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Meet the Shark Scientist: World-Renowned White Shark Expert Greg Skomal

Team member Alexandra Owens recently interviewed white shark scientist Dr. Greg Skomal.

Make sure to check out Greg's book Chasing Shadows

Greg Skomal, a senior scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, fell in love with sharks the way so many of us did: By watching Jaws. Instead of fear, Spielberg’s blockbuster-inspired a desire to follow in the footsteps of shark biologist Matt Hooper—and a passion for the ocean that would last a lifetime. Skomal has studied white sharks off the coast of New England since the early 1980s, tracking their growing population off the beaches of Cape Cod. According to one recent study, about 800 individual white sharks visited the waters surrounding Cape Cod from 2015 to 2018, making it one of the largest white shark hotspots in the world and the first ever in the North Atlantic.

Greg pole tagging a white shark Credit: Wayne Davis

Today, Skomal directs the Massachusetts Shark Research Program and works in partnership with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and its Sharktivity app to improve public safety and study the behavior of these enigmatic animals using tag-mounted video cameras, accelerometer tags, and more. I recently caught up with Skomal to discuss Cape Cod’s burgeoning great white population, the ethics of cage diving, and how the locals feel about their new neighbors. To learn more, check out Skomal’s book Chasing Shadows: My Life Tracking the Great White Shark.

Alexandra Owens: White sharks used to be rare in New England. Why are there so many more now than there were 20 years ago?

Greg Skomal: We believe that's driven by the presence of seals. Twenty years ago, you probably would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of seals around Cape Cod. Gray seals and other species of seals were hunted to the brink of extinction over the last century. In 1972, the U.S.—recognizing that we had done such a poor job of exploiting marine mammals—put the Marine Mammal Protection Act in place. That afforded all marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, and seals, the highest level of protection. We have seen some of these populations respond. Over the last 20-plus years, seals have been coming back to Massachusetts and recolonizing as their numbers grow. We believe that the appearance of white sharks over the last 15 to 20 years is in direct response to this. It amounts to a new restaurant—or maybe a favorite restaurant reopening.

Credit: Duncan Brake

AO: Their favorite chain is back. Does the white shark’s conservation status have any effect on their numbers? [The U.S. government designated white sharks as a prohibited species in 1997.]

GS: It could be. We think that in terms of the number of white sharks, there are two things happening. We think the population of white sharks in the Western North Atlantic, which is a single population that spans from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, is coming back after years of protection from harvest. So the general population seems to be exhibiting growth, and then we're seeing a redistribution in response to the seals along the shoreline. This is occurring not only on Cape Cod but from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Newfoundland. There's been dramatic growth in the number of researchers working on white sharks in Canada in recent years.

AO: Something you learned in the National Geographic documentary you appear in, Return of the White Shark, is how these species coming back is so healthy for the environment. We know that sharks help maintain the biodiversity of the ocean, but now we also can see the positive effects they can have on our coasts, by controlling the seal population.

GS: I think one of the goals of U.S. legislation when it comes to marine resources—actually all natural resources—is to achieve sustainability and restore populations that have been impacted by us. This is a good example of how that's working. A natural ecosystem is going to be well-balanced and have top predators, mid-level predators, and foraging species. To see seals come back and respond to protection and the sharks following suit—I think it's a conservation success story.

AO: In recent years, Cape Cod has started a homegrown great white tourism industry. Does it surprise you that shark tourism has become such a thing there?

GS: Yes and no. When you look at white sharks on a global scale, it's an iconic species and anywhere they occur in numbers—in these areas we call white shark hotspots or aggregation sites—there's the appearance of eco-tour operators. In other parts of the world, like California and South Australia, this manifests itself as cage diving operations. [Cage diving with great whites in Massachusetts is illegal. Charters are also prohibited from intentionally baiting or dumping chum for white sharks within state waters.] I guess what surprised me was how quickly it grew. It started with just one or two boats run by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy or in cooperation with the Conservancy. I would guess there are probably seven or eight now, maybe more. 

Founders Jillian Morris and Duncan Brake observing Greg's research off Cape Cod Credit Wayne Davis

AO: I found a dozen!

GS: There you go! See, now that surprises me. I didn't realize there were that many. It's been pretty amazing that this has grown and they've done it without cage operations. I think it's safe to say that chumming and baiting will condition the animals. There are a lot of pros and cons to these operations. I think at the end of the day, they're on the plus side of the ledger in terms of their contribution to education and shark conservation, so I'm a proponent of them as long as they're well-regulated. And these operations are also very, very helpful to scientific teams, as well. Many of the scientists I know around the world work with, charter, and participate in shark cage diving ecotourism. In our case, of course, we're coming up on sharks that are trying to feed in shallow waters. I think if that happens persistently and consistently, it may impact the behavior of the animals. That's certainly a question we'd like to try to answer at some point, but we don’t know enough about it.

AO: Do you feel like public opinion is changing around white sharks in Cape Cod?

GS: Yeah. Certainly, over the course of my lengthy career, I've seen changes in attitudes towards sharks in general. About white sharks, I'd say over the last decade, you're certainly going to have people on both ends of the spectrum in terms of how they view these animals. Typically commercial and recreational fishermen, I think they're fascinated by sharks, but the seals are a problem for them. They'll leverage the presence of sharks to try to get rid of seals. But by far, most people on the Cape are very tolerant and accepting and embrace these animals as part of the natural ecosystem.

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