Cape beaches educate swimmers about shark threat

ping4alerts smartphone app

Beach season is in full swing, and on Cape Cod that means shark season is under way, too.

This year, authorities are ramping up their vigilance following a big increase in great white activity.

"This is a new ball game for all of us up here," said Dawson Farber, natural resources manager in Orleans. He oversees the town's beaches and waterways.

Lifeguards are on alert as Cape Cod has become shark central in the past few years.

There have been plenty of great white sightings, and a swimmer was bitten on the leg last year. A great white was spotted at Nauset Beach in Orleans last month.

Should people be afraid to swim in the water here or at the other beaches?

"No," Farber said. "In my opinion, no."

The town takes precautions, avoiding panic like depicted in the movie "Jaws."

Frequent visitor Cameron Trenor said he isn't worried.

"There are lifeguards every 150 feet. You can't see it today, but there's a harbor patrol boat that goes back and forth, and when there's really a lot going on there's a helicopter," said Trenor, of Boston.

For lifeguards at beaches like this one that have had shark sightings before, the job isn't just about swimming. It's about spotting what could be in the water.

"All of our lifeguards, beach patrol, and harbor patrol units have received training. We have a handbook that's required reading at this point, talking about tricks to identifying what type of shark it is and then, obviously, the specific protocol steps and notifications that have to be made," Farber said.

It's the same thing just down the coast at Lighthouse Beach in Chatham, another known shark hangout.

"They're looking for sharks, but they're more concerned with watching for seals, which are what the sharks are feeding on. And notifying swimmers to stay clear of seals when they're in area," said Dan Tobin, director of Parks and Recreation in Chatham.

Seals are plentiful, often seen bobbing up and down in the water just off shore.

At Lighthouse, Nauset and other Cape beaches, officials have added signs warning swimmers about sharks. It's part of a program launched this year to get everyone on the same page.

About a dozen towns also are part of an alert system. When a shark is spotted in one them, they're all immediately notified.

"It's not a perfect system, and I think we've tried to educate folks to let them know that there is no 100 percent guarantee of safety anytime you go into the ocean," Farber said.

There's also an alert app for smartphones.

"The Ping4 app was designed to provide emergency alerts to the public anywhere in the world. It's highly localized. You can take very small areas or very large areas and if you're in the area, you'll get the alert," said company CEO Jim Bender.

Massachusetts and other states use ping4alerts to notify people of storms and other emergencies. Bender said the free app can be used for shark sightings, too.

"When great white sharks show up, you'd know about it before the lifeguards," Bender said.

New tools, but more than anything, experts say it's about common sense.

"We recommend, obviously, avoiding doing certain stupid things -- swimming with seals. Try to avoid swimming at dawn and dusk when these predators are at their peak feeding times," Farber said.

"We encourage swimmers to be vigilant whenever they're swimming, regardless of sharks," Tobin said.

But it is the sharks that have added a whole new element to the beach experience.

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