Expert takes a bite out of shark myths
Marion — Forget what you know about “Jaws” – sharks are not out to get you. At least that’s what researcher Dr. Greg Skomal says, and with 30 years of experience he knows a thing or two about the toothy predators.
“They’ve evolved feeding on seals,” said Skomal, a Marion resident. “Humans are not their preferred meal. Humans are boney.”
A researcher with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and an environmental analyst with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Skomal has spent the last four years studying great white sharks in the northeast.
As recent as 2009, no one had tagged a shark in the northeast, said Skomal. In 2012, scientists tagged 32.
“Everything we know about white sharks, for the most part, came from the East,” said Skomal. As research goes, “we’re lagging behind out eastern counterparts.”
The influx of great whites on Cape Cod, which was highly publicized last summer, has everything to do with the population boom of gray seals. The animals were nearly hunted out, but the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 allowed them to make a comeback.
In 1991, Muskeget Island off of Cape Cod saw only three seal pups born, said Skomal. In 2008, more than 2,000 were born, and Skomal said the overall population has risen to 10,000.
Where there are seals, there are sharks.
“We’ve established a café for them,” said Skomal.
Now with great whites in our backyard, scientists have been employing modern technology to tag and track great whites on the eastern seaboard.
Research is providing some answers, but even more questions for scientists.
Using tags that can be programmed to pop off, Skomal and others have tracked the behavioral and migratory patterns of sharks.
“We get a sense that sharks have their own neighborhoods,” said Skomal.
Through satellite tags, Skomal saw a “snow bird migratory pattern,” with sharks traveling from New England to Florida in the cooler months. Just before he published a paper on his findings; however, a shark named Curly took off to the east for the cold Sargasso Sea.
“She did everything I didn’t expert her to do,” said Skomal. “What I thought were very simple migrating patterns became very complex. We’ve only scratched the surface.”
Skomal helped develop an autonomous underwater vehicle, aka a waterproof robot, to track sharks. With the technology still new, there can be complications.
Skomal said some engineers were close to tears when a shark tagged with a new $10,000 device that could reach depths of 300 feet went 350 feet below the surface. The machine imploded.
With the unpredictable sharks, such casualties are not unexpected, and Skomal is excited to see what new discoveries are unearthed next.
In July, Skomal will be featured, along with his team, on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. He has also published several books on his research, including one he co-wrote entitled “The Shark Handbook: The Essential Guide for Understanding the Sharks of the World.”