Great white sharks draw tourists to Cape Cod in Massachusetts despite fears
Locals on Cape Cod benefit from tourist surge as they take visitors out to sea and sell T-shirts
Its reputation as a man-eating predator aside, the great white shark is emerging as a boon for tourism on Cape Cod, the Massachusetts peninsula popular among beach combers.
Unlike the classic 1975 thriller Jaws, in which one of the predators terrorises a small island, the sharks that have been spotted in growing numbers are stirring more curiosity than fear in the US state - and a buying frenzy for shark-related merchandise.
Shark T-shirts are everywhere, Jaws has been playing in local cinemas and boats are taking more tourists out to see the huge seal population that keeps the sharks coming. Harbourmasters have issued warnings, but - unlike the sharks in the movies - the great whites are not seen generally as a threat to swimmers.
Among the entrepreneurs is Justin Labdon, owner of the Cape Cod Beach Chair Company, who started selling shark-themed T-shirts after customers who were renting paddle boards and kayaks began asking whether it was safe to go to sea.
"I mean, truthfully, we've probably grown about 500 per cent in terms of the sale of our shark apparel," he said. The T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, dog collars and other accessories bear the iconic, torpedo-shaped image of great whites and sell for between US$10 and US$45.
He said his store brought in thousands of dollars in merchandise sales.
A study released last month by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found the number of great white sharks off the eastern US and Canada was surging after decades of decline. Conservation efforts and the greater availability of prey such as seals are credited with the reversal.
Shark sightings have soared from fewer than two a year before 2004 to more than 20 in each of the last few years off Cape Cod, where the economy depends heavily on the summer tourism season. Despite notices urging boaters and swimmers to use caution, the official reaction has been nearly the opposite of the panic depicted in Jaws.
"White sharks are this iconic species in society and it draws amazing amounts of attention," said Gregory Skomal, a senior marine fisheries biologist who leads the Massachusetts shark research programme. Skomal said people were coming in hopes of witnessing the animals in their splendour. "I have not been approached by anyone who has said to me 'let's go kill these sharks'."
Still, officials are wary of the damage that could be done to tourism if one of the predators bites someone. Brochures have been distributed to raise awareness of sharks and safe practices.
"If they go to the beach and they see a family of seals there, that's probably not the best place to hang out," Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross said.