Chatham Shark Center researching, tagging and teaching all about sharks

Chatham Zip Trip: Chatham Shark Center

CHATHAM, Mass. — Chatham is known for its beautiful beaches, but it's what is in the water that attracts many visitors to this seaside town.

"I think everyone has a natural curiosity about sharks, whether there is a fear or fascination and for most people, it's both... they want to know more," said Cynthia Wigren.

Wigren is the CEO of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy based in Chatham.

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"People come to Chatham and they go to the lighthouse and look out and are hoping to see a shark. It is really rare to see a shark. For us, we have a spotter pilot out on the water for us to be able to find them. So, this really is the next best thing," said Wigren.

That's why the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy opened the Chatham Shark Center five years ago and last summer alone, 14,000 visitors explored this family-friendly museum.

"So as soon as you walk into the center there is a board that provides the latest information and then it shows the number of sharks that have been tagged, the sharks that have been identified and any information that is happening on the water, people can get that in real time right here," said Wigren.

This quaint space is packed with the latest shark facts, interactive exhibits, games, a virtual reality experience where you feel like you're diving underwater with sharks, and artifacts like a paddle board a great white took a chomp out of just last summer.

"It's been really exciting for us to connect with so many people," said Wigren.

One of the cool exhibits at the Shark Center is getting into a metal cage that is very similar to the actual cages used by scuba divers to check out the great white sharks.

We do understand that that JAWS mentality still exists.

"There are people that have seen that movie who have a fear of sharks as a result. So, for us to provide as much as information as we can so we're giving people facts to replace the fear and ultimately have a greater appreciation for the role sharks play in our natural environment," said Wigren.

Now a go-to stop in Chatham, the conservancy all began for a different reason.

"The non-profit was started just as a way to help. To provide sustainable funding for white shark research. So, Dr. Greg Skomal works for the division of marine fisheries. Our organization funds the work that he is doing," said Wigren.

When you hear about a shark sighting, you'll likely find Skomal nearby.

"When I was really young, I saw the movie JAWS and it inspired me and so sharks have always been fascinating to me so it's been a dream to work with these animals. Now I'm doing that, so it never gets old. I'm basically doing what I've always loved to do."

And that's counting sharks, which is part of the current research being done in our coastal waters, funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. This is the final summer of the 5-year white shark population study.

"Right now we are just over 350 white sharks, over the course of the last 4 years and there is a lot of data we still need to go through. So that's going to tell us the baseline number, so then what we do is use that to seed a bunch of sophisticated models so we can extrapolate the number to the full population size cause we're not seeing every single shark that is out there," said Skomal.

That's because Skomal and his team only go out on the water twice a week. They are not just counting sharks, they are also tagging them, the fifth of the season just this week.

"The tagging itself is part of the broader study to look at their general movement patterns. The tagging data is telling us these sharks basically migrate as far north as Canada. So this is kind of a 'way' point for some of these animals, like a rest stop. They pull in for a quick burger, the burger being the seal, right. Others are resident, they get a room and they stay there for the summer and then they migrate south as far as the Gulf of Mexico," said Skomal.

As the scientists learn, the Conservancy is making sure the public is learning, as well.

"You know the days of all of us burying our heads in the sand because white sharks are swimming along our coastline are over. And the Conservancy working with the towns, working with my agency has been instrumental on making sure the public knows, you have these critters out here, here's what we're learning about them,  here's what you should know, here's how you should behave or modify your behavior in the presence of these animals. And the conservancy fills an incredible role that way," said Skomal.

So if you are on the Cape. you don't have to wait for a rainy day to do it. Go visit the Shark Center - there is a lot going on there.