Great White Shark Tales from Cape Cod’s Charter Boat Captains
“If they hear a diesel engine running, [great whites] know there’s food around and they key in on it”
Capt. Ross Walkinshaw describes great white shark mouths as wood-chippers attached to bodies as round as Honda Civics and as along as Ford F-150s.
“Sharks are extreme. Can you imagine being in eight feet of water and not seeing it until it’s actually right there?” says Walkinshaw. He describes how part of a shark’s chin and nose taper away from its mouth, which is packed with protruding teeth. “It’s like a chainsaw, it’s not like a nice set of dentures. That thing comes out, and it wants to bite things.”
Normally for fishermen in places like Cape Cod, where Walkinshaw owns Cape Cod Charter Guys, the sharks want to bite fish. And they do—plenty of them. Like brown bears grabbing salmon off angler’s lines in Alaska, white sharks (or, as they’re more famously known, great white sharks) have a habit of hanging around fishing boats and waiting for their food to reel past their snouts. One day last summer, a shark came right up to a client on Walkinshaw’s boat, mouth open, teeth on full display.
“When it’s less than a foot away from you inside of a boat, that’s not as cute and fuzzy as it is on TV.”
Walkinshaw figured he’d give that shark some space and relocated five miles to a new spot. He has just hooked into a striped bass and had it behind the boat when another shark came in.
“[The shark] came up and out in 9.7 feet of water and down on the striper and surgically cut it,” says Walkinshaw. “It then folded my rod all the way down and almost pulled me over the set of motors.”
So Walkinshaw moved the boat—again. This time, he motored almost four miles away. Soon after, an 18-foot great white flung itself out of the water in a full breach. That’s when they turned back to shore.
“My customers had had enough,” says Walkinshaw.
A Toothy Comeback
That’s just summer fishing in Cape Cod, say many captains. At times, it can seem like white sharks are just about everywhere. And it’s not likely to change. By some estimates, there are hundreds of white sharks along the Cape at the height of summer.
For some fishing charters, the sharks are a hassle. For others, they aren’t much of a bother. And for charter captains like Capt. Doug Brown, owner of Jenniferann Sportfishing Charters, they help attract clients who want to see a white shark, and are gobsmacked when one chomps a fish off their line.
“They’re a really a cool creature,” Brown says. “They’re just living in their environment. And we’re in theirs.”
Fossil records suggest great whites have been in the Cape Cod area for 400 million years, and their return is a sign of a healthier marine ecosystem. For much of the past century, white shark sightings in places like Cape Cod were rare to nonexistent. In fact, since 1970, the global abundance of sharks declined by 71 percent. Great whites also declined because of a lack of prey, like seals. But because of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, seals rebounded in some areas and flourished in places like Cape Cod. And with an increase in food comes an increase in predators.
Protections for the great white in the 1990s also helped the species. “Over the past decade, Cape Cod has emerged as the only known place in the northwest Atlantic where white sharks aggregate,” says the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, which studies and tracks white sharks. From 2010 to 2021, it has tagged 268 white sharks. In 2022 alone, 134 individual great whites were detected by the AWSC. A new study shows Cape Code is now home to one of the largest seasonal great white gatherings in the world. (Other global hotspots include South Africa, central California, and islands in Mexico and Australia.)
With the white shark’s recovery comes increased interactions with anglers and other recreationists. In 2018, a white shark killed a surfer off the coast of Massachusetts for the first time since 1936. In 2020, a white shark killed a swimmer off the coast of Maine. Now, beaches are lined with signs warning of the sharks’ presence, and spotters drones and planes to detect sharks before they come in contact with humans.
Shark attacks are still incredibly rare, however, especially considering the number of sharks and people sharing the shore at the height of summer. But precautions still make sense, says Brown, who grew up in the area and has run a charter boat for about 25 years.
“I actually went up to a family [with] probably five kids in the water today in Cape Cod Bay,” Brown told me in late June. “And I said to the parents, ‘There are white sharks out here.’ And [the dad] said, ‘Yeah, I know, we won’t be out here long.’ And I said, ‘It doesn’t take long.’ What do you say to something like that? I just turned my boat and shut up.”
Great whites have swum alongside his boat and grabbed his lures. He often sees them breach, jumping into the air and crashing back down. One of his acquaintances once saw a white shark come out of the water to try and snap an American flag fluttering off his outrigger. When white sharks are around, swimmers, surfers, and others playing in the water are at risk of injury. But anglers are relatively safe from bodily harm, says Brown.
“They don’t really bother us,” he says. “Occasionally they spook our fish away and, every once in a while they grab a customer’s fish, but that’s pretty cool to see. People don’t mind that.”
While the occasional customer is scared, “most people love it.” Once, a client even coated her hands in fish slime and put them in the water, hoping to attract a shark so she could see it.
“I said, ‘Not on my boat you’re not,’” Brown says with a laugh. “‘They’re cool eating seals, but let’s not let it be us.’”
Capt. Tom Szado of The Perfect Catch Fishing has been guiding fishing charters in the area since 1978 and says his clients are more amused by the sharks than anything else.
“We’ve had a few fish come back half eaten,. But ya know, they haven’t slowed down our business at all,” says Szado. “They’re not scared as long as the boat’s floating and they can go out on the water.”
Floating Dinner Bell
Has the resurgence of great white sharks changed Cape Cod’s fisheries? Opinions from local anglers vary. Most captains agree seals are the bigger problem. It takes significant numbers of fish to grow and sustain an 800-pound seal. Juvenile white sharks mainly eat bottom fish, smaller sharks and rays, and schooling fish and squids. But larger white sharks often gather around seal and sea lion colonies to feed and also occasionally scavenge dead whales.
Brown doesn’t think the sharks have changed the fishery much, just that fish don’t seem to settle into an area quite like they used to. He also says fishing boats seem to be something akin to dinner bells to the sharks.
“If they hear a diesel engine running, they know there’s food around it and they key in on it,” he says.
It’s illegal for anglers to target great whites, but recreational and commercial fishermen occasionally catch them by accident and release them. Once, Brown hooked into one that stole his bait.
“His tail was the only thing in the water, and he was paddling his tail across the water. You knew he was hooked and we were holding onto him so he couldn’t leave and he was just standing straight up in the air. So he was just dancing with it for a while until he went back in the water. Luckily it did break away and I didn’t lose all my gear.”
Sometimes Brown does lose gear, but more often the shark either grabs the lure and doesn’t break through the metal, or it tears into the fish below the head. Like a meat cleaver, Brown says, only a little curved.
White sharks start trickling in from Southern waters sometime in May, numbers peak in late summer, and they begin leaving again as the water cools. When they peak, Walkinshaw clears out. It’s just not worth it.
“Last year, we had more than a dozen at our boat, so that’s when we switch over to the south side, to the Vineyard, to get away from them,” he says. “They aren’t thick and heavy over there yet.”
Head farther south to places like Long Island, and white sharks become less of a concern, says Long Island Fishing Charters Capt. Andy LoCascio.
“We have many species of sharks that are more obvious,” he says, “and none of them impact charter fishing.”
In Cape Cod, however, the white sharks have arrived for the summer. As he was preparing to head out on the boat for the July Fourth weekend, Brown was listening to his VHF radio from the dock. He called to tell me about it, and left a voicemail.
“Just heard two boats spotted a white shark already this morning, and one got a fish nibbled on as they pulled it up to their boat. So, they’re hungry today.”