National Geographic : 2016 Jul
100 national geographic • JULY 2016 Thus a rough sketch of the lives of California white sharks is forming. After spending the sum- mer and fall gorging on seals, they head out to the deep ocean to breed, relying on energy stores to live. The males then swim back to the coast while the females wander to unknown places, where they remain for another year or so, per- haps to birth their young. Newborn sharks then show up at feeding grounds—say, the waters off Southern California—devouring fish until they are big enough to join their elders in the north or south hunting seals. It’s not a perfect picture. Females and males aren’t in the café together for long, and we don’t know where the babies are born. But it explains a lot. For example, as a population rebounds, its young become plentiful, which is likely why Southern Californians have encountered a lot of sharks lately. Yet it’s tougher to figure out elsewhere. Australian sharks forage along the southern coast but don’t seem to have a pat- tern or café. And in the Atlantic we know even less. “ We’ve got wanderers, and we’ve got coast- al sharks. And what dictates which, I have no idea,” Skomal says. Even though he doesn’t understand their migrations yet, Skomal is sure that white sharks have a long history here. At his office in New Bedford, just west of Cape Cod, he opens a doc- ument that compiled studies of seal bones from Native American archaeological sites along the eastern seaboard. The discarded bones suggest that seal populations crashed from overhunt- ing perhaps a century before the Declaration of Independence. In other words, we’ve had very few Atlantic gray seals throughout the United States’ 240-year history. Today, thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, seal colonies now populate New England. And when the seals returned, the sharks came home as well. ONE BRIGHT AUGUST MORNING I board a two-seater plane with Wayne Davis, a veteran spotter pilot for tuna and swordfish who now helps scientists track down white sharks. Un- like the hubs, the water here is so shallow that sharp eyes can spot them from the air. In just 30 minutes of flying we see seven, all patrolling beaches where gray seals are foraging in open waters. On the way back Davis and I fly past sev- eral beaches a mile or so to the north packed with vacationers. So far locals have embraced their new neigh- bors. There are stuffed animals, T-shirts, posters, and a community art exhibit called “Sharks in the Park.” Even the new high school’s mascot is a great white. Most of the time the sharks are shown from the side—cheerful, buffoonish. Experts warn, though, that at some point someone here will meet the other version—the one with teeth. Attacks on people are incredibly rare. In waters off California, the chances of a surfer being bitten by a great white shark are one in 17 million; for swimmers, it’s even rarer—one attack in every 738 million beach visits, accord- ing to a recent Stanford University study. On Cape Cod, fatalities may not be a question of if, but when. The last lethal shark attack off New England was in 1936, but there have been sev- eral close calls recently. A swimmer there was bitten on both legs in 2012, and two paddlers in Plymouth were knocked from their kayaks in 2014, although they escaped unscathed. If a more serious attack happens, Massa- chusetts will join the other hubs in weighing the benefits versus the dangers of sharks in their waters. It may be that great white sharks are rebound- ing across the world: following the bigger seal and sea lion populations, re-establishing them- selves in their old hunting grounds, reclaiming the coasts they nearly lost. Then again, it may be that great whites today are hanging over the abyss of extinction, clutch- ing the edge by the skin of their jagged teeth. Will we look past our fear and reach out a hand to this creature? Can we take pity on the pitiless eyes of a monster? j Ready for some sharks in action? Go to ngm.com/Jul2016 to watch video of photographer Brian Skerry on assignment off Cape Cod, using a seal decoy to photograph the predators.