Shark alert! Warnings go high- and low-tech

Philip Marcelo
Associated Press

Chatham, Mass. — From drones and smartphone apps to old-school flags and signs, a growing great white shark population along the East Coast has officials and researchers turning to responses both high- and low-tech to ensure safety for millions of beachgoers this summer.

On Cape Cod, Massachusetts, new warning flags and signs are cropping up at some of the coastline’s most popular beaches and a local shark research nonprofit is developing a shark tracking app for the entire Eastern Seaboard.

Researchers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, meantime, are testing shark-seeking drones in a study that may one day give beach lifeguards a new eye in the sky.

“The days of burying our heads in the sand and saying, ‘What sharks? We don’t have sharks here’ are over,” said Gregory Skomal, a Massachusetts state biologist who has been studying Cape Cod’s surging white shark population. “It’s time to move past that and be forthright and honest with the public about the presence of these animals.”

The new measures are the latest acknowledgments of the new reality taking hold on Massachusetts’ famous coastline, where Skomal’s team identified 141 different great whites last year, up from about 80 the previous year.

The region, like others along the East Coast, has dozens of other species of sharks including blue and mako sharks, but many tend to stay farther offshore and be less aggressive than great whites, Skomal said.

The great whites are being drawn to Cape Cod’s waters because seals, their favorite food, have dramatically rebounded there, thanks to a 1972 law that made it illegal to kill them.

Researchers, beach managers and public safety officials have been convening in recent years an unofficial “shark working group” to come up with ways to educate the public. Among the ideas they developed for this summer were the warning flags, which are purple and emblazoned with the unmistakable silhouette of a great white.

The flags started flying at some town beaches this Memorial Day weekend and will appear on beaches administered by the National Park Service starting June 16, when those beaches are staffed with lifeguards.

Towns are also posting dramatic billboards at beach entries. Many bear a large great white image and advise visitors against swimming near seals.

Worldwide, there were only 98 unprovoked shark attacks in 2015, resulting in six deaths.

Of those, 59 were in the United States, according to the International Shark Attack File maintained at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Shark update

Attack suspected in Calif.

Thousands of Memorial Day beachgoers were kept out of the water Monday as lifeguards searched miles of popular Southern California shoreline for a shark they believe attacked a swimmer the day before. The woman, who was swimming in a wetsuit, received large bite marks on her upper torso and shoulder and was bleeding heavily after a lifeguard boat spotted her in distress Sunday at Corona Del Mar State Beach, said Tara Finnigan, spokeswoman for the city of Newport Beach. The woman’s condition was not immediately available, but she was conscious when she went to a hospital, Finnegan said.