Embracing Great White Sharks in New England

I’ve always been fascinated by the shark species that inhabit our oceans. As a young girl, I saw my first shark on a whale watch trip out of Newburyport, a basking shark slowly cruising by. As an adult, I’ve had incredible underwater experiences with sharks. I’ve seen great hammerheads and nurse sharks in Nicaragua, whale sharks in Mexico, and great whites in South Africa.

In South Africa, my husband and I were the first to jump in the cage when a great white shark was spotted near the boat. I ducked my head under water and there she was, swimming gracefully by, cautiously checking us out. It was awe-inspiring and absolutely love at first sight (for me, I can’t speak for the shark)!

Around the same time, great white sharks off Cape Cod were making headlines. 2009 marked the first time white sharks had been successfully tagged and tracked in Western North Atlantic waters. I was thrilled to know this amazing species was spending time close to our shores.

Last summer, I had a conversation with Dr. Greg Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) about his work with white sharks in our area. I was surprised to learn that the DMF does not directly fund white shark research, so Dr. Skomal and biologist John Chisholm, rely on outside help for shark projects. This sparked the idea to form a nonprofit that would support local shark research and education, and with that Atlantic White Shark Conservancy was established.

Over the last six months, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking to shark researchers and enthusiasts around the world.  I’ve learned a lot about the pressures facing numerous shark species globally (finning, overfishing, bycatch), as many populations have seen devastating declines.

Locally, I’ve begun spreading the word about our shark conservation work. What better place to gain support than in New England, where people are passionate about the marine environment. If they love whales, dolphins, and turtles, they must love sharks, right? Not necessarily. I’ve been told by people who care deeply about other marine species off the coast of Cape Cod, that they are not interested in shark conservation. Why the lack of concern for sharks? Fear. Come on New Englanders! We are of hearty stock and brave winters that would bring most people to tears. With regard to sharks, a quick Google search will give you stats on animals in the U.S. that are more likely to kill you than sharks (cows, dogs, horses).

I believe it’s time to face our fears, use our heads, and open our hearts to the beauty of the great white sharks that travel along our coastline. They certainly have more to fear from us than we do from them. Plus, white sharks are fascinating!

Great white sharks are one of a handful of sharks that are endothermic. These ‘warm-bodied’ sharks can maintain internal body temperatures higher than the outside water temperatures. They are part of a small group of sharks (Lamnids) whose eyes are proportionally larger than other shark species.  White sharks are known to spy hop, which involves peering above the surface of the water to take a look around. The eyes of a white shark are not black as coal, as the movie JAWS would have you believe, but instead the iris is denim blue! As an apex predator, white sharks sit at the top of the food chain and help maintain balance that is critical for a healthy ecosystem.

In New England, we are privileged to have such incredible marine wildlife so close to home, including the great white shark. There is very little known about these sharks. We have the opportunity to raise awareness and learn more about this magnificent species, in hopes of ensuring its future.

It is important to realize that the ocean ecosystem is all connected—from the tiniest zooplankton to the largest apex predator. If you love whales, dolphins, and turtles…I encourage you to embrace great white sharks!

Cynthia Wigren
President & Co-founder
Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

One thought on “Embracing Great White Sharks in New England

  1. I absolutely agree with everything posted accept one thing. Great whites are NOT at the top of the food chain. Orca are the heavyweight apex predator champions in the oceans. Rare footage of a killer whale killing a great white by turning it into tonic immobility then eating its liver can be found on youtube.com. That being said Great Whites are awesome! Almost as awesome as Killer Whales

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