During the summer months, BU Today is revisiting some of the past year’s favorite stories. This week, we feature some notable BU alumni.
A quarter mile off Cape Cod’s Monomoy Island, Greg Skomal teeters on a pulpit extending from the bow of the Aleutian Dream, peering at the unsuspecting 12-foot great white shark in the water below.
Despite the four-foot swells, the captain holds the boat steady as Skomal maneuvers a 14-foot rod with a GoPro on one end, handling it like a tightrope walker using a pole for balance. He lowers the camera into the water, filming the shark’s movements, if only briefly. Their dance lasts all of 30 seconds before the shark slides deeper into the Atlantic.
“That sucker had girth!” Skomal (GRS’06) calls to the boat’s crew, who hurry to note the animal’s size and location. The predator was one of three white sharks—the name preferred by scientists—tracked that June morning, a slow day by Skomal’s standards. Some days, especially later in the season, the researcher tracks as many as 23.
In recent years, Cape Cod has become the summer home to a growing population of white sharks—80 were identified in 2014, 141 in 2015, and 147 in 2016. They come to feast on a burgeoning population of seals, and they are arriving in such numbers that some scientists are now calling the area the sixth white shark hub in the world, joining places like Mexico’s Guadalupe Island and South Africa’s Seal Island, and making it the only aggregation site—an area where sharks reliably gather—in the North Atlantic.
Skomal, who has studied sharks of all kinds for three decades, is the North Atlantic’s go-to guy for separating fact from fiction about white sharks. He is a senior fisheries biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and his Kennedy-like looks and easy manner have helped him earn appearances on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week specials.