In the first two days of September, there were 22 confirmed great white shark sightings off the outer coast of Cape Cod, the arm-shaped Massachusetts peninsula that has become the epicenter of great white shark activity in New England.
In the past decade, a glimpse of a shark off the vacation hotspot’s sandy shores went from a newsworthy event to an everyday occurrence during beach season.
The resurgence of great whites in New England in recent years is attributed to successful conservation measures that protected sharks and seals allowing their populations to slowly recover.
“I think if you’ve watched what happened to the Cape, it was a process,” said James Sulikowski, a former University of New England professor and now a shark researcher at Arizona State University.
A similar process could be unfolding in Maine as coastal dwellers are reporting more shark sightings and swimmers are being pulled from the water with increasing frequency.
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Whether Cape Cod’s rise to New England’s shark capital should be seen as a roadmap for the Pine Tree State’s future, experts aren’t sure, but a comparison between the two provides insight into why the Cape has become such prime territory for sharks and if Maine could ever see such a hotspot.
“It’s the million dollar question,” said Sulikowski.
Shark research in Maine is still in its infancy despite sharks having been here for centuries. There is little known about where sharks congregate and how they spend their time in the Gulf of Maine — yet.
The state just earlier this year hired its first full-time shark biologist after a shark fatally bit a woman off Harpswell in 2020. About 30 acoustic receivers that can detect the 250-plus great white sharks with tracking tags were put in the water in the past two years, giving a porthole-sized view of shark activity in the Gulf of Maine.
Right now, there are not nearly as many shark sightings in Maine as in its southern neighbor. Looking at the Sharktivity App that maps out shark sightings and detections by receivers in the water, it’s almost impossible to count the dozens of shark fin icons that signify every glimpse of the apex predators along Cape Cod’s outer shore in the past month alone.
Though it’s believed to be only a fraction of the actual number of sharks that pass through Maine, Sharktivity has reported about 25 confirmed great white sightings for the Maine coast from June to Sept. 1. That’s about the same as sightings for a two-day span on the Cape in September.
More sharks could be attracted to the region if the seals population continues to grow, or if competition for seals on the Cape gets more fierce, pushing some sharks to venture further afoot for their meals, according to several shark experts.
One of the compelling reasons why Maine may never see sharks in large congregations is the aggregation of seals in Maine and Massachusetts is vastly different.
The coast of Cape Cod has massive seal haul outs. Thousands of seals will amass on these sandy stretches, so much so that you can see them on satellite photos.
That makes the region an attractive hunting ground for sharks. While other species’ ranges are creeping northward into Maine on a warming Atlantic Ocean, sharks are more concerned with the lunch options than the water temperature.
“They aggregate [around Cape Cod] mainly to feed on seals,” said John Mohan, a shark researcher at the University of New England. “If their food is there, they are going to follow the food.”
Though Maine does have seal colonies, it doesn’t have anything equivalent to the Cape. The Pine Tree State’s rocky outcrops where seals go are much more spread out, diluting the chances of massive seal groups and, in turn, the odds of shark hotspots along the coast.
Another thing that may make it hard to tell if there even is a hotspot is one of Maine’s most famous attributes: its long rocky coast.
The vastness of the state’s coastline, plus the fact that its water is dark and murky, makes it a challenge to search for sharks. Cape Cod is almost its exact opposite; the 339-square mile peninsula is a compact area with a sandy bottom and clear water that makes it easy for spotter pilots to fly over in search of sharks.
Mainers also don’t interact with the water the same as Cape Codders, meaning any potential interaction and chances for shark sightings is likely different. Almost all of the Cape’s shoreline is sandy beaches ready to be filled with cellphone-toting beachgoers that are able to document a shark sighting at a moment’s notice.
Most of Maine’s reports of sharks come from boaters, such as the woman who documented a shark munching on a seal in Penobscot Bay in July, and fishermen.
But that could change as more people start to think of sharks as a regular part of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem. The more people look, the more likely they are to see a shark.
“As the consciousness increases, the increase in reporting kind of follows that,” said John Chisholm, a shark expert at the New England Aquarium.
And while it remains to be seen if Maine follows the Cape’s trajectory, the peninsula’s experience has certainly helped Maine get up to speed in only a couple years.
Maine state coastal parks have adopted the Massachusetts flag system to warn beachgoers of sharks. The shark research that’s been going on around the Cape for more than a decade has been able to give Maine researchers a headstart as they begin to better understand the species up north.
That research will be pivotable in seeing what Maine’s shark future holds, according to Sulikowski.
“That’s really going to tell us the direction that we’re headed and how fast we’re going to get there,” he said.