Could Maritime Canada be the next hot spot for a rebounding white shark population?
by Joe Fitzgerald
In midsummer 2016, a group of young local men set out in an inflatable boat in St. Margaret’s Bay, one of Nova Scotia’s most picturesque and popular summertime destinations. Just before noon, a pod of porpoises appeared just south of Luke’s Island, about halfway between the mouth of the bay and the beaches on the shoreline at the other end.
As some of the porpoises separated from the main group, one of the men began filming them. While his camera was trained on the breakaway mammals, the water exploded. The porpoises sprinted from the ruckus and submerged, not to be seen again. Reviewing the film later, it was apparent that something had attacked the porpoises from below. Something that looked suspiciously familiar.
Marine biologists confirmed that the attacker was a shark, but were quick to add that it was probably a mako. Since the incident happened so close to popular beaches, perhaps they believed this was a responsible line to tow. After all, there still remains a romantic desire to reignite the excited imaginations of the fun and iconic JAWS era.
However, the fact remains that the incident—caught on video—has the hallmarks of classic white shark feeding behaviour. Marine mammals as prey, close to shore, and a lightening strike from below. On the other hand, mako sharks are pelagic (deep open water) fish, and although known to prey on marine mammals, they have inward-curved teeth more suited to catching fish.
Nature Just Being Nature
In the grand scheme of events in the natural world, this incident would not necessarily be noteworthy—other than providing a cool memory for the people who witnessed it. But in light of changing climate patterns and a general consensus in the scientific community that the Atlantic Ocean’s great white shark population on the North American east coast is rebounding, it does raise an interesting question. Could Canadian Maritime waters become the next hotspot for great white sharks?
A decade ago, I investigated stories of shark encounters in Maritime waters. Despite what some people might believe, the Gulf of Maine, the Bay of Fundy, the Atlantic coastline and the Gulf of St. Lawrence are teeming with millions of sharks. Blue, porbeagle, dogfish, basking, Greenland and yes, great whites, swim in every corner of the marine environment. But does the feeding event witnessed in St. Margaret’s Bay signal a significant shift in the normal traffic patterns of great whites off Canada’s east coast?
There have been great white sightings and encounters throughout recorded history in the Maritimes. In 1953, a great white shark eerily followed the dory of two lobstermen for a week, before charging from below in classic white shark ambush style, and ramming its snout through the hull of the boat. One of the men drowned, the other lived. The shark disappeared.
In 1983, off the north shore of Prince Edward Island (in the Gulf of St. Lawrence), a great white shark got itself tangled in fishing nets and died. It was towed ashore amid much spectacle (JAWS hysteria was still reverberating around the world at that time and P.E.I.’s celebrated beaches are on the province’s north shore) and was unceremoniously spirited away by the RCMP to a local landfill. Today it is considered one of the largest great whites in the world ever caught.
Just this past June, a white shark was detected in the Minas Basin. The shark had been previously tagged by researchers and detected by a receiver monitored by local fishermen.
Given those anecdotes, any marine biologist will tell you that white sharks are no strangers to Northeast waters. But until recently, the general public still thought that it was a rare event when one showed up—as was portrayed in the blockbuster movie JAWS. In a lot of people’s minds, considerable white shark congregations only took place off South Africa, South Australia, or Northern California—where they’re commonly seen on BBC Earth or National Geographic documentaries. Well, that thinking has been shattered.
The Spirit of Massachusetts
Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Provincetown are the playgrounds of New England’s elite, and the travel destinations for thousands of tourists every year. Cape Cod truly is worth a visit, and great white sharks seemed to have found the Lonely Planet booklet. They began showing up in significant numbers during the mid-2000’s. While humans enjoy the Cape’s exquisite food, wine, and beaches, great white sharks were drawn by another commodity. Grey seals.
In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act made it illegal to hunt or kill grey seals, and each generation has grown exponentially. Once nearly wiped out by hunting and slaughter by fishermen, the grey seal population has exploded. The islands that make up part of Cape Cod are favourite haul-outs for grey seals, and provide an abundant, accessible food source for predators not bound by legislation.
Coincidentally, twenty years after seals were protected, federal and state regulations were enacted to protect great white sharks. Large sharks like great whites take a long time to reach sexual maturity—perhaps decades—but it seems as though the fruit of those government’s regulations has finally ripened. And just in time for the great white population to be served up a smorgasbord of blubbery hors d’oeuvres.
What does this have to do with a potential white shark feeding event in Nova Scotia in 2016? In isolation, not much, except that about a week later, another shark was filmed nearby off the Aspotogan Peninsula, just outside St. Margaret’s Bay. The animal had gotten itself trapped in fishermen’s gear, and had to be guided to freedom. The video states that the species of the shark is unknown.
Years ago, I caged-dived with with white sharks in South Africa’s infamous Shark Alley. I took this photo (below) of one of the great white sharks I witnessed. After scrutinizing the footage of the shark off Aspotogan and recounting my photos and first-hand memories in Shark Alley, I can, without any doubt, tell you—the shark in the video is a great white shark.
What Came First, the Chicken or the Shark?
Anomalies in nature happen all the time. It’s how behaviour is modified, how mutants gain advantage, and how species either evolve or go extinct. These anomalies can be gradual, such as climate change—or instant, like a cosmic impact. As with all other species, the behaviour of the great white shark can be affected by even the most subtle change in its environment.
On August 10, 1960, a 3.6 m white shark was harpooned and landed by Harry Goodridge of Rockport, Maine, after the shark had bitten Goodridge’s pet seal Basil in half (Goodridge had another, more famous pet seal, depicted in the Hollywood movie, Andre).
Harry had led Basil out in the Penobscot Bay for exercise, when he heard a splash. He turned around and the seal was gone, the water red with blood. Mr. Goodridge harpooned a circling shark from his 5.8 m outboard, and was subsequently pulled around the Bay for an hour and a half. Upon examining the landed 3.3 m male shark, Goodridge discovered two seals in the gut—including Basil.
Between 1959-60, twelve white sharks were landed on the Maine coast, including three others that Goodridge harpooned. Eight captures in 1960—most in the same vicinity—represented the most white shark recordings for any year along the Atlantic coast until the 2000’s.
During this same time, a chicken processing plant had operated in nearby Belfast, Maine. The plant had been expelling chicken innards into the Bay as part of its operations. Coincidentally, after the plant closed in the mid-1960’s, there were no other reported white shark encounters in the area.
If a chicken processing plant operating for less than ten years can influence the behaviour patterns of the great white shark, what happens when its natural food—marine mammals—becomes plentiful and easy to catch in concentrated hubs?
Safe from human interference, the grey seal population that frequents Cape Cod has reached a point where local fishermen are blaming them for decreased fish stocks. Schools of striped bass that used to fill the harbour have now almost vanished. Coincidentally, striped bass runs in Nova Scotia have strangely increased in the past few years to levels not seen in recent memory. Are striped bass migrating north to avoid grey seals? That would be pure speculation. But if it were true, would the seals eventually take the cue and follow?
Regardless of that hypothetical dynamic, one thing is certain. As the grey seal population around Cape Cod has grown, so has the number of white sharks. It’s not a JAWS event anymore when one is spotted each summer, because they are seen daily. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy— a non-profit research organization—has been monitoring and tagging white sharks off Cape Cod for almost ten years now, and one of those tagged sharks was the one that showed up in the Minas Basin off Nova Scotia last month.
Grey Seal Metropolis
While officially part of Nova Scotia, the sandy jellybean 300 km southeast of Halifax—known as Sable Island —couldn’t be more isolated. The lonely sandbar sits precariously close to the precipice of the continental shelf, and just inside the path of the Gulf Stream. The island has a fascinating natural and human history, and is surprisingly—and famously—home to a population of wild horses. But its real rulers are grey seals. Over 300,000 of them haul out along the 26-mile long coastline, making Sable Island home to the world’s largest grey seal colony.
With such a large concentration of seals, surely a cadre of oceanic predators must be cashing in. It is generally assumed, but with only a handful of full-time staff living on the island, feeding events are not documented with the same zeal as in other places. The scientists I spoke with insinuated that hundreds of seal carcasses with incriminating wounds are seen every year on the beaches of Sable Island. However, because of the odd nature of many of these wounds—corkscrew shaped—and accompanying headless carcasses, great white sharks aren’t the default culprit.
The mystery predator has been identified (at this point in time) as the Greenland Shark, snatching seals by the head as they forage the sea bottom or hang suspended in underwater sleep. The shark then twists like a crocodile, its razor-sharp teeth cutting through the flesh and severing the head.
Gruesome, yes, but still a theory. No film exists (that I’m aware of) of these feeding events. I’m surprised the BBC Wildlife folks have not applied to the Canadian government for access to the island, to do just that. I believe the Greenland shark theory. However, I would also hazard an educated guess—based on the similarities between Cape Cod and Sable Island—that there are significant numbers of great white sharks feeding on the teeming masses of grey (and harbour) seals packed on and around Sable Island.
Sharks—especially great whites—hold an inexplicable grip on our collective psyche. It is easy to get caught up in the Shark Week-esque hype that gets rolled out each summer. I know I do. I dispute the assertion that the shark attacking the porpoises in the video is a mako. I truly believe it is a great white. But it’s also important to remember that not every dorsal fin you see belongs to a great white.
Last year, at Martinique Beach in Musquodoboit Harbour (my favourite Nova Scotia beach) bathers witnessed and captured on film something that looked like a large dorsal fin not too far offshore.
Years ago, while sailing near the mouth of Halifax Harbour, I saw a similar dorsal fin, and managed to photograph it. To me, it looks very similar. The animal? A basking shark. Huge, imposing and fascinating, the basking shark is fairly harmless to humans.
Another creature commonly mistaken for a white shark is the ocean sunfish, normally found in tropical waters but a frequent visitor in the summer months. Sunfish are also amazing animals, but again, quite harmless to humans.
Take off—to the Great White North
Which brings us back to the original question. Could the Canadian Maritimes become the next hotspot for great white sharks? It’s definitely possible. As we’ve seen, patterns in nature can change fast. But in my opinion, it would take a huge colony of grey seals to establish itself on the mainland coast or coastal islands for that to happen—such as in Cape Cod. Although you’ll see many seals as you travel Maritime shorelines, the numbers just don’t come close to those at the haul-out sites in Cape Cod, or especially on Sable Island.
This doesn’t mean that the recent spate of white shark sitings is a one-off. On the contrary, with an abundant food supply and protection from humans, the white shark population is only likely to multiply, and with more sharks moving up and down the eastern seaboard, more of them are likely to venture into Maritime waters in the future.
As more and more people carry cell phones with video capability, I predict that we’ll begin witnessing many more events like the ones cited above in in St. Margaret’s Bay. I would also venture that they are probably happening more frequently than we think in the myriad uninhabited coves and islands along the Maritime coast, just waiting to be documented.