We're Not Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

There are great white sharks in my hometown of Chatham, Mass. This is making international headlines, and also drawing crowds of fall tourists to the lighthouse parking lot, where people are lining up in the hopes of catching sight of a dorsal fin cutting through the waves. The first I heard of the sharks was a few years ago, having dinner at the Roo Bar in town (no longer there) when a local surfer suddenly burst in, talking all wild-eyed about how he’d seen a great white rise out of the water and bite the head off one of the seals off Monomoy Island. “How interesting,” my family nodded very politely. “We’re sure that happened.” I mentioned it later to my boyfriend at the time, a commercial fisherman in town. He was unfazed. “You’re not going to have thousands of seals out there and no sharks.” I like that about fishermen.

Great whites are the movie stars of the shark world; their presence creates global buzz. But for the wrong reason–we think they’re the enemy. Just two of the fascinating things I learned while working with diver Mike Lombardi on his story,  "Bad Reputation," last December: 1. In the pretty rare instance a shark bites a human, it is a “test bite” to see if we’re something they eat. We’re not, and so they’ll swim away. That bite can do some damage, but you can’t blame them for being confused or curious about something in their territory. 2. Shark finning is wiping out shark populations around the world. A shark is captured, its fins are hacked off, and the whole live animal is dumped back into the ocean, where it drowns or dies from starvation. Last year, after someone wrote a letter to the Cape Cod Times about the devastation caused by shark finning, one reader offered this response: “When we solve problems like world hunger, maybe I’ll have time to care about sharks.” Kind of missing the point that, as apex predators in the ocean’s ecosystem, sharks are vital to the ocean’s health and the sustainability of everything in it.

Here’s hoping that the headline-grabbing great whites in Chatham end up raising awareness.

Read "Bad Reputation," Mike Lombardi’s account of diving with sharks in Rhode Island here.

Read more about shark finning here.