strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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How it Feels When a Shark Attacks–Seals Part 5

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 18, 2014

Myers father and son, in repair.

Myers father and son, in repair.

 

So how will all this change Cape Cod? What will the coming of gray seals mean for the fishermen lying awake at night fretting about how to make the mortgage or pay for fuel? What will it mean for the 500,000 or so vacationers who dream of this place all winter and crowd themselves onto this spit of sand every summer to be revived for another year by nature? What will it mean for Chris Myers, who sometimes starts up out of his sleep at his home in Denver thinking about the seals and about that day in July 2012 when the shark attacked?

Myers and his 16-year-old son J.J. were swimming toward the breakers at a submerged sandbar 400 yards off Ballston Beach in Truro. He’d been swimming out to the sandbar all his life, to stand on it and throw himself forward with enough momentum to catch a wave for the long ride in.

This time, though, as they were still approaching the sandbar, something hit him, and he knew instantly that it was a shark. “The impact was incredibly shocking and painful.” It had him hard by the left leg. With his right leg he kicked furiously at its nose and mouth. “Like kicking a refrigerator. No give at all.”   But then the shark let go, and after a moment it surfaced, the broad gray back three or four feet across, wheeling up in the tight little span between Myers and his son. Then the huge dorsal fin, slicing up and over.   Not a movie. Real life.

Myers looked down to see if the shark had taken off his leg. “Then I realized that was a stupid thing to do,” and the two of them turned to swim toward shore, with J.J. screaming for help the whole way. Myers swam under his own power, or the power of adrenaline. He did not notice the pain again till his feet touched the beach. Then, unable to support his own weight, he crumpled onto the sand.

As people gathered around wide eyed, Myers looked down at his legs. “There was a lot of flesh and blood. I remember seeing fat and thinking, ‘Boy, these are deep cuts.’” He also felt “incredible relief. I was so elated that this had happened and that I had survived it.”

It took a few months to get back on a bicycle, and six months before he could run again. But how long before he could swim again at Ballston Beach. He was planning to head back to Cape Cod, as he has every summer for 48 years now. But it was clear that it will be a different Cape Cod for him next time.

The return of the gray seals means that it will be a different, more complicated Cape Cod even for Lisa Sette. She’s a field biologist with the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown and looks the part, a sturdy, outdoorsy woman in her fifties, red faced, with a quick smile, in a t-shirt and a wool fishing cap. Sette likes to remind people that being bitten by a shark is even less likely than being hit by lightning. But over coffee with a fellow biologist one morning at the start of summer, she also swaps the sort of uneasy questions almost everyone on Cape Cod now sometimes asks: Is it safer to swim when there aren’t any seals around? Or is it safer with a large group of seals nearby, on the theory that sharks steer clear of crowds and tend instead to pick off loners? But having to think about those sorts of questions clearly doesn’t strike her as a bad thing.

Sometimes, lying in bed at night at her house a mile or so inland, Sette can hear the yawping and barking of the gray seals hauled out at Head of the Meadow beach in Truro. It’s a haunting sound, but also comforting for Sette, who regards the return of the seals as a restoration, not an invasion. Cape Cod has always been a special place, a little wild, a little reckless, an arm of the mainland flung 35 miles into the ocean, out among the whales and the dolphins—and now the gray seals. The sheer number of seals can seem overwhelming for people who are not used to them, she acknowledges.   “When you cull a population and then stop, it will rebound,” she says, out at the beach one morning. “But everything finds its level. There are checks and balances.” Meanwhile, to witness the re-colonization in her own lifetime and to be able to walk up over these dunes and see the seals lying there, at home, is for her a kind of miracle.

Cape Cod, with all its traffic jams, and t-shirt shops, and vacation hordes, has somehow become a wilder, more natural place, a Cape Cod of predators and prey, where our own ability to make a living, or pursue a hobby, or swim in absolute safety are no longer quite so sacrosanct. It’s a Cape that can sometimes feel as if it has lost its footing and gone adrift in unknown currents.

But it may just be Cape Cod as it was always meant to be.

 

 

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