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Sharks spotted off Chatham coast; but officials say threat is small

Beachgoers enjoyed Lighthouse Beach in Chatham yesterday before the Labor Day weekend. Beachgoers enjoyed Lighthouse Beach in Chatham yesterday before the Labor Day weekend. (Photos By Julia Cumes for The Boston Globe)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / September 5, 2009

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CHATHAM - There were no dorsal fin sightings from the beach, but there were plenty of satellite trucks and camera crews.

Word spread quickly yesterday around the white sands of Lighthouse Beach that state officials had confirmed Thursday that five sharks were swimming within a mile of the southeastern tip of Monomoy Island, just off Chatham.

“Jaws’’ it was not.

Yet state officials said one of their shark specialists yesterday spotted at least one great white among the quintet prowling the same area. They said the threat was small, noting that sightings of sharks, including great whites, are relatively common off Cape Cod and that the last time a person was attacked by a shark in Massachusetts was in 1936, when a 16-year-old was killed while swimming in Buzzards Bay.

“As the holiday weekend approaches, we just want the public to realize sharks are in the area and to exercise caution and good judgment,’’ said Lisa Capone, of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Greg Skomal, a specialist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, was able to locate the fish off the eastern coast of Monomoy and determined it was a great white shark, Capone said.

After state officials received reports of several large sharks in the area, Skomal spotted five large sharks from the air Thursday. He took out a boat yesterday, hoping to get a closer look and identify them by species with the help of a spotter pilot.

He found one shark, but fog and cloud cover rolled in, depriving him of the help of the pilot, she said.

Later in the afternoon, he spotted a great white, she said, but it could have been the same one he had seen earlier.

Capone said Environmental Police boats would patrol the area through the weekend.

Authorities in Chatham yesterday urged swimmers to be careful but said people should not overreact.

“We’re not closing the beaches,’’ said Dan Tobin, director of Parks and Recreation for Chatham. “We would do that if we had any concerns. We’re just encouraging people to use common sense.’’

The shark sighting was about 7 miles from Lighthouse Beach, Tobin said.

In a statement Tobin’s office released on Thursday, officials warned beachgoers to avoid swimming close to seals, hundreds of which congregate along the coast of Chatham. Sharks like to eat seals.

The statement said there have been “recent confirmed reports of sharks feeding on seals’’ in the area. On Aug. 28, the carcass of a seal was confirmed to have been partly eaten by a large shark, the statement said.

Two kayakers paddling off of Chatham on Aug. 15 reported seeing a possible attack by a great white shark on a seal.

Yesterday, as many beachgoers sprawled on blankets beneath a bright blue sky on Lighthouse Beach, no one interviewed said they were concerned by the threat of the sharks.

“Everyone around here knows this is like McDonald’s for sharks,’’ said Donna Gabriel, 68, of Chatham. “That’s why the seals like to stay so close to the beach.’’

Among those unfazed by the potential threat was Billy Hogan, 45, a firefighter from Boston, who walked past the reporters combing the beach for sound bites on his way to take a swim. He was well aware of the news.

“I’m a big believer in destiny: If it happens, it happens,’’ Hogan said. “I thought about it for a minute, but I was hot, and it’s so gorgeous out there. So I thought, ‘Why not?’ ’’

Devin Gleason was similarly courageous - or philosophical.

“It doesn’t bother me,’’ said Gleason, 15, of New York, as he bobbed in the surf a few feet from shore.

“Usually, sharks don’t come in this close.’’

Kevin Donoghue’s parents joked that if he misbehaved they would use him as bait for the sharks.

But the 10-year-old from Dover wasn’t worried. “You’re less likely to get killed by a shark than by a coconut falling on your head,’’ he said, even though there appeared to be no nearby threat of falling coconuts.

Joanne Donoghue, his grandmother, said that in the scheme of things it wasn’t so bad having the sharks nearby.

“There needs to be more control of the seals,’’ she said. “But it would be better to have people doing the controlling. Sharks aren’t very popular. They tend to scare too many people away, and that’s not good for the economy.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.