Hundreds of great white sharks hunting seals close to shore along Cape Cod, and how local researchers are hoping to predict shark behavior, is the focus of a new National Geographic special for Sharkfest next week.
The documentary Return of the White Shark includes “really rare footage” of three great whites feasting on a seal, and an apex predator attacking a seal in the surf zone.
The Cape shark researchers in the show also revealed how many sharks have visited the region in a recent 5-year period, which is much higher than expected.
“There was never a population estimate for white sharks in the Northwest Atlantic,” Atlantic White Shark Conservancy staff scientist Megan Winton said during the special. “It’s one of the most mysterious populations of white sharks on the planet.”
The team of researchers, which includes Winton and Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries marine biologist Greg Skomal, now estimate that 800 to 900 individual sharks have visited the Cape’s waters in the recent 5-year period.
“Which is absolutely incredible,” Winton said.
The count of 800 to 900 sharks makes the Cape one of the largest and potentially densest area for great whites in the world.
“It’s important for the public to know that the sharks are not here all at the same time,” Skomal told the Herald on Monday. “They trickle in and trickle out… And some spend more time along the Cape because they have success feeding on seals.”
In the special, Skomal discusses the recent phenomenon of great white sharks returning to Cape Cod because of the explosion of seals. Viewers get to see him tagging sharks, while learning about the research goals to keep beachgoers safe.
There have been a few shark and human interactions along the Cape during the last decade, including a fatal shark bite in 2018.
“We realized that it was important to start thinking about public safety,” Skomal said in the documentary. “We started really looking intensively at the predatory behavior of the white shark.”
The scientists are studying where sharks are hunting for seals, how they’re hunting, and how that relates to the environment. The researchers want to find patterns that will lead to predictive behavior, like a weather report for shark activity.
“We want to figure out when, where, and how do white sharks naturally attack and kill their prey, the seals,” Skomal said. “If we find patterns in behavior, then we have an ability to predict or forecast where these animals are likely to be relative to human activities.”
Some of the fascinating video during the special included a shark attacking a seal in the surf zone, and then the three sharks feeding together.
“I’m honestly completely floored by it,” Winton said. “There’s no fighting. They weren’t getting into it with each other, which is really surprising. We’ve never seen this kind of behavior before on Cape Cod.”
When researchers see a shark eating a seal, it’s generally only one shark and other great whites aren’t in the area at all.
“This was really rare footage,” Skomal said. “This was really interesting behavior with the three sharks, taking turns on the carcass. It’s pretty riveting stuff.”
Nat Geo’s Sharkfest has done a great job showcasing the local research, said Skomal who added that he was excited to work on the show.
“It gives people a real look at how these animals behave and where this happens,” Skomal said. “It does happen very close to shore, and people need to be cognizant of that.”
The documentary’s release also coincides with the publication of Skomal’s book, “Chasing Shadows.”
Return of the White Shark premieres on July 3 during Nat Geo’s Sharkfest.