A Fin Slapping Finale

Our incredible day out on the water was coming to an end. I didn’t want to go back into port. I wanted to stay out there forever. We had seen so many animals; a mola mola sunfish, multiple whales, and some white sharks! I was really just being greedy at this point, but I couldn’t help it. Now that I had seen these amazing animals, all I wanted was to see more.

Like all good things though, this day had to come to an end. So we got ready to head back to Plymouth. But the ocean had other plans for us.

Off in the distance, something exciting was happening. A humpback whale was fin slapping, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, the whale was lifting its pectoral fin out of the water and slapping it back down, creating a splash. That splash is what caught the attention of Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the Senior Biologist and Executive Director for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American Office, and the woman leading the whale watching portion of our trip. She excitedly told us that this was very interesting behavior, and worth checking out. So our Captain changed direction and we headed away from shore, out towards the whale.


Once again the boat’s railings were lined with people, standing elbow to elbow, cameras out, waiting to see what this whale would do. And that could be anything, including stopping, according to Regina. As is the case with many of the ocean animals that scientists attempt to study, there is a lot we just don’t know about them. There are many possible theories that explain why whales do this, but they are theories. Even if we had known exactly what the whale was doing and why, who’s to say it would still be doing it by the time we got to it.

Anticipation hung in the air. The whale could stop at any minute. It could dive and swim off, and then we’d have to turn around and once again begin our trip home, a little disappointed because we were so close to being able to see something like this up close.

We were not disappointed. As we approached the humpback whale it continued to raise and drop its flipper, swimming on its side in a small circle. Then it turned and went the other way. It almost appeared to be showing off.

As soon as we began to think this was all the whale was going to do, and believe me, it was more than enough, the whale breached. The boat erupted in “awes” and cheers. All around me people were excitedly talking about the breach.

Photo by Wayne Davis

Photo by Wayne Davis

Most of us had never seen something like that before. Just to be that close to an animal of that size and majesty was humbling. To see it breach, was thrilling. And then, as if it really was showing off for the cheering crowd, the whale breached again. It seemed almost too incredible to be real. It was a beyond perfect end to such an amazing day. We could go back now.


Purple Smudge

The voice of the spotter pilot, Wayne Davis, crackled over the speakers of the boat. He could see the shark clearly from the air. Actually he could see a shark when it was within 18ft of the water’s surface. Which is pretty remarkable considering the murkiness of the waters off Cape Cod.

Looking down all I could see was the shadow of our boat on the opaque water. Earlier we had been able to see plankton, ethereally moving through the water, glowing blue. Now though, nothing. It was like trying to look through something solid. No matter how hard I strained my eyes, all I saw was green.

Wayne followed the shark, circling up in the clouds. He told the Captain exactly where to move the boat, telling him which direction to turn towards, how many boat lengths forward to go, and when to stop. The Captain followed his lead, expertly maneuvering the whale watching boat through the shallow water.


We were only 50 ft from shore, and according to Wayne, we were in the right spot. If we stayed put the shark would swim right by us. So we waited.

My heart raced. I leaned over the side of the boat, scanning the water below me for any signs of the shark. There were people all around me, lining the railings of the boat, waiting anxiously for the shark to appear.

Wayne’s voice had been replaced by that of scientist Megan Winton. She stood on the bow of the boat, sharing shark facts with us, waiting like the rest of us for the shark to come into view. And then it did. We couldn’t see it yet, but Megan could.

She called out the white shark’s movements like a sports announcer would an exciting play. I hung onto her every word, hoping the next one would mean that shark was near me. The closer it got to the boat the more excited I became.

The shark was very close now. It was coming from the left side of the boat and was going to swim right across the bow. Any minute we would all be able to see it. Suddenly there was a collective gasp from the left side of the boat. They could see the shark.

I fought the urge to run to the other side of the boat, to push my way through the crowd to catch a glimpse of the shark. It was coming my way. I just had to be patient, to wait just a few minutes longer, minutes that felt like hours

Photo by Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Photo by Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Then the people around me began to yell and point. I followed their fingers and there it was. A shadow moving through the water. “It looks like a purple smudge” Megan had told us, and she was right. As the shark swam by its outline became a little clearer. I could even make out its dorsal fin.

I couldn’t stop smiling. It was a white shark. It was incredible.

Photo by Lisa Hughes

Photo by Lisa Hughes

White Sharks and Whales

The line of passengers waiting to board the whale watching boat looked like a walking advertisement for all things shark. There were shark teeshirts and sweat shirts. There were silver sharks on necklaces, and shark jaws on baseball caps. There were earrings that made it look like a shark was taking a bite out of your ear, and even shark tattoos. And everywhere you looked the shark on the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy logo smiled back at you.

It was a cool September morning. Dense fog blanketed the marina, making it almost impossible to see anything out in the harbor. The boat rocked gently against its ropes, small waves lapping against its hull. Once everyone had boarded we set off on our almost two hour trek to Provincetown, in search of whales, and, if we were lucky, a white shark.

The trip was a collaboration between the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Its goal was to raise money to support the efforts of both advocacy groups, and to allow people to see something most of us had never seen before. It was only the second year of Expedition White Sharks and Whales, and both trips had sold out. Looking out over the sides of the boat into the blank whiteness of fog, it was hard to believe we would be able to see anything out there, but we were hopeful.


It’s such a strange feeling to have no sense of time or place, to see only the water beside the boat, and the vast whiteness beyond. If the captain had told us we were now in Alaska I think I would have believed him. Instead, of course, he told us we were almost in Truro, and that, according to our spotter pilot, there were blue skies ahead.

Slowly bits and pieces of the shoreline came into view, orange sand dunes and breaking waves, and with them came a sense of relief as we began to think the fog might actually clear. Somewhere in the sky above, we could hear the engine of the spotter plane. And then suddenly, the fog was gone.


We could see the plane now. It was flying along the shore, scouting for nearby sharks. The beautiful beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore seemed to spread out endlessly in both directions. There was only a handful of people around, wading in the water or walking along the beach. They all stopped and watched us as we passed, knowing we were there to see something.

Maybe they thought there was a whale nearby. It was a reasonable assumption given that our boat was a whale watching boat and whales are so plentiful in these waters this time of year. So much so that the Plymouth Whale Watching website actually guarantees whale sightings on their trips. The swimmers might have cleared the water though, had they known we were looking for more than just whales that day.


As if on command a fin came out of the water, and slowly a Mola Mola sunfish floated into view. Not the shark we were hoping for, but an interesting animal none the less. A strange, flat looking fish, it swam by, on it’s side, lifting its fin out of the water, and putting it back down. To the people on the beach it must have looked like the dorsal fin of a great white, and they all gathered along the water’s edge to watch. On the boat we lined the railings taking pictures. And then, with a crackle of the speakers, came the announcement we had all been hoping for, the pilot had spotted a white shark near by, and we were going to find it.


The Water Was Empty. Except for the Shark.

Frothy waves rolled onto the sand. The warm September sun, high in the sky, beat down on the dark blue ocean water. It was a perfect beach day. A final summer heat wave as September came to call an end to the season. It could have been a scene from a Cape Cod post card, except for one thing. The beach goers, clad in their brightly colored bathing suits, stood lined along the shore, all of their eyes trained on a single boat. A sense of excitement hovered in the humid air. The water was empty.


Except for the shark. They couldn’t see her, but they knew she was there. They knew because the small plane was circling overhead, and the boat, which only seconds before, had been hurdling through the water, was now still, as if it always had been. A man stood on the boat’s metal pulpit, suspended out over the cold Atlantic water, a GoPro stick in one hand, the other tightly gripping the railing, ready for the boat to lurch back into motion without warning.

“We’re following a white shark,” he said to a man who had stepped forward, like an ambassador for the curious crowd. The boat was close enough to shore that he didn’t event have to yell to be heard. His name is Dr. Greg Skomal. He’s a marine biologist, and he’s famous around these parts, famous because he’s studying the White Sharks.

If the movie Jaws, was any indication as to how Massachusetts residents would react to the presence of white sharks in their waters, one would expect unmanageable fear and panic to permeate the summer air, yet in reality, the people here are excited. Dr. Skomal has become a celebrity. The circling plane and the boat, which signal the presence of a white shark in the water, and lead to the temporary closing of the Cape’s beaches on hot summer days, seem to be a source of wonder, not a cause for contempt.


These people, lined along the shore, scanning the water, watching the boat, waiting for a glimpse, these people are a part of something big. White sharks have always been a source of fascination. Hollywood has painted them as monsters to be feared. But people have always had a love for the creatures that they don’t understand, for the wild that they cannot tame, for the “monsters” that scare them. And now the sharks are here. A normal day on the beach, on a Wednesday in September, can turn into an episode of “Shark Week”. Life as we know it on Cape Cod is changing.

With a roar of the motors, the boat thrusts forward. People run along the shore, following it. The boat turns, stops, thrusts forward again, and stops, in 7 feet of water, just past the break point of the waves. A shadow moves towards the pulpit, invisible to the people on the beach. Dr. Skomal pushes the GoPro stick into the water, moving it back and forth. He pulls the camera out of the water, and the boat is moving again, gunning forward, then just as suddenly, it stops once more, and the camera goes back into the green ocean.

A few swipes, and Dr. Skomal brings the camera out of the water. As abruptly as it first appeared, the research boat takes off, following the small plane in the sky. Dr. Skomal, and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, are off in pursuit of another white shark.

Shark Week 2014: The Good, the Meh, and the Very, Very Ugly

To start, a warm welcome to any followers or visitors who have found us from our selection as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” pick! I’m thrilled to have been featured and hope you’ll stick around to geek out about sharks with me and support the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

Folks, another Shark Week has come and, at the time of this writing, is almost gone, and with it a veritable sea (bad pun!) of criticism and conjecture about the direction the programming has taken. When I first wrote about my personal disappointments with the premiere show, I knew that a long week of episodes lay ahead that could either help redeem this ratings juggernaut in my mind, or further convince me that all the Discovery Channel is interested in is schlock, not science.

One overarching criticism: the titles of shows. They are the TV version of click-bait. Zombie Sharks?! Jaws Strikes Back?! Spawn of Jaws?! Sharkageddon? Man, I would love to have been a fly on the wall at those marketing meetings.

In the end, I’m left with mixed feelings. I saw some shows that fascinated me. I saw some shows that disgusted me. So here’s my final round-up of Shark Week 2014: The Good, the Meh, and the Very, Very Ugly.

The Good:

“Jaws Strikes Back”-This is what I tune in to Shark Week for. The footage from the Remus SharkCam was fantastic, new, and thrilling. I loved the passion of the scientists, and the realistic portrayal of an expedition. When the SharkCam was unexpectedly damaged by the white sharks, the whole project was almost finished. That’s real! Money and funding is a genuine concern for these scientists, and I liked seeing that reality. It felt like inside information. And how about the footage of those vertical dives? And the massive, pregnant females? So cool.

“Alien Sharks”-Weird-looking, little-seen, deep-sea species of shark. That is my sweet spot. I loved the excited young scientist at the forefront of the episode and his obvious enthusiasm for his work. No overly-theatrical ominous soundtrack or special effects. I’m glad someone at the Discovery Channel figured out that when you’re looking at creatures like this, no extra frills are needed:

Image Credit: Discovery Channel

Image Credit: Discovery Channel

“Zombie Sharks”: Super dumb name for a really cool phenomenon called “Tonic Immobility”. Points added for gorgeous footage. Points deducted for calling one moment with divers and a large school of gray sharks “a real life Sharknado”.

“Spawn of Jaws”: I’m so fascinated by this topic. I thought this was a great episode start to finish, from the heart-pounding initial tagging of the pregnant female, to her route and timing being so surprising to the scientist at the helm of the research, and even poor Paul Walker. I always loved that he supported sharks and marine conservation in a hands-on, non-flashy way. We didn’t get to see the live birth of a white shark, but that’s okay. It’s science, not cinema. And it’s nice to be reminded of the mystery that still surrounds these creatures.

The Meh*:

*I’m categorizing the following episodes as “Meh” (that’s the verbal equivalent of a shoulder shrug) based on the fact that while they didn’t hold my interest completely, they also didn’t incite my wrath for gross mishandling of their subject matter.

“Monster Hammerhead”: Nice to see this beautiful species getting a little attention, but I’m not overly keen on the whole “We are looking for ONE.GIANT.SHARK. that may or may not exist based on local myth and legend” thing. It’s played out. A shark doesn’t have to the biggest of its kind to be cool, guys.

“Lair of the Mega Shark”: Ditto on the legend-hunters theme. And while we’re at it, did some parts of this feel a little stagey to anyone else? Like the scene of the guy staring at the video monitor rubbing his red eyes and reaching for his coffee as if to insinuate hours of fruitless searching, and then suddenly the unearthly large shadow flashes across the screen.  Do I detect a hint of scripting here? If I’m wrong, I’m going to say it’s the Discovery Channel’s fault for inundating their audience with so much docudrama nonsense that I have to doubt the veracity of everything they air.

“I Escaped Jaws 2”: Listen, even I understand they need at least one episode per year that’s nothing but harrowing accounts of shark attack survivors recalling their narrow escapes. I don’t mind there being one special dedicated to this topic, especially since almost every survivor goes on to express their lack of hatred for sharks, and in some cases, their increased respect and awe of them. It is what it is.

“Sharkageddon”: A recent uptick in attacks in Hawaii should make for compelling TV. And while I liked the inclusion of a local “water man” with a vested interest in the safety of his area in the episode for human interest and a personal perspective, I would have liked more focus on scientists in the field spearheading the effort to find out what’s behind the recent incidents.

 The Very, Very Ugly:

“Shark of Darkness: Wrath of Submarine”: In addition to my scathing critique of this episode in the previous blog, I’d also like to add my distaste for the title. Wrath? Sharks are capable of Biblical sins? I had no idea! Thanks Shark Week!

“Megalodon: The New Evidence”: No. Nope. Pass. Not going to watch it. Not sorry. I don’t want to add to ratings that will only convince the bigwigs at the Discovery Channel that this is the right way to go.

If this trend toward the hokey, melodramatic fiction continues, next year we could be treated to “Land Shark: Gluttony of the Vengeful Legend”.

I wish I were kidding.

We Need to Talk About Shark Week…


Yesterday I caught up on the Shark Week feature, “Shark of Darkness: The Wrath of Submarine” as I was traveling during the premiere. The show began re-airing at 5 PM. At 6:45 PM I realize I have seldom known two hours to pass so slowly.

When I had the idea to blog throughout Shark Week, it wasn’t without a modicum of trepidation. There’s been a trend in recent years, in my opinion, toward the cheap and sensational when it comes to this high-ratings week of dedicated shark programming. I didn’t think it could get worse than last year’s dismal “Megalodon” docudrama.

I was so very wrong.

From the outset, this B-movie, fear-mongering fiction-disguised-as-documentary set out to play on every fear and myth that exists about sharks, down to–and this is a direct quote– their “insatiable taste for human blood”.

Seriously, Shark Week?

Unlike “Megalodon”, which at least focused on a long-extinct ancestral species of shark, the villain of this tawdry tale is a white shark, a species still trying to make a public-image comeback from 1975’s “Jaws”.

I don’t care enough to parse through the details of this two hour farce. Full disclosure, I started to tune it out after a while. What bothers me is the irresponsibility of this kind of programming.

What bothers me is the fact that the Discovery Channel wastes their considerable budget, resources, talents, and precious viewer attention on this kind of nonsense instead of showing us some real science.

Show me some actual footage of real, gorgeous sharks. Show me some of the dedicated scientists in the field, who I am privileged to learn more about this week through great organizations like the AWSC, Shark4Kids, and Beneath the Waves.

New discoveries are happening daily. This is exciting, forward-moving, sexy science. And I believe that kind of programming can get high ratings.

Nothing the Discovery Channel can manufacture using unknown actors and a studio set could possibly rival some of the footage that was revealed last night when we ventured out with Dr. Greg Skomal and the Remus SharkCam. That’s what I want to see. And judging by the huge backlash towards the premiere, I am not alone.

So get your act together, Shark Week. I’ll be tuning in, along with millions of other viewers, hoping for something better tonight. Don’t let us down.

In the meantime, weigh in here: What do you think of this kind of programming airing during Shark Week?