Dr. Greg Skomal affixes a satellite tag on a great white shark near Cape Cod.
Photo Credit : Photo by Wayne Davis
The subject of great white sharks makes for easy newspaper headlines. But when it comes to an in-depth understanding of these mysterious creatures, the explanations often fall on the shoulders of Greg Skomal, a marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, who is more colloquially known as “the Shark Man.”
The New England native, who earned his Ph.D. from Boston University, has spent the bulk of his career dedicated to studying these giant fish. In 2009, Skomal and his team became the first researchers to tag and track great whites in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Today, the tech has only gotten better and the information more complete, allowing scientists to not just monitor the long-term movements of these animals but also learn more about their behavior and biology.
We recently caught up with Skomal, who appears in a season three episode of Weekends of Yankee, to discover more about his work and the creatures that fascinate so many of us.
What inspired you to become a marine biologist?
I grew up in a Connecticut town on Long Island Sound. But this was the 1970s, and it wasn’t the most pristine place in those days. It wasn’t a thing for us to mess around on the water. So I became fascinated by the ocean through television. And movies. Like so many people, I was really into Jaws when it came out. And there were other films like The Deep and Blue Water White Death, and TV shows like Jacques Cousteau’s weekly program. I thought it was all so fascinating, and these films and shows got me into setting up different saltwater and freshwater aquariums at the house. I was enamored by fish, and I found that creatures living in the sea were so unique, so beautiful, and so different. Especially tropical fish. And then we took a couple of family vacations to the Caribbean when I was a kid that allowed me to see these fish in person. So it was this synergy of all these different things that made it happen for me.
You’re widely known as “the Shark Guy.” How did that come about?
A whole lot of luck [laughs] and some perseverance and grit. I was fascinated by sharks from the start. These are animals that have persevered for hundreds of millions of years, and I guess you could summarize it best by saying they’re really, really cool. I began by volunteering for a lab that studied them and later got hired by that lab. Then I got hired by the state [of Massachusetts] and my boss said, I know you do shark stuff and you want to keep doing it, so go ahead. That allowed me develop my shark program in the late ’80s, and through the ’90s we did a lot of shark work on a lot of different species. Then the whole white shark thing just exploded, and being in Massachusetts I was in the perfect spot to study them. It’s worked out well for me. I don’t think of myself as the shark guy [laughs], but I know everyone else does.
Your work has revealed that one thing driving the increased presence of great whites near Cape Cod is the booming gray seal population, which is partly due to the Marine Mammals Protection Act. How should we read that turnaround? With white sharks now closer to our shores, is it a good thing?
[The rebound of the seals] is real conservation success story. You have to go back a hundred years, probably more, to find similar conditions. That’s why most old-timers on the Cape don’t remember seeing seals when they were growing up. The history of the gray seal is pretty nasty in terms of what we did to it, in terms of harvesting that resource and knocking out large breeding colonies. The Marine Mammals Protection Act allowed it to respond quite favorably over the last 50 years. And in response to that, white sharks are returning to areas where they’d been probably for thousands of years, feasting on these animals as top predators. It’s a success story — but as you said, it does not come without folks asking: Is this is a good point to be at? And, How do we deal with these problems?How would you answer those questions?
In the near term, there’s nothing we can do about it except modify our own behavior. In the whole scheme of white sharks feeding on seals, we’re really a new player. But we’re are a new player that wants to control the environment. Obviously, you’ll get a whole suite of opinions on whether we should or shouldn’t. I happen to believe that this is a natural ecosystem, and if we want to share our environment with these two species, we need to adapt our behavior. We’re not ocean animals; we’re terrestrial animals wanting to go into the ocean. So those who want to enjoy the Cape, and many still do, need to modify their behavior so they don’t put themselves at risk.
Well, if I’m in an area where I know that white sharks are hunting, I’m going to restrict myself to waist-deep water. I’m only going to go into the water to cool off. I’m not going to do laps. I’m not surfing. I don’t want to put myself at risk, and I don’t want my kids to, either. That’s just the way it is.
You’ve been doing this work for a long time. What’s next for you?
Our work so far has been to look at a couple major aspects of the biology of sharks. It’s been focused on the broader-scale movements as well as the aggregating area of the Cape. We’re also trying to get a handle on the number of white sharks that come here, because that’s important in assessing the risk to people. So our next avenues of research are to really drill deeper into the relationship between sharks and seals to understand what that predatory dance looks like. When, where, and how do white sharks attack and kill seals? We don’t have a lot of good information about all of that. These are basic questions, really, but they will help us look at the broader ecosystem impact of sharks and seals and also provide some information that’s relevant to public safety.
More answers lead to more questions. Does that about sum things up?
That’s exactly right. You discover something, and that creates a whole new set of questions. We might discover some sharks stay for the whole summer in this one area, and so the next logical question is: Why do they utilize that one specific area? What’s driving that? Finding those answers and discovering new questions to ask — those are things I’ll be doing until I retire and probably after I retire. It’s the most exciting job I could ever have hoped for. I’m a pretty lucky guy.