Cape Cod great white shark researchers this summer will be using drones to spot the apex predators off beaches, as the scientists look at whether the technology is effective for shark surveillance off the Cape.
This comes after a high-profile drone shark study out of California — finding that juvenile white sharks were close to people on 97% of the days surveyed, and no one was bitten during the 2-year drone study.
Along the Cape, scientists last summer started to use drones in a pilot study.
“When water conditions are clear and nice, this is an incredible tool to study sharks and their activities off of our beaches,” Atlantic White Shark Conservancy staff scientist Megan Winton said during the conservancy’s media day on Tuesday.
“One thing we want to do is get an idea of how they’re using the nearshore waters right off our beaches with these direct observations,” Winton added of the great whites.
This summer, the researchers will be trying to figure out how effective drones are at spotting sharks along the Cape.
Many people have proposed using drones as a shark surveillance technology at local beaches, but the concern is that sharks could disappear from sight when the Cape waters turn murky.
“Sometimes the water is clear, and it looks like the Caribbean… and sometimes it looks like chocolate milk,” Winton said. “So nobody knows how that technology would perform in our waters.”
Australian officials have used drones for spotting sharks off public beaches.
“Under ideal conditions, it would be great for that, but we don’t know how well it will perform here,” Winton added.
In the California 2-year drone study, the juvenile sharks came very close to people, but simply moved around them or ignored them completely.
The juvenile sharks were often spotted within 50 yards of where the waves break, putting surfers and stand-up paddle boarders in the closest proximity to sharks. Some sharks were seen as close as 2 yards from the wave break.
Winton noted that the juvenile sharks from that study are much smaller than the average great white along the Cape. The juveniles along California feed on fish, and are not targeting seals like the Cape sharks.
“It’s a similar situation in that there are a lot of white sharks close to the beach there, but it’s a different life stage, so it’s also very different,” Winton said.
“Here in the summer and fall, there is likely a white shark somewhere around in the area when densities are highest,” she said.
Cape sharks hunt for seals in shallow water close to shore, and that has led to some shark bites on humans in the last decade. In 2018, a 26-year-old man was killed by a shark at a Wellfleet beach.
There have been no reported Cape shark bites on humans since that fatal incident.
“From what we see, people appear to have changed their behavior in a lot of ways,” Winton said. “People tend to stay closer to the shoreline it seems.”
Local researchers have tagged more than 300 sharks, and they have identified more than 600 individual sharks that have visited the Cape. During the summer, lifeguards are notified when tagged sharks get close to the beach, and the lifeguards get people out of the water.