Heather Doyle is building a volunteer army to help prevent shark attacks in Massachusetts waters, and the next platoon she hopes to enlist are recreational boaters and anglers.
“We don’t want to know every time somebody out on the water sees a shark, but we do want to know when they’re nearshore,” says Doyle, who cofounded the nonprofit Cape Cod Ocean Community in spring 2019 after a series of shark attacks. “Boaters know, especially around here, that there are a lot of sharks.”
The number of reported shark attacks has risen in recent years near Cape Cod, including a great white attacking two female kayakers in 2014, a shark biting into a paddleboard in 2017 and the fatal mauling of 26-year-old boogie boarder Arthur Medici in 2018—the first deadly shark attack in Massachusetts waters since 1936. The Medici killing in particular created a wave of fear because unprovoked fatal shark attacks are so rare. According to the International Shark Attack File, only 10 occurred worldwide during 2020, and only three of those were in the United States (in California, Hawaii and Maine—a first for the Pine Tree State). Overall, bees, wasps, dogs and snakes kill far more people each year than sharks do.
Still, 2020 was considered an unusually deadly year in the water, given that the annual global average of unprovoked fatal shark attacks worldwide is usually four. And the back-to-back incidents near Cape Cod the past few years have captured the attention of residents and researchers.
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries says great white sharks coming nearshore are attracted to gray seals, with both populations increasing because of limits placed on hunting and fishing. The summer months are the prime season for sharks in the area (and down the East Coast to New Jersey), creating regular opportunities for interaction with all the boaters, surfers and swimmers who take advantage of the sunny weather in the months of June, July and August.
Exactly how many more sharks than usual might be in the Cape Cod area is a question that researchers have been trying to answer since at least 2009, when the Division of Marine Fisheries started tagging and tracking great whites in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. A study began in 2014 to attempt to estimate the number of sharks that visit Massachusetts waters, and since 2019, research has been done with an emphasis on public safety—specifically “to provide a more detailed picture of predatory behavior in the waters off Cape Cod” and “support ongoing efforts to mitigate the growing potential for shark-human conflict in the region,” according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which helps to fund the research. That work is expected to continue until at least 2024.
In the meantime, local residents like Doyle are taking action. She was a longtime summer visitor to the Cape who became a permanent resident in 2018, the same year Medici was killed. The year before that, her friend Cleve Bigelow, a surfer, survived an encounter with an 11-foot shark. Reports of additional incidents spooked the locals enough that they’d be standing in their streets and yards, talking about sharks and wringing their hands. “We all looked at each other like, somebody should do something,” Doyle recalls. “What’s happening here?”
She and several other concerned citizens created Cape Cod Ocean Community with a goal of implementing surveillance, detection and deterrence technology that will improve safety in the waters off Cape Cod. This summer—assuming that supply-chain issues from the Covid-19 pandemic ease up before the sharks head south for the winter—the group is planning to test a “virtual shark net” using technology called the Boat01 Buoy. The device creates an electrical field that’s 26 feet deep and 19 feet wide, according to the manufacturer, Australia-based Ocean Guardian.
The Boat01 Buoy is built to be used off the back of a boat, but Doyle’s group plans to deploy several of the devices from the beach, daisy-chaining them to create a bigger zone. The group will then use airborne spotters in planes, along with drones, to verify that no sharks penetrate the field.
Those same pilots preparing to help test the virtual shark net are also the inspiration for the idea that Cape Cod Ocean Community wants to pursue this summer involving recreational boaters and anglers. The pilots came to Doyle’s attention during a fundraiser that she organized at Hog Island Beer Company in Orleans, Massachusetts, before the pandemic. Her nonprofit was displaying all kinds of shark-deterrent products—everything from beach sirens to surfboard add-ons—when a few pilots from Chatham Municipal Airport approached her. She recalls them saying, “We see sharks all the time close to shore, and we don’t know who to tell. We’ve been trying to get to the harbormaster and the towns to get something going.”
So began an effort that Doyle says turned pilots from 53 municipal airports across Massachusetts into nearshore shark-spotters, all on a volunteer basis. Additional volunteers on the beaches in 2019 would listen for the reports from the pilots on handheld airband radios, which are basically the VHF radios of the skies, using channels and frequencies set aside for avionics.
“Those people got up off their beach chairs and told their lifeguards,” Doyle says, adding that her group bought a bunch of the radios to distribute, much as a group might hand out frisbees or coolers for people to take to the beach. “People were buying their own radios. It had a life of its own.”
The pandemic slowed the efforts that Doyle and her group were making during summer 2020, but today, with Covid-19 vaccines becoming more prevalent, the nonprofit’s work is once again ramping up. A member of the Cape Cod Ocean Community board has been tasked with expanding the airplane-spotting program to include boaters, and is looking for partners to help make the idea a reality. “We need somebody to offer to help,” Doyle says. “There must be boaters looking for something to do out there.”
Her vision is that in the summers to come, boaters cruising along the Cape Cod coast—and around popular islands such as Nantucket, or anywhere else that sharks spend time in the summer months—will see a nearshore shark and instinctively pick up their onboard radio to report the location. Calling in a shark sighting in Massachusetts, she hopes, will become as commonplace as calling 911 when people see a person in need of medical attention.
“It should be normalized,” Doyle says. “That’s what we’re trying to do, just make this something that people do.”
This article was originally published in the July 2021 issue.