On Monday, a great white shark washed ashore on a beach in Chatham, Mass. In video footage, beach goers can be seen crowding around the shark. People throw water on the creature to keep it alive. As it writhed around, showing signs of life, people applauded:
A harbormaster tied a rope to the shark’s tail, and a boat dragged the animal out to water. But the animal remained near the shore and wasn’t breathing. So the group of rescuers, which included researchers, towed the shark out into the open waters in an effort to revive its breathing.
“We walked it like a big dog,” Greg Skomal, a shark scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told the Providence Journal.
Cynthia Wigren, president and co-founder of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, was a part of the rescue mission; she told The Washington Post that a beached shark in that area is “a very rare occurrence. Skomal talks about the fact that he’s been working with sharks for over 30 years, and he’s never had an experience like this before.”
The 7-foot shark, which researchers ended up tagging, is likely a juvenile, and it’s unclear how it ended up beached. “I think he’s a victim of circumstance, and he went into shallow water looking for a meal and most likely with an incoming tide,” Skomal told The Post.
“White sharks need to be swimming forward all the time to be bringing water into their mouths and flowing over their gills to breathe,” Wigren said. “The fact that it had been out of the water, and even in the water, it wasn’t moving forward, meant we needed to move quickly to work getting water flowing through the gill and try to revive it.”
The rescue operation wasn’t easy. The crew tied a rope around the shark and pulled it alongside the boat, which was doing the swimming for the shark.
The crew pulled the shark for about 30 minutes and released it from the side of the boat when it appeared it might be dead. “We started discussing what to do with the shark when it was dead, and the shark’s tail started to move,” Wigren said.
Rather than letting the shark go then, they continued to tow it so that it wouldn’t turn around and end up back in shallow waters. The shark bit the boat twice during the entire process and was released about a mile from shore.
“Clearly once it had more energy, it wasn’t something you want to mess with,” Wigren said.
Researchers can track the shark over time, if it survives after Monday’s ordeal. “There’s no guarantee this critter is going to live, but we did the best we could,” Skomal said.
Monday’s rescue mission also highlights how the public views sharks. Habormaster Stuart Smith, who helped transport the shark out, said he saw about 40 people crowded around when he arrived at the beach. “Everybody there was trying to save that shark,” Smith told the Providence Journal.
“It’s a wonderful testament to how attitudes are changing toward sharks,” Skomal said. “I think they’re morphing away from animals to be feared to animals to be fascinated about.”
The sight of beach goers helping the shark contrasts with how people used to react, Wigren said; about 50 years ago, people killed a great white shark trapped in a salt pond in the area.
The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy raises funds for shark research and also educates the public so they feel a connection to the animals. “It’s a lot more challenging with a species like a white shark that has the ‘Jaws’ image, and people are afraid of,” Wigren said. “For them to show compassion for that animal — that’s what everyone on that beach had, wanting to see that shark saved.”
[This post has been updated.]