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A word to the wary: sharks

1st formal warning by Coast Guard

By Jack Nicas
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2010

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As crowds flock to ocean beaches this steamy holiday weekend, the Coast Guard wants to remind swimmers they are not alone and to be on the lookout for sharks.

“I have no doubt that a great white shark that swims into your comfort zone would surely find a splashing paddle or dangling hand inviting,’’ Al Johnson, Coast Guard boating specialist, said in a formal warning to the region yesterday, the first shark advisory ever issued by the Coast Guard.

“I also expect that same pass ing shark would spend little time differentiating between boater, paddler, and prey.

“I recommend an extreme degree of caution,’’ he added.

There has been one great white sighting this year: a tuna fisherman hooked, tagged, and released a 7-footer on June 26, about 20 miles southeast of Gloucester. And officials said there is no increased threat this weekend.

“Summertime in New England means water temperatures are more conducive to people swimming and sharks being in our waters,’’ said Gregory Skomal, state shark specialist.

“Just use good old-fashioned common sense.’’

Officials said the warning was made in the expectation of record crowds at beaches, in combination with the recent sighting.

“Because we did have that event last weekend . . . the possibility always exists, but I emphasize there have been no confirmed sightings along our coastal beaches,’’ Johnson said.

Several beach directors and lifeguards from around the region said they are always aware of the threat of sharks, but are more concerned about the large crowds expected on a blistering July Fourth weekend.

“We’ve never had a problem [with sharks]. If we see something we’ll take action,’’ said Patti Machado, assistant director of the Barnstable Recreation Department, which oversees 13 beaches. “It’s the perfect weekend; it scares me — all the people more than the sharks.’’

“I’ve been here 50 years and I’ve only seen three fins,’’ said Jim Donahue, head lifeguard at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire. “I’ll mention to the guards to keep an eye out, but I’m not particularly worried.’’

Johnson said the warning is not intended to scare anyone away, but that does not appear to be an issue.

“No one’s asking about it. People haven’t expressed any concern,’’ said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “If anything, it might be a curiosity that draws people here.’’

The Coast Guard advisory warned swimmers and boaters to watch for seals just as much as for the ominous dorsal fins.

“Avoid swimming near large concentrations of seals,’’ said Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Officials named Monomoy Island off Chatham as a popular seal hangout to avoid.

Both the seal population and water temperatures have increased in recent years, making the state’s coastal waters more inviting to sharks.

Chatham Harbormaster Stuart Smith said there were many sharks roaming the town’s coast last summer, but they have not been spotted this year.

“We don’t know if that was an anomaly or whether that will be repeating itself,’’ he said. “It’s something we’ll be vigilant about.’’

There have been four shark attacks documented off the Massachusetts coast; two were fatal, the last in 1936, according to a database compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History.

For Bruce Sweet, who caught the juvenile great white last weekend, the warning is appropriate for fishermen — he said he has heard plenty of “dockside rumors’’ about great white sightings this summer. But, to him, vacationers should be safe.

“You’ve got to be careful if you’re near seals,’’ he said. “But kids swimming off the beach in Cape Cod, or in Gloucester, or Revere Beach, I mean, they’re fine.’’

Johnson said vacationers face a much larger threat from recreational boating.

Forty people have died in boating accidents in the First District covered by the Coast Guard, from Maine to New Jersey, over the past dozen July Fourth weekends, he said.

And there have been 31 boating fatalities in the district this year already, the most ever recorded before July 1.

“Because of the outstanding forecast, there’s going to be a record number of people in and on the water this weekend. . . . Everyone needs to be careful,’’ he said. “But the best bet to see a shark would probably be at the New England Aquarium.’’

Jack Nicas can be reached at jnicas@globe.com.

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