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Cape tourists looking to go out and see ’Jaws'
When great white sharks arrived off the Cape last year, "our phones went crazy with people looking to go out and see 'Jaws,' " Keith Lincoln of Monomoy Island Ferry said.
And with shark sightings already starting off New England, Lincoln — like other whale- and seal-watch operators — is anticipating more interest this year.
The demand is there for shark watches. What's missing is a guarantee that the sharks will be there.
Lincoln, who usually takes visitors out to see seals, said he's brainstorming ways to prepare for his customers' fascination with sharks.
Dr. Greg Skomal, the state Division of Marine Fisheries' lead shark researcher, said the predators naturally follow their prey — a population of seals that has exploded recently near Chatham. With warmer-than-usual water temperatures expected this summer, officials predict the massive predators will arrive earlier if they're not already here.
Skomal led a state research team last year that tagged five great white sharks with satellite tracking devices last summer. Chatham officials closed the water to the public after numerous sightings, and Daniel Tobin, the town's director of parks and recreation, said Chatham was lucky the influx of sharks came after the peak swimming season.
While sightseeing tours have already started, the unofficial season starts when schools get out. David Murdoch of Chatham Water Tours said he's telling early tourgoers that great whites won't be around until the water warms.
Skomal said that 80 percent of the sharks' time is spent in water temperatures between 59 and 73 degrees.
Massachusetts has recorded just four shark attacks since 1670 — two have been fatal, most recently in 1936 — so Murdoch suggests tourists are more excited than afraid. After the water closure, Tobin said more tourists visited Chatham Light, where the overlook offered a busy sighting spot.
Murdoch said that if the water is closed again this season, he's hoping his dock will be another busy spot.
Customers are asking for new tours exclusively for sharks, a request Lincoln called a "typical tourist question." For those, he said, he has to build towers on his boats so people can see beneath the surface. Even with towers, there's little chance of seeing anything too great.
A Stanford University study said that great white sharks are now more rare than Bengal tigers. With whale- and seal-watching tours virtually guaranteeing sightings, area captains find themselves in unfamiliar waters. While filling boats won't be an issue, fulfilling their expectations will be.
Unlike great white shark habitats in South Africa or San Francisco's Farallon Islands, Lincoln said the Cape's shark population can't sustain a diving or viewing business. Great White Adventures, North America's most successful shark diving company, charges $400 to $800 dollars for day trips.
"It's not feasible," Lincoln said. "It's just not a dependable business to do three-hour tours so that people can have a slight chance of seeing one. There's no guarantee."
Right now, Murdoch said he'll just wait and see what happens. While shark-watches won't be in his tour packages, he certainly won't turn away those who look for sharks when he's showing them seals.
"Hopefully, people will come in droves, and we'll all get rich," he said.