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Swimming with the sharks? It may happen more often than you think

A woman floats on the waves with a buoy in front of the old pier at Old Orchard Beach in York County, Maine on July 22, 2022.
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A woman floats on the waves with a buoy in front of the old pier at Old Orchard Beach in York County, Maine on July 22, 2022.

Great white sharks are returning to the waters off Cape Cod and New England in greater numbers according to the Massachusetts Shark Research Program. While the return of the once endangered species is being celebrated by scientists and some coastal-loving New Englanders as a sign of a healthier ocean, it can also be unsettling to consider swimmers may, literally, be swimming with the sharks.

The first white shark sighting of the season in Massachusetts occurred at the end of May, when a group of whale watchers saw a great white shark take down a seal off the coast of Provincetown. Seasonal shark sightings have increased in recent years as the seal population has grown, which is a direct result of conservation efforts started close to 50 years ago, according to the Massachusetts Shark Research Program.

And with more seals available as food, great white sharks have returned in higher numbers as well.

Chris Lowe, a professor of Marine Biology and the director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, grew up going to the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard. Now, Lowe studies sharks off the southern coast of California.

He led a team that researched how often sharks and humans came in close contact with each other and said the results were "surprising."

“One of the things that we wanted to do was look at how often sharks and people are together at the same time,” Lowe said, describing the study his team conducted by flying a drone over 26 southern California beaches once a month for two years.

They found people were near sharks 97% of the days that they surveyed.

“It was kind of surprising to see that higher frequency,” Lowe said.

“But despite the high level of close interactions between the sharks and humans daily," Lowe said, “nobody was being bitten during the time of our study.”

Lowe said shark scientists have been spending decades trying to answer the question of how sharks and humans would interact with the shark population finally coming back, after they’d been hunted pretty hard for almost a century. Some of the findings have been unexpected.

“It used to be thought that if you're in the water and a white shark was nearby, it was going to attack you,” Lowe said. “And that is simply not true.”

Lowe is in contact with his counterparts who study sharks on the east coast and while the habitat of the southern California coast and New England are different, the shark behavior is similar.

“I think what makes our study unique is that, for the first time, we were able to quantify how often people and sharks are near each other at a beach and it's far more often than I think anyone would imagine,” Lowe said. “And the fact that people aren't being bitten clearly demonstrates that we're not on the menu. And if the sharks make mistakes, they don't make them very often.”

Lowe predicted that if a similar aerial drone study were to be conducted along Cape Cod and the waters around Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, scientists would probably see that there are white sharks around people more often than people imagine. The takeaway, Lowe said, is that sharks are there to feed on seals, not people in the water.

But sharks are animals and, though rare, attacks do happen. Lowe advised that everyone make their own risk assessments before going in the water.

“The part people have to remember is, the ocean's a wild place. It is not Disneyland.

"Your safety is not guaranteed. You're more likely to get caught in a riptide and drown than you ever would be from being bitten by a shark,” Lowe said.

“People should consider those things and swim at a guarded beach, make sure there are lifeguards present and stay in a group,” Lowe said. “These are all things we know that lower your chances of becoming an accident.”

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