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Here’s what it’s like to see great white sharks up close off Cape Cod

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 8/9/2022 Shannon Larson

CHATHAM — Shortly after pulling into the parking lot of Ryder’s Cove Landing on a recent Wednesday morning, I realized I was unprepared for a long day out on the water with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, looking for great whites on one of two research vessels set to launch.

Polarized sunglasses? Nope. Long pants? Didn’t have those. Jackets to layer? Forgot them. And apparently, I was supposed to take Dramamine the night before to avoid seasickness — which I did not.

But all was not lost: after drenching myself in sunscreen, I borrowed a light windbreaker and was offered a spare pair of shades by one of the boat captains.

“There’s going to be a lot of sharks,” said Greg Skomal, the state’s leading shark expert, who would be tagging the apex predators with a group on the Aleutian Dream, while I traveled on the Dark Star alongside them.

And he was right.

Despite my lack of resourcefulness, the day, experts would say later, landed somewhere between “phenomenal” and “unbelievable” research-wise.

On the high seas

Just after 9 a.m., we headed north toward an area off Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, the boat pounding against the waves as we cruised along the coastline.

The activity on land was more obvious than what was swimming beneath us: beachgoers and campers on Nauset Beach. Towering sand dunes topped with houses nearing the edge. Rangers patrolling stretches of shore on four-wheelers.

For the expedition, I joined several workers from the conservancy — scientist Megan Winton, technician Kelly Alves, and captain Josh Higgins — and their special guest, Carlos Gauna, a professional drone photographer from California.

Known as “The Malibu Artist,” Gauna was visiting the Cape for the first time to teach the conservancy about how to better use drones to monitor the behavior of white sharks, a new tool in the Chatham-based nonprofit’s arsenal this year.

“Some of the things that I’ve seen in his videos have really blown me away as somebody who spends a lot of time studying these animals,” Winton said. “Just to have that perspective — to have the ability to follow an animal for a really long time and actually see what it’s doing — is really a game changer.”

For years, the conservancy has worked with scientists to “get a better idea on how sharks are behaving in our nearshore waters,” she said. Part of the goal is to learn how frequently they are swimming off public beaches, a question Gauna’s expertise could help answer.

On the lookout

Above us, Wayne Davis circled around in his single-engine plane, radioing down to researchers when he spotted a shark nearby.

When his voice crackled over the radio around 10:30 a.m., Gauna quickly deployed his drone to get a closer look. The blades began to whir and it flew high into the air.

“I knew this would be a great spot!” Winton yelled.

Though she would later note the trip was less action-packed than a typical tagging expedition (she likened us to spies on a stealth mission with the drone), the excitement was still palpable. On the Cape, peak shark season had arrived.


Video: First great white shark of 2022 season tagged off Chatham (CBS Boston)

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Not long into chasing down sharks, I was invited to step out onto the pulpit to see the animals for myself. I leaned carefully against the edge, and there, just below me, I caught my first glimpse of a great white shark up close — a grayish blur swimming smoothly through the green water.

Around noon, Skomal tagged the first shark of the day at last. He missed it on the first go, but with a sharp sticking motion he landed the next attempt.

With his drone flying right above, Gauna filmed the whole event in slow-motion. Sitting beside Winton, he played it back for her to watch.

“This is awesome,” Winton said.

Gauna said what’s special about using a drone is that “it allows you to watch the sharks outside of just the tagging realm.”

“They could do 10 seconds of phenomenal behavior that you wouldn’t be able to catch necessarily on a receiver,” a device in the water that detects sharks, Gauna said.

Skomal and his team headed south along with Davis, who searched from above. Meanwhile, we remained somewhere between Head of the Meadow and Race Point Beach in Provincetown — a quieter expanse of water.

By the time I climbed onto the boat’s tower to sit with Higgins shortly after 2 p.m., he estimated our team already had seen around five sharks.

One last bit of action

Before heading back, we stopped by a large colony of seals along the coast, where dozens of the animals’ heads bobbed with the waves. Their eyes remained fixed on us, and someone on board noted the scene was ripe for a potential feeding frenzy. But before any sharks had time to arrive, the boat took off, my hand white-knuckled on the bar behind my seat out of fear I might fly off.

Eventually, we reconnected with the Aleutian Dream off Nauset Beach. There, lifeguards had closed the ocean to swimming as people stood on the shore and watched us curiously, not unlike the seals.

There were two sharks in the area, and Skomal was hyper-focused on tagging one.

Davis’s voice boomed over the speaker as he indicated where the shark was headed.

“There he is. Going right to your left,” he said. “Easy, easy, easy. Is the drone over there?”

Gauna followed with his drone as the shark dipped down in the water and resurfaced. Finally, Skomal tagged its dorsal fin. He gave one of his signature fist pumps as the crews on both boats cheered. It marked one of four sharks Skomal tagged throughout the day.

We continued to shadow what Gauna called the “big boy” of a shark, which now had two tags, one apparently from years ago.

Winton and Alves bounced names back-and-forth, trying to determine which shark it was in their logbook: Scar? Web? A group of men fishing tailed along as we monitored the shark, their eyes alight with wonder.

“It’s amazing,” one shouted over to us.

Back on the pulpit, I watched the shark rise to the surface. Just then, its dorsal fin cut through the water — a sight the team had been hoping to catch. From the tower, Alves told the boaters that “finning” like this “is very, very rare” to see.

“I hope you guys appreciate this,” Winton added. “Because this is absolutely unbelievable.”

We tracked the shark a little while longer before it was time to return to land. In the process, the research team sent an alert to the Sharktivity app so beachgoers would know there was one close to shore.

After eight hours on the water, we docked back at the marina. Covered in red splotches where I didn’t apply enough sunscreen, I walked back to solid ground, still wearing the glasses the boat captain lent me accidentally (not to worry — I mailed them back).

I was weather-beaten and slightly exhausted. But, more than anything else, I was astonished by how close we had been to several white sharks. It was clear that even though he has filmed the animals for years, Gauna felt the same.

“Today’s been phenomenal,” he said.

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