What If...?

It's All Fun And Games Until Someone Is Eaten Alive...

What Effect Would A Fatal Shark Attack Have On Cape Cod?


Nature is inexorable. It goes where it wants, does what it pleases, and there generally isn't much you can do about it. Nothing I've ever read from either side leads me to believe that Earth likes humans that much, and the dislike she holds is a sweeping, generalized one.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and she doesn't like those resource-squandering humans getting too comfortable on Cape Cod. So, for reasons we'll never know, she steers some seals our way. The seals love Cape Cod. The water's not-too-warm, there are plenty of bass swimming around for supper, and the beaches have lots of desolate spots for them to wiggle out of the water and catch some fat rays. 99% of the locals love the seals, who look sort of like pudgy dogs and can be trained to do tricks. Seals, Cape Cod... what's not to like?

Ah, yes... the vacuum. Simple algebra. Seals like Cape Cod, sharks like seals, so Therefore...

Up until a few years ago, Cape Cod wasn't known for her sharks. Just about every show on Shark Week is based in 3 or 4 places: Australia, Florida, California, and South Africa. Cape Cod was never a player in this field. Sure, we have Monster Shark tournaments, but you have to go offshore to get those. Prior to 2008 or so, the most dangerous Great White you'd see in New England was that cheesy rock band with the bitchin' pyrotechnics.

Although Cape Cod never made this list of the 10 Most Dangerous Shark Beaches, they do mention "us" in the first sentence of the article. That's because a 1970s book/movie decided to base itself in a village named Amity that, when they ended up filming it, looked a lot like Martha's Vineyard. Never you mind that the book's Amity was actually off Long Island, and that the book was inspired by a series of shark attacks in 1916 New Jersey.

Even balancing the Jaws fantasy against a popular and informative Shark Week series would leave the impression that a big shark operating just offshore in New England would be a rare thing, and that- if it did show up here- we'd hunt it down, kill it, and eat it. We're the land of Quint, Brody, Captain Ahab, and the Gorton's Motherf***ing Fisherman. Problem solved.

In reality, the Great Whites are here. They're literally right offshore. They can and will f*ck you up mightily, even with an exploratory bite. There are probably several dozen just offshore at this moment who are almost the size of the Jaws shark. However, we're not doing anything about it. Quint just stares at his phone in real life Amity, and it's illegal to hunt for a Great White even if someone tries to hire him.

Chatham is our main shark beach, although seals come ashore all over the Massachusetts coast. The great majority of our Great White Shark sightings come off of Monomoy, where most of the seals hang out. It's all good, and all natural.

Unfortunately, that all natural event happens in an area where hundreds of thousands of tourists come from all around to use the beaches. Eventually, someone who looks like a seal in poor light is going to swim by the wrong Great White Shark.

What happens then?

Make no mistake... Chatham will close the beaches. They close them now, if a shark is even seen offshore. Things are different than in an Amity where you can bully the police chief, and where the town coroner may also own a seasonal business. The newspapers won't call it a boating accident. We'll actually be quite rabid about reporting it. It would be the hottest Cape story since Hurricane Bob came ashore, and would most likely surpass it.

How long Chatham keeps the beaches closed is up to debate. I spent a fine summer afternoon Googling shark attacks and beach closures. San Diego County is a lot like Massachusetts insofar as being an area that seals (and their great white friends) have recently started hanging around at. After a triathlete was munched by a porker, beaches in the immediate area were closed for 3 days. Beaches beyond that were open, but banned swimming. A bit beyond that, they would just have lifeguards do a face-to-face warning with anyone they saw entering the water.

A similar event and result went down in Central California after another fatal attack.... 72 hours of beach closings. Hawaii, Florida, South Carolina, New Jersey, and Virginia... ditto.

Translate that to a guy getting chowed off Chatham. Chatham, Harwich, Eastham and Orleans immediately close the beaches.  Hyannis and Yarmouth open the beaches, but allow no swimming. West of that, you can enter at your own risk. North facing beaches may not even ask people to leave the water when the Chatham attack hits the radios.

Beach closings are nothing new. We do it for Piping Plovers, Red Tide, Lightning, and Riptides. People die swimming a lot here, although those are usually more of the Drowning variety than a seized-by-a-leviathan type. I sort of keep getting back to "72 hours is just about enough time for him to get hungry again" when I think about it.

Our last fatal shark attack was in 1936. A boy swimming off Holly Woods Beach (it's also known as Hollywood Beach, and it's that little number one in the lower left hand corner) in Mattapoisett was grabbed by the leg and pulled under by a 6-10 foot shark. It ripped a 5 pound chunk of meat out of his leg, and the boy died during an amputation in a New Bedford hospital. Colorings of the shark reported by witnesses spoke of a smaller Great White.

Beaches on either shore of Buzzards Bay emptied, although I don't know if they were closed. Many articles pointed out that swimming ceased to exist as a recreational activity after this attack. However, time passed, no new attacks went down, and most people forgot about it.

We don't get a lot of fatal shark attacks in Massachusetts. Before the Hollywood attack, our last fatal one near shore (I'm sure a lot of shipwrecked sailors ended up in the belly of the beast, but offshore doesn't count!) was off Scituate in 1830. A Great White jumped into a dory and sank it, devouring the poor fisherman who was rowing it in the process. Prior to that, we had a 1720s attack, where a man was knocked from his boat and devoured by a shark in Boston Harbor.

Swimming was not as big a recreational activity back then, so the chances of a human getting snapped up in Massachusetts surf was very slim before this century, and is still very slim now.

Interest in sharks was high after the 1936 attack, and many were spotted off Chatham and the Islands. They were here then, albeit in smaller numbers. The sharks are also here all year- a 15 foot Great White was caught 5 miles off Duxbury in February, 1938. They are just here in greater numbers now, and they are also here during the present height of the information age.

A fatal shark attack off Chatham today would be a catastrophe. Instead of a boy being snatched off an obscure backwater beach and ending up in a few local papers, imagine a woman devoured 50 yards offshore by a Leviathan while hundreds of people upload the carnage onto YouTube. Imagine it going Viral. Picture every network leading off with the story. Envision the "where shall we go this summer vacation" discussions afterwards.

We'd be Shark City. Tourism would collapse. Once you chop "Swimming" off the to-do list while visiting Cape Cod in the summer, the appeal of "clam shacks" and "mini golf" would be greatly diminished. Like Quint said, we'd be on welfare all winter.

There would be some benefits. Shark tourism is nothing to sneeze at. A munching in our waters would sell a lot of t-shirts, send out a lot of charter boats (I should add here that fishing for Great White Sharks was made illegal in 1997), and would get Woods Hole a lot of research grant money. Swimming pool installers would be able to pretty much name their price. These gains would be small when compared to the losses we'd suffer in tourism and real estate values, however.

I actually want to lure one into Buttermilk Bay, trap him there, and then set up a tourist industry by starving him to the point where he'll swim up and do the Funky Chicken for my tourist boat when I drive out on the water and throw some dead seagulls overboard. This may be illegal, and it definitely is illogical... but I have the basic plan in my head if the opportunity ever offers itself. Lemons/lemonade, as my Mother was fond of saying.

I think that property tax assesments would be slow to drop after a fatal shark attack, while real estate prices would plummet. You may be able to rent the Kennedy Compound for $500 a week in August. We would also be easy pickings for rival, nearby tourism spots. "Come To The New Hampshire Lakes: You Stand Very Little Chance Of Being Devoured By A Monster Shark Here!" It's catchy, although it might be tough to work a jingle around it.

Either way, the Bite would be felt by hotels, cottage renters, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, fishermen, and anyone else who needs those summer dollars. In one bite, we could be transformed from a happening summer resort to a sleepy backwater set of welfare villages.

There's not much that we can do about it, aside from slaughtering the seals and hiring Quint. It's frightening... because, aside from a monster hurricane or a meltdown at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth, I can't imagine a more disastrous nightmare scenario for Cape Cod's economy than a YouTube video of a fatal Chatham shark attack.

This video, while a bit extreme, shows the symbolic effect of a fatal shark attack on tourism quite well... if you can just imagine that the bridge in question here was in Sagamore. 


This same movie also showed me that sharks can jump up and snatch jumbo jets, but we'll leave that for a later issue.

CapeCodToday.com welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on CapeCodToday.com.