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A sailboat passed a group of fisherman at Woods Hole yesterday afternoon after the great white shark swimming in Naushon Island’s inlets for 11 days finally left for open ocean. Behind the sailboat is Naushon Island, where the shark was located.
A sailboat passed a group of fisherman at Woods Hole yesterday afternoon after the great white shark swimming in Naushon Island’s inlets for 11 days finally left for open ocean. Behind the sailboat is Naushon Island, where the shark was located. (Globe Photo / Julia Cumes)

Fishermen, scientists herd shark to freedom

FALMOUTH -- A great white shark trapped near Cape Cod bid farewell to the spotlight and wiggled its way to freedom early yesterday afternoon, leaving its shallow lagoon and disappearing into the deep, cold Atlantic.

Weary scientists and fishermen who had been working for days to free the 1,700 pound shark chanted, "Go, go, go," as they shot water hoses at the animal in a last-ditch effort to urge it over a long, shallow stretch of eelgrass that had separated the animal from open sea.

Suddenly the shark responded, slowly navigating its way through water just a few inches deeper than the shark was thick.

"It was absolutely fantastic," said Greg Skomal, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries shark researcher. "I was a little nervous she would turn around. . . . I backed the boats up and guarded the shoal just in case, but she kept going."

Scientists believe that the female shark first entered the Naushon Island inlet to forage for food two weeks ago, after hurricanes had raised the water level at high tide. When the waters receded, the shark was afraid to swim out through the exit channel, scientists believe.

The water hoses finally nudged the shark out after more than a dozen fishermen and scientists spent days shooing her from the lagoon by stringing a series of fishnet barriers, using electric shark repellents, sprinkling food, and even banging bamboo sticks.

During that time, the animal became a minor international celebrity, as news teams from Japan, the BBC, and NBC's "Today Show" publicized its plight. The shark, the same species in the movie "Jaws," also happened to get trapped just days before DreamWorks released its animated movie, "Shark Tale."

And with Naushon Island owned by distant relatives of Senator John F. Kerry, there were more than a few jokes about sharks circling the presidential candidate's camp.

Scientists said yesterday they hoped the shark would swim off to parts unknown, but they left open the possibility it could linger in Vineyard Sound or other nearby waters. Still, officials said swimming should be safe: Though great whites are common off the New England coast, there has not been a shark death since 1936. Officials will try to spot the shark today using a helicopter, but they were doubtful they would see it.

They do hope to hear from the shark next April 1, when a tracking device Skomal attached to the shark's dorsal fin is designed to pop off and float to the surface. The device will be recording the shark's location, water depth, and water temperature in coming months, giving scientists a rare look at the habits of a North Atlantic great white.

"We really gained some pretty good insight into great white sharks," said Dave Peters, commissioner of Massachusetts Fish and Game. "And so did the public."

Officials said that most people abided by requests to stay away from the shark while it was trapped. Those who still attempted to see the shark were kept 1,000 yards away by Environmental Police boats.

Some local boat operators were able to make a small profit by charging tourists $25 a ride, especially in the first days after the shark was spotted, when private boats were allowed closer.

The boating restrictions around Naushon Island will remain in effect, possibly through today. Marine officials are also keeping fishing nets strung across the entrance to the lagoon to prevent the shark from returning. They are asking boaters who spot a great white in coming weeks to call officials and reminded the public that it is illegal to hunt or kill a great white shark.

At a news conference yesterday, marine officials conveyed relief and a sense of awe as they discussed the rescue of an animal that few had ever seen up close.

"It was a gift that was delivered to my doorstep," said Skomal, who has traveled to South Australia to work with great whites.

Officials said they were surprised to learn how much the animal appeared affected by water depth: It did not want to eat and spent much of its time searching for the deepest water in the lagoon.

After deciding the shark was trapped, scientists began efforts to move it, eventually enlisting fishermen to string underwater nets and hem the shark closer to the lagoon's exit.

By Friday, they had moved it about 150 yards toward the exit. But by Sunday, the shark had found its way into a different shallow area just outside the lagoon's mouth, one too wide to be sectioned off with fishing nets.

Yesterday, scientists created a barrier by rigging a series of ropes weighed down with lead to trick the shark into thinking it was up against a net. While it worked for a short time, the shark eventually barreled through it. Finally, scientists began spraying jets of water from two gasoline-powered pumps normally used on cranberry crops.

As the seawater around the shark became more turbid, the disoriented animal slowly began moving through the hundreds of feet of shallow eelgrass that it had previously refused to cross.

"The shark really did need our help," said Paul Diodati, head of the state Division of Marine Fisheries. "If we didn't get the shark out of there . . . this might have ended in a different way for it."

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com. 

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