Wild Cape Cod Notebook: White Shark Research

Summer has now commenced in full swing here on Cape Cod and many summer visitors have arrived to enjoy all that a warm and sunny Cape Cod has to offer. Our attention has turned to supporting a research project that is being conducted in Cape Cod waters and when completed will answer the question most people ask about Atlantic white sharks. How many are out there? This work is being funded by donations of time equipment and $ from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in cooperation with the Massachusetts department of Marine Fisheries Shark Research Program led by Dr. Greg Skomal. The research is being conducted on the outer Cape operating out of our home port, Chatham and since Greg has been interested in working from a smaller boat platform to see if photographing and tagging white sharks is possible, we offered the use of ours – the 24 foot Aleutian Dream. Over the last couple of years we have made some modifications to this fishing boat to enhance our ability to follow and photograph wildlife in the ocean and with the addition of a bow pulpit the boat seemed ideally suited for the challenge to follow white sharks. And because the region’s seals are so spread out, the only truly efficacious way to find these visiting apex predators is to use a spotter plane. Veteran fish spotter pilot Wayne Davis was recruited for this purpose and after a couple of weeks we have worked most of the kinks out our process.

Please consider supporting this important work by donating  here http://www.atlanticwhiteshark.org/donate/


Shark study seals (7)

Shark study seals (2)

Shark study seals (1)

The research protocol calls for the team to be on the water at least two days a week scanning from the boat and working with the plane along the areas barrier beaches looking mainly at the grey seal haulouts for signs of shark predation attempts and any other observations. We have been blessed with some excellent conditions to work in and were rewarded on Saturday June 28 when Wayne spotted 14 – 15 foot white shark about 1/4 mile off of Nauset Beach and we were able to follow her with underwater pole cameras for nearly an hour.

Shark study seals

Shark study seals (3)

Shark study seals (6)

Read more.. Friday, July 4th, 2014

Cetaceans on the Outer Cape

The month of May is fast moving to a close and the spring migration continues to be an adventure. Launching our boat , Aleutian Dream into the water this past weekend finally enabled us to get out in the Atlantic and off shore to investigate reports of massive schools of sand eels and voraciously feeding Humpback Whales. We were joined by friend Ted Cheeseman a Conservation Biologist and whale naturalist visiting from California and scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who were all “off duty” and keen to see some cetacean action. And action we found!

Leaving Chatham Harbor in the slate grey of a cool spring morning to calm seas we ventured south a few miles to examine the condition of the South Beach cuts of 2013 & 2014 and to assess the haulouts of Gray seals gathered along the Monomoy side of these inlets. An ocean swell from the previous days Northeast winds was causing a significant line of breakers across both inlets even at high tide. This does not bode well for navigating this short cut to Nantucket Sound for mariners this summer season. We observed seals well off the beach about a mile and in numbers suggesting that as yet the apex predator white sharks may not yet have arrived. We understand that the listening buoys are to be deployed in the next days so real data may soon be available on the presence of white sharks.

But since our target for the day was whales we quickly assessed that there were no Humpbacks feeding in the immediate Chatham Harbor area out 3 miles so we decided to head north to check out the action reported heavily in the vicinity of Race Point near Provincetown. We were rewarded for the long run up from Chatham with confirmed sightings of four different cetaceans!Stellwagen (35)

A Fin Whale feeding off of Race Point

Stellwagen (50)

Common dolphins

Stellwagen (36)

Minke Whale feeding on Stellwagen

Stellwagen (47)

The spectacular behavior of Humpbacks known as Bubble netting is one of the most amazing sights to witness in natural history among whales. This is cooperative feeding among 1 – many whales working together to efficiently feed. Here are a few images we made.

Stellwagen (11)

Whale watchers look on in amazement.

Stellwagen (39)Stellwagen (16)Stellwagen (34)Stellwagen (17)Stellwagen (13)Stellwagen (3)

Ventesca by Tim Vorheis3

Photo by Tim Vorheis – Humpback “Ventesca” bubble netting (taken offshore about 2005)

Bubble netting as mentioned is very special to see. Thanks very much to Tuna spotter pilot and photographer Tim Vorheis who nailed this image some years ago so you can see what is happening…and this is just one whale working. A helpful article describing this feeding behavior is here.  http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/press/2013/pr092613.html

A few other shots of “bubble netting taken off of Chatham last November.

Humpbacks off ChathamHumpbacks off Chatham (1)Humpbacks off Chatham (2)Humpbacks off Chatham (3)

Read more.. Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Winter

We are still sifting through the images and savoring the experience of our recent trek down Sandy Neck here on a frozen Cape Cod but this has not stopped us from continuing to get outside in the frigid but beautiful winter landscapes here to find the wild things. The weather is forecast to change and warmer temperatures with lots of rain and wind are expected shortly….so we thought we would post some of the images we have recorded in the past week including a host of beautiful raptors and some uncommon waterfowl. We also have had a few additional snowy owl encounters and a sighting of a White Fronted Goose among the Canada Geese on a local golf course.

This will likely be our last report for awhile as we head south to Caribbean waters to be with our friends the Sperm whales of Dominica and the Humpback whales of the Silver Bank near the Dominican Republic. Check back for these reports in a few weeks.

White fronted goose (right) - A rare Cape Cod visitor

Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge - Chatham

Snowy Owl in flight

North Chatham overlooking Tern Island toward the Outer Beach

Northern Harrier in flight - Fort Hill, Eastham

Great Blue Heron in flight - Fort Hill

Northern Shoveler (male)

Northern Harrier

Hooded Mergansers in flight - Eastham

Fort Hill view of Nauset Beach

Hooded Mergansers in flight

White fronted goose in flight (left)

Peregrine Falcon overlooks the frozen turf at Eastward Ho!- Chatham

Red Tailed Hawk - Chatham

Surf Scoter - Morris Island, Chatham

Common Goldeneye - Morris Island, Chatham

Read more.. Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Winter

This is the third post highlighting our walks on the barrier beaches on the Cape in the month of January. Still in search of up close and impressive images of the Snowy Owl visitors we venture onto Harding’s Beach in Chatham in the late afternoon to investigate. As those who follow this blog know even if your prime objective is elusive there is always something interesting to observe….always. Cutting to the chase – we did not find the owl this day but other visitors caught our attention.

Brandt Geese are passing through Cape Cod coastal areas still on their way south.

American Black Ducks take flight

Sanderlings are among the few shorebirds that winter over on Cape beaches

Dusk at the entrance to Stage Harbor looking south to South Monomoy Point

Sadly a Short finned pilot whale has stranded and died over night mysteriously

Read more.. Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Green Water…White Death

wild cape cod

Third in a series of photographs leveraged to raise
awareness, the 2013 poster edition of wild cape cod
illustrates a story of predation and power.
Taken a few moments after a failed attack,
this photograph captures a great white shark
as she circles back for another strike at a one of
the area’s many seals.

Poster is 22″ x 28″ and printed on high quality photographic paper suitable for framing
Cost $50.00 signed and dated
Send inquiries to john@commonflat.com
All Proceeds will be used to support Cape Cod based conservation efforts

Read more.. Thursday, December 12th, 2013

Transitions of the Season

Aleutian Dream at Cow Yard landing

It is that time of year when the NE Gales start to become more frequent and the temperatures drop toward the freezing mark. Our boat  Aleutian Dream has been in the water here on Cape Cod for over 6 months and the time has come to haul it for the winter season. It is always hard to give up the chance to be on the water in a moments notice. Here are some additional unforgettable images from our last adventure a week ago out with the humpbacks off Chatham Inlet.

But even as the seasons change there are still wild adventures to enjoy on land with the onset of the “off-season” quiet time on Cape Cod. Just check out these images Pam made from our porch the past few days.

Read more.. Thursday, November 14th, 2013

Offshore with the Humpbacks

The blessings of our mild and beautiful autumn weather continue to flow as we have been able to keep our boats in the water and in the past few days venture outside into the Atlantic Ocean to observe various life forms returning to our waters including rafts of common eiders and white winged scoters as well as a host of gannets and other pelagic seabirds which are in the area before returning to their winter waters in the South Atlantic. The biggest bonus of the fall season however has been getting absolutely stunning views of our Gulf of Maine humpbacks who have been seen easily within 3 miles of our coastline off of Chatham Inlet and are feeding there constantly on the massive amounts of sand eels that still bloom in our waters. We counted more than 30 different whales in the two afternoons we spent at sea. The whales are feeding cooperatively again using the “bubble-netting” technique we described in a previous blog entry (August 2013). As stated then it is still quite rare to get such large concentrations of feed at or near the surface in our waters so close to shore and seeing the humpbacks exhibiting this feeding behavior is very special.

Read more.. Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Autumn

We are down to the last few days of our beloved “Septober” season and the changes toward winter have been signaled by the return of waterfowl from the arctic and our shortening days. One beautiful bonus however. We are enjoying the characteristic golden “light” at the beginning and end of each day which highlight the splendor of autumn color here.

Outer Beach, Chatham

Buffleheads return

Mute Swan, Chatham

Mallards, Chatham

Powderhole from the air, Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge

American Black Ducks

House Finch, Chatham

Surf Scoters, Monomoy

Common Eiders of Chatham

White winged Scoters, Monomoy

Nickerson State Park, Brewster

Coyote hunts in Chatham

Read more.. Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Atlantic White Sharks

The Cape Cod fall has been spectacular especially in this month of October. The weather has been largely sunny, temperatures have been mild and the strong storms with easterly winds have held off.  With the Massachusetts Shark Research effort under the direction of Dr. Greg Skomal winding down and all tagging efforts complete for the 2013 season we decided to take advantage of a beautiful sunny day and get up in the air with veteran pilot and fish spotter Norman St. Pierre of Chatham. Our experience gives further credence to advice top wildlife guides and naturalists always say – the more time you spend in the “field” the better chance you have of seeing something extraordinary.
Field Report follows:
Weather conditions were not ideal as we had westerly winds with gusts to 25 knots giving a little challenge to flying in a small plane but the east side of the outer Cape beaches were protected from the wind and the sun shined exposing clear emerald green water near the beaches. We scanned the Chatham outer beaches carefully from the Minister’s Point cut in the north  to Monomoy Point in the south. The tide was high and slack water occurred during our flight at around 1330 hrs.  Almost immediately we spotted a white shark in shallow water just south of the new South Beach cut . The shark was about 100 yards off of the beach. Approximately 300- 400 grey seals were hauled out on the sand and perhaps another 50 were in the water at the edge of the surf inside the new cut area on the south side of the channel. We made several passes to take photographs and then proceeded south toward “shark cove”.  Approximately 1 mile north of the “cove” we spotted a 2nd white shark. This shark was about 25 yards off the beach and closing on a group of seals at the water’s edge. Again approximately 200 – 300 seals were hauled out in the near vicinity on the beach. Others were in the water but very close to the surf line. We again made several passes to photograph the shark and surroundings then proceeded south to Monomoy Point, circled the south end of the island but found no additional white sharks visible form the air. However a group of about 100 – 150 seals were hauled out at the south end of Monomoy.
Upon returning north we approached the area of the second shark sighting just in time to observe a predation attempt about 20 yards off the beach. We observed significant thrashing and splashing at the surface as it appeared the shark rushed a smaller seal that had strayed just a little off shore. Thrashing appeared to be created by many and very rapid strokes of the shark’s tail as it accelerated in attack mode and presumably some action from the seals attempt to escape to the beach. The seal escaped to the beach and hauled out but it was not immediately clear if it had sustained damage in the attack from a first look at the images recorded. We will study the images further.

After the predation event we followed the shark for a few minutes to see if it would initiate another attack. It approached another small group seals slowly but once observed by the seals (we saw them raise their heads and look )  the shark headed away from the beach to deeper water. We then made our way north across the main Chatham inlet scanning the east side of North Beach Island to the Minister’s Point cut . Finding no additional sharks in the area we returned to the airfield.

Now in thinking about the experience…it is a huge WOW! The “holy grail” in studying natural behavior in white sharks around the world is to see natural predation. Scientists, naturalists and photographers have devoted countless time and resources to witness and record these events and they are fleeting when they come if you are fortunate to see them. (See previous blog.commonflat post from August 2013 on this in South Africa). Only a hand full of people have seen Atlantic white sharks attack live marine mammals. The photographs are even more scarce because it is a rare and chance encounters that lasts only for a few seconds. Norm St. Pierre and I were very fortunate.  And what a glorious environment to witness this amazing stroke of natural hunting behavior from one of the earth’s greatest predators. Wild Cape Cod indeed!

Monomoy Island looking north to "Shark Cove"

Seals haul out at the new South Beach cut

Aftermath of an attempted white shark predation on seal

White shark moves off shore into deep water

Read more.. Monday, October 21st, 2013

Flight & Pursuit: Autumn Migrations

South Monomoy - the Powderhole

Canada geese in flight

Mute Swans gather at the Powderhole

October is now half gone and the water temperatures on the Outer Cape are slowly dropping while beautiful sunny skies and autumn colors take over our landscapes on Cape Cod.  Keen on observing raptors our patience has finally paid off. A visit to South Monomoy in a light easterly wind conditions has yielded a fine sighting of nature’s fastest predator, the Peregrine Falcon on its regular southerly migration following other migrants. Perfect opportunity to showcase our raptors. Also at South Monomoy in the fresh water ponds we found a number of migrating waterfowl as well. Fantastic birding!

Peregrine Falcon flies in from 12:00 o'clock high at 60 knots!

Peregrine strafes a flock of migrating Dunlins

South Monomoy from the Air

A pair of Marbled Godwits on Tern Island, Chatham

South bound Red Knot with a some breeding plumage still visible

American Oystercatcher

Northern Harrier hunting on Monomoy

Ringed Neck Plover on South Beach, Chatham

Dunlin in non breeding plumage


Dunlins in Flight

American Oyster catchers in a group on South Beach, Chatham

Morris Island, MNWR - Chatham

Migrating Lesser Scaup in flight at Powderhole

A Rare Marbled Godwit

Read more.. Tuesday, October 15th, 2013