on the Fourth of July.

The sharks are coming because the water is (briefly) warm and because the seal population has grown unchecked–well, that is, until the sharks showed up. Seal populations were kept artificially low for decades–maybe centuries. Until the 1960s, Massachusetts even paid a bounty for each seal (“a nickel a nose” in the early 1900s). Now seals are making a comeback. Cape has the biggest population on the American east coast, with roughly 10,000 (no one’s done a formal count since 1999, when it was 5,600), according to the National Marine Fisheries Service 2008 report on gray seals. A few hundred live on the islands off Maine. but the U.S. population of gray seals is dwarfed by the Canadian one: More than 200,000 on Sable Island, Nova Scotia and 20,000 on the St. Lawrence.

In August kayakers spotted a great white shark munching on a seal near Chatham Lighthouse. Five sharks were seen close enough to the shore that cautious to the shore and surfers to close beaches over Labor Day. Mind you, beaches closed two weekends earlier for strong waves and that didn’t make the evening news.

So far, however, the sharks are hard to see off Cape Cod. (Though plenty of places elsewhere cater to shark tourists.) Paula St. Pierre, who has run the Beachcomber tours out of Chatham for 11 years, says she hasn’t seen any of the characteristic dorsal fins herself. “I don’t want to see any,” she says, at least not chasing the seals. “I saw one seal out there yesterday that had a big chunk taken out and shortly afterwards expired.”

If you’re looking for sharks, go to their meal, the seals. Some people go to the beach by Chatham Lighthouse (where seals hang out) to try to see some fins in the water, but the best bet for seeing the most seals or maybe even a dorsal fin are the seal boats.

Even if you don’t get to see a great white, you’ll get surprisingly close to the seals, which often approach the tour boats, St. Pierre says. “Seals come right up to the boat,” she says. “They’re as curious about us as we are about them. Not only can you see them, you can smell them.” When sharks appeared in the past, the seals have even turned to the seal tourists for help. “In years past seals have tried to climb in the boat,” when they’ve been afraid of sharks in the water, St. Pierre says. She had to fight the urge to help them up like a dog.

Seal-watching has become its own mini-industry on the Cape, with Beachcombers taking out 200 people a day at the peak of summer. About a half dozen seal tour operators line the coast.

No one is sure what will happen if the seals continue to draw such large numbers of sharks. Will there be a movement to get the seals to leave? (Tricky, because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and certainly controversial.) Will Chatham have to install shark nets like they have in Australia? Or will shark tours move in to boost the economy?

“Summer would be a whole different story,” says Franz. “September, it’s like whoohoo, we’ve got a good shoulder season.” Meanwhile, seal and shark watchers can get shoulder season rates now. And come winter, when the seal population peaks with migrants from Canada, you can get an even better deal to see a huge seal colony.

Where to See Seals (and maybe sharks). The tours often require a minimum group to make it worth their while to go out as their business tapers off in the fall.

Chatham’s Municipal Fish Pier on Shore Rd.
(508) 945-5265
Adults $27, Seniors $25, Kids 3 -15 $23, Kids under 3 are free.

Monomoy Island Ferry
90-minute cruise
Adults $30, Kids 15 and under $25
Look for signs for the Rip Ryder Monomoy Island Ferry and USFWS Headquarters.

Blue Claw Boat Tours
Adults $25, Kids 12 and under $20
(508) 240-5783

From Nantucket (year-round)
Shearwater Excursions
(508) 228-7037
2.5 hours to Muskeget Island
Town Pier in downtown Nantucket.
$90 Adults, $70 Children under 12

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