Chatham Makes Sharks the Attraction 40 Years After ‘Jaws’

Shark-themed merchandise at The Chatham Clothing Bar in Chatham, Mass., July 23, 2014. In the 40 years since "Jaws," the movie's ferocious predator has been rebranded and embraced by Chatham's robust tourist economy. –Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist/The New York Times

CHATHAM, Mass. — One store offers pastel baby bootees with felt shark teeth for toes. Christmas ornaments have Santa perched on the back of a shark with a wreath around its neck. The local school district has adopted the shark as its mascot.

After the nearly 40 years since “Jaws’’ first flashed its pearly whites on the silver screen, the mindless man-devouring machine at the center of the terror has been re-branded. Today it is less likely to be depicted as a ferocious predator than as a friendly dolphin-like character with a toothy grin.

Nowhere is the transformation more evident than here in this 350-year-old seaside town at the elbow of Cape Cod. With its spread of sandy beaches and inlets dotted with pleasure craft and fishing vessels, Chatham could have been the model for the fictional town of Amity in the movie, which was filmed on nearby Martha’s Vineyard. When sharks started cropping up here a few years ago, the town leaders at first feared they would flatline the robust tourist economy.

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But instead of turning a blind eye like those in the movie, Chatham’s merchants and hoteliers embraced the sharks’ arrival.

“When you have lemons, you make lemonade, and this was one of the great opportunities to do so,’’ said Shareen Davis, a commercial fisher, gallery owner and descendant of one of the original families that settled in Chatham in the 1600s.

In a video on its website, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a new organization based here, urges viewers to “spread the white shark love!’’ The soundtrack morphs from the relentless, foreboding theme music of “Jaws’’ into Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.’’

Researchers from Ocearch, which has tagged great whites off Chatham and offers real-time views of their locations online, talk of moving the conversation about sharks “from fear to fascination.’’

“Attitudes have changed,’’ said Kevin McLain, executive director of the Chatham Orpheum Theater, the town’s restored movie house, where “Jaws’’ is playing twice a day throughout the summer.

“There’s a line in the movie, that if you yell ‘Shark!’ on the Fourth of July, we’re going to have a panic on our hands,’’ he said. “In Chatham now, you yell ‘Shark!’ in the middle of town, people come running to the beach, not away from it.’’

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The other day, beachgoers here saw what they believed to be a great white snare a seal, the two animals thrashing around as the water turned redder. A father in the group told The Cape Cod Chronicle that his children were not frightened by the scene but rather were “jumping up and down’’ with excitement.

One of the people most responsible for the shift in perception is Dr. Greg Skomal, a state marine biologist and shark specialist. He has led efforts to tag and track the behemoths for decades in New England and conveys his enthusiasm in well-attended lectures to vacationers up and down the Cape.

“The white shark is the holy grail of species — it’s an iconic, charismatic shark that everybody wants to see,’’ Skomal told about 50 people in Truro last week during a breezy talk titled “White Sharks I Have Known, Loved and Learned From.’’ It included eye-popping slides and video of great whites with names like “Gretel’’ (“because she was lost’’) and “Large Marge.’’

Skomal says that great whites are not interested in human fodder. People are not as blubbery as a seal or the carcass of a dead whale, which is their top menu choice. A great white in 2012 took what Skomal called a “test bite’’ out of a tourist from Denver who had been swimming near seals in Truro, but it swam away after the man kicked it. It was the first great white attack on a human in Massachusetts in 76 years.

Since 1837, Massachusetts has had only three shark attacks and one fatality in 1936, according to the International Shark Attack File. By contrast, in that same time, Florida has had 687 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks and 11 fatalities, most recently in 2010.

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The creatures may have long lurked in New England waters. But they are closer to shore now because their chief food source, the gray seal, has returned in abundance. The seals were nearly wiped out decades ago by fishermen, who killed them because they snatched their fish. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 ended the slaughter of seals, and the population has exploded, setting up an all-you-can-eat buffet for hungry great whites.

“Don’t be afraid of these animals just because every now and then they bite someone,’’ Skomal said. “They’re important members of the ecosystem and we need to have them here.’’

Mike Meserve, a retiree visiting from Washington, said his takeaway from Skomal’s lecture was this: “The sense of menace from the ‘Jaws’ effect has worn off almost completely. The reality is, there’s no real reason to be afraid.’’

But when Skomal began tagging great whites near here in 2009, many were nervous.

“It was like, how do we pull this together so we don’t scare everyone?’’ said Sandy Wycoff, owner of the Chatham Clothing Bar, which features some shark apparel. “We don’t want to be Amity.’’

Slowly, the question resolved itself. The sightings increased. Taggings increased. Tourists started asking where they could see the great whites and, eventually, businesses started catering to the interest.

“The merchants are capitalizing on the fact that the sharks are here and people come, and this is what they’re looking for,’’ said Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce. “The demand is there, so basically the town is supplying it.’’

Some vacationers think the town “took the bait,’’ in the words of Ryan Brigden, 17, who was swimming off Lighthouse Beach the other day with his uncle, Chris Conway.

“Maybe it was a calculated move by the town and the press to make it exciting here,’’ said Conway. Embracing the sharks was “genius,’’ he said, but all that would change with a fatality. “There will be one,’’ he predicted.

The tourist economy was already flourishing in Chatham, where the winter population of 6,600 soars in the summer to 30,000, even before the attraction of the sharks.

“But this could have gone in a whole other direction, and the economy could have suffered if people were afraid,’’ said Jennifer Allard, marketing manager for the Chatham Bars Inn, an upscale resort hotel.

“Not only are people still coming, but they’re still going on kayak tours, seal tours and boating excursions and still swimming in the ocean,’’ she said.

What they are not doing is signing up for the $5,000 shark-watch excursions that the inn offered last year with spotter planes. Instead, the inn is offering a $50 boat ride out to a buoy with Marianne Long, a recreation manager at the inn and a volunteer for the new shark conservancy, who talks enthusiastically about sharks as she checks a receiver to see if any tagged sharks have cruised by.

So far, none have.

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