Shark expert wants to know what makes the predator tick

Greg Skomal and other researchers were the first to tag and track great white sharks in the northwest Atlantic.
Steve Annear/Globe Staff/File
Greg Skomal and other researchers were the first to tag and track great white sharks in the northwest Atlantic.

NANTUCKET — He’s a grown man now. A scientist. But sometimes when he’s out there on the Atlantic, perched atop his research vessel and on the lookout for sharp-toothed predators, the little boy inside peeks through.

“The little kid comes out every day I’m on that pulpit because I’m seeing an animal I’ve always been fascinated with,’’ said Greg Skomal, the state’s top shark specialist. “I’m also seeing an incredible predator that’s been characterized by Hollywood as a killer. I’ve seen it kill seals. I know what it’s capable of.

“And there’s a little part of me that has deep respect that’s linked to fear. I don’t want to mess with this thing!’’


No one does.

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Shark sightings have forced the temporary closure of Cape Cod beaches dozens of times since the beginning of July, with warning flags flying from Nantucket to Provincetown, from Wellfleet to Martha’s Vineyard.

On Sunday, two Cape Cod beaches — Nauset Beach in Orleans and Coast Guard Beach in Eastham — were temporarily closed to swimmers after sharks were sighted in the morning.

Late last month, a State Police helicopter spotted a great white shark near Newcomb Hollow Beach on the Truro-Wellfleet line, where Arthur Medici, 26, was killed by a shark while boogie-boarding last year, the first fatal encounter off Massachusetts in eight decades.

It’s enough to make you want to take up tennis. Or hike the Blue Hills.


But not Greg Skomal.

The 57-year-old Connecticut native was just a teenager when Steven Spielberg arrived on Martha’s Vineyard to film his 1975 blockbuster with that pulsating theme, a terrifying tale about terror on the sand, blood in the water, and a foreboding fin on the horizon.

“I loved it,’’ Skomal said about the blockbuster movie “Jaws,’’ which did for body surfing roughly what Alfred Hitchcock’s “ Psycho” had done for hot showers.

While most of us cowered in our seats, hoping Robert Shaw, who portrayed the crusty sea captain, and Richard Dreyfuss, who played the wiseacre marine biologist, would not become the mechanical shark’s next meal, Skomal focused on something else.

“They’re on the flying bridge and they have all this fancy instrumentation where they’re picking up the shadow of a shark,’’ Skomal told me the other day before a midsummer presentation in Nantucket on modern-day sharks. “I thought he had the coolest research vessel.’’


Now Skomal, the senior fisheries scientist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, has one of his own.

‘I thought [the marine biologist character in “Jaws”] had the coolest research vessel.’

And there’s plenty of research to do.

Plenty of that fear and loathing, too. Minus the pulsating, I’m-going-to-get-you music.

“I’ve never seen a great white shark in my life and I hope not to. Other than in the movies,’’ Sarah Kelly, 60, from Mystic, Conn., told me the other day as she waited for Skomal’s afternoon shark presentation at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. “But it’s interesting to be around an animal that has the capacity to pursue you. And eat you. I guess.’’

Skomal is married and the father of two young kids. He knows most of his friends can leave their jobs behind once they hit their front porch after work. He can’t.

A decade ago, Skomal and a team of researchers were the first scientists to tag and to track great white sharks in the northwest Atlantic Ocean.

He wants to know what makes sharks tick. He knows them so well, he calls some of them by name: Lydia. Omar. James. These animals have lived for millions of years. He wonders: How have they survived?

A fundamental change occurred in 1972. That’s when the Marine Mammal Protection Act took effect, protecting gray seals, and restoring the seal population — also known as dinner to great white sharks.

“You talk to old-timers on Cape Cod and they’ll tell you this is an unnatural phenomenon,’’ Skomal told me in his office before his shark presentation, repeating what those senior citizens now tell him: As kids they never saw a gray seal.

“That’s because the damage we did to that population goes back well beyond 100 years,’’ he said. “We wiped out their breeding colony. So for white sharks, why would they go to Cape Cod? There’s nothing to eat.’’

But now the dinner bell rings loudly every day. And that means more headlines about shark attacks and concern about blood pooling in the water.

“I can confidently say that 20 years ago there was a lower probability of a shark attack than there is now,’’ he said. “Because I’ve seen the number of sharks out there. We’ve seen the seals. It’s a predator-prey relationship right next to shore and we’ve got people overlapping. It’s still a low-probability event, but it’s slightly higher than it was 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago.’’

Those numbers keep Skomal busy. He’s doing research. He’s tagging sharks. He’s also answering questions from people like me. He’s the resident shark expert. And it’s summertime on Cape Cod.

“Sometimes the headlines are far more dramatic than the content of the article,’’ he said. “Headlines like: ‘Terror on the Beach.’ Hollywood does the same thing. It can be a bit frustrating.’’

You want advice? Here’s one piece of it: Stay in shallow water. If the water is over your head, it’s easier for a shark to get to you.

Here’s another:

“When people ask me what should I do when I go to the beach on the Cape, I say, ‘Number one, drive safely, because getting hurt in your car is a much higher probability than when you get to the beach.’ I like to impress on people that this is a low-probability event. But you don’t want to bump up that probability by your own actions.’’

What about all those seals?

“Let’s say there are 20,000 seals that need to be removed from the Cape in order to have an impact. I think it probably would be many more. What are the mechanics of doing that? Who does it? Are they shot? Are they injected? Is it possible to remove 20,000 seals in one year?’’

And what about the politics of it all?

“You think a bunch of conservation groups are going to let people sit around and shoot seals? They’re protected. It’s a very complex subject and it’s real easy to throw a bomb and say, ‘Get rid of the seals.’ But when you really think about it – when you sit down and your kid says, ‘Dad, why are they shooting that seal?’ – what’s your answer? So I can go surfing? You really need to think about it from all different angles. So I don’t think it’s feasible.’’

As Skomal spoke to an overflow crowd the other evening, his audience sat rapt as he discussed his career as a shark scientist, recalling the days when it was nearly impossible to find a great white.

Not anymore.

“We always try to attribute emotions to animals, right?’’ he said. “We’re just good at it. We do it with our dogs. We do it with deer. When we think about this animal ripping apart another animal, we think it’s aggressive and vengeful and mean and angry.

“But imagine — and it’s hard for us to do — that these animals have no emotion. Because they don’t. They want to survive. They do what they’ve been doing and what they’re hard-wired to do. They’re just trying to eat. They’re not mad at people. They’re not mad at seals. When we eat a cow, we’re not mad at that cow. We want to survive.’’

In other words, that’s not danger lurking in the deep.

It’s just nature. Plan accordingly.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. Contact him at