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Cape Cod Not So Welcoming to Latest Wave of Visitors–Seals Part I

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014

grayseal-604

It’s a sunny morning early in June, and the scene at the Fish Pier in Chatham, Massachusetts, on the elbow of Cape Cod, is a perfect split-screen image of the Cape’s bipolar personality: On the upper deck, 40 or 50 tourists at a time line the rails, cooing and sighing every time a gray seal rises in the green water below and shows its glossy dark eyes. Meanwhile, at ground level, just below, the commercial fishermen unloading their meager catch darkly curse the seals as their worst enemy.

Someone calls down a question from the deck, and an older fisherman with battered teeth and tattooed arms answers. “This water used to be loaded with stripers,“ he begins amiably. “I used to bring my kids here at the end of the day to fish. Now the stripers are all gone. The seals ate ‘em,” he says, revving himself up. “They eat 200 or 300 pounds of fish a day.” And then the closer: “There are hundreds of seals here that we all want to kill.”

The tourists nod politely, aghast. Kill seals? It is illegal, and besides, they are too cute.

But even some tourists have lately begun to wonder just how much cuteness Cape Cod can stand. From a few dozen seals in the early 1990s, the local population of gray seals has boomed to upwards of 15,000. It represents a dramatic recovery for a species that was largely extirpated from the Cape in the nineteenth century, and it’s a triumph for the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. But to some people it also looks like way too much of a good thing.

On Cape Cod, the main “haulout,” where gray seals come ashore to rest and to reproduce, is on Monomoy, the strip of uninhabited barrier islands extending eight miles south from Chatham into Nantucket Sound.   But these days there’s hardly a beach from Falmouth to Provincetown, or on the islands, where seals don’t visit, sometimes hundreds of them at a time. This booming population has brought about a sea change for both beach-going tourists and the traditional working Cape alike.

Most sensationally, great white sharks

 (Photo by Shelly Negrotti)

(Photo by Shelly Negrotti)

now routinely patrol the Cape in search of seals for dinner–and they sometimes make mistakes: Early in July 2012, a novice kayaker off Nauset Beach in Orleans turned around to see the dorsal fin of a great white bearing down on him. He managed to paddle furiously to shore, tumbling into the surf just as the shark turned away. Three weeks later, a great white grabbed a swimmer off Ballston Beach in Truro. He also survived, after a frantic and bloody race to the beach. The two incidents sent a voyeuristic thrill racing across the Cape and introduced a new sense of trepidation to the simple joy of playing in the surf. They also gave the fishermen a slightly perverse cause for hope.

“You know how we’re going to get rid of the seals?” says a charter boat captain at Chatham Fish Pier that morning in June. He gestures seaward with an open-end wrench. “A shark is going to eat some fat lady from New Jersey. Then they’ll go, ‘Oh, my god, we’ve got a seal problem.’” He wonders aloud if his website should feature a picture of Captain Quint, from the movie “Jaws,” filmed just across the water on Martha’s Vineyard. “You wait,” he growls, wishfully. “This summer we’re going to see some action.”  (To be continued)

 

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