White Shark Flight
Photographer Josh Liberman takes to the sky off the coast of Cape Cod in search of the ocean’s top predator.
Today, we'll cover hundreds of miles, but there's no destination. In just two short hours, we’ll be right back where we started. This story is about the journey. We'll venture high into the sky, out to sea and back again, in search of the ocean’s most misunderstood predator: the great white shark.
When you arrive at the Chatham airport on Cape Cod, you soon realize an open door in the chain-link fence is the only security present. No noisy terminal, lengthy delays, or groggy travelers in sight. Without a control tower, the airport operates on the goodwill and courtesy of the pilots. It was through the open door in the chain-link fence that I met up with George Breen. A legendary figure both on and off the Cape, George retired as a senior Boeing 777 pilot with a major airline and now spends his days spotting tuna, billfish, and white sharks from his Piper Super Cub 1955 aircraft. With over 35 years of experience under his belt, I knew he was a guy I could trust to fly an airplane more than double my age.
George gave me a quick tour of the aircraft, making sure to point out the rudder cables running below my feet and the joystick between my legs. “Careful not to bump that, it could put us in a bad way” he said with a chuckle. “…and If something happens, I’ll try to put us down on the beach, but if we’re too far out, here’s a life jacket in case we land in the water.” I guess such are the precautions you take when flying an airplane that was made the same year as the Polio vaccine.
I squeezed my way into the seat behind George and he started up the engine. We taxied to the end of the runway and he looked over his shoulder with an expression that said, “Ready for this?” I gave him a quick nod and within a moment, we lurched forward, the deafening roar of the engine shaking the cockpit.
Gaining speed, we lifted gently off the tarmac and into the sky. I could start to make out the coastline a few miles ahead. In Cape Cod, the landscape changes by the minute. The relentless ebb and flow of the tide shapes the shoreline and deposits sediment into the surrounding marsh, creating a dynamic work of art only made possible by Mother Nature, herself. A few wispy clouds tickled the wingtips, encouraging us to climb higher. As we cleared the towering sand dunes far below and turned to face the endless expanse of ocean, I was forced into a smile I couldn’t control.
We soon reached 1000ft, our cruising altitude for the flight. George banked the plane North and we began scouring the shallow water, heading from Chatham to Nauset to Wellfleet. The day was perfect, a comfortable 78 degrees with few clouds and smooth air. Even better, the sea was in pristine form; the incredible water clarity a rare treat up on the Cape. “Only two or three days a year does it look like this!” exclaimed George. The long sandy beach stretched over the horizon, blanketed on the East by an aqua so vibrant, I nearly mistook it for the tropical isles of the Caribbean.
“Bingo!” came George’s voice over the headset. His tone was elated. He’d gone on thousands of flights like this, but you could still hear the excitement in his voice as if he was a 10-year-old getting handed an ice cream cone in the heat of the summer. I jerked my head to the right, my gaze landing in the sweet spot, right between the front of the fuselage and the right wing. There, not 100 yards from shore, was the largest shadow I’ve ever seen.
It moved slowly, with grace, seemingly without effort or motive. Its massive tail fin swept hypnotically back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. At nearly 15 feet long, this was most certainly a great white.
George turned the plane sharply to the right, circling the white shark and allowing me to get a better angle to photograph it. He radioed the shark’s position to the team on the ground, who quickly located it and began tracking it from the water. The white sharks have contributed to a rapidly growing ecotourism industry. There are now multiple organizations that offer visitors the opportunity to view a white shark in its natural habitat. This was my first time shooting from a plane, and the novel perspective had my creative mind racing. The intense vibrations from the engine mixed with the 130mpg wind whipping past the open window made holding the long telephoto lens a tough challenge, but the rewards of capturing the ocean’s top predator from the sky outweighed the risks of dropping a camera.
We followed the shark for a few minutes, until it took a turn and started heading closer and closer to Nauset beach, which was filled to the brim with beachgoers enjoying a lazy Sunday on Cape Cod. George decided to radio the Harbor Master, who then warned the lifeguards of the approaching shark. They closed the beach and everyone quickly scampered out of the water. From the air, I could see thousands of people lining the edge of the beach, trying desperately to see the shark I knew was just a stone-throw away. The large shark came within 20 yards of shore before continuing its lazy march North. After a little while, the beach was reopened and the weekend festivities resumed.
After spotting the first shark, they began appearing like the plague. It seemed that every passing moment brought a new shark into view. Many were juveniles in the 5-7ft range, and some were larger adults, roughly 12-14ft in length. I was amazed at just how many sharks there were. So many, in fact, that I quickly lost count. An aggregation of white sharks this profound, only yards from one of the most popular beaches in America, leads many to wonder: “Why are they here?”
To understand why the white sharks are here, we must first understand their diet. Just like me, the sharks are highly food-motivated, and lead their life based on where their next meal will come from. But unlike me, they do it for a living.
White sharks aren’t usually picky and feed on many different things, from seabirds to sea turtles to fish. But the key ingredient that brings them to Cape Cod is a massive abundance of fatty marine mammals: The grey seal.
In the mid 1960’s, seal hunts and bounties pushed the grey seal to the brink of extinction, completely eliminating their population along the New England Coast. At one point, Massachusetts even offered a bounty of $5 per seal killed! However, since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, their population has rebounded exponentially. Returning from Nova Scotia, the seals have once again found a haven on Cape Cod, and don’t appear to be leaving anytime soon. The current grey seal population here is now estimated to be around 50,000 strong. With a buffet of nutritious prey in such a concentrated area, it’s no surprise that white sharks are also becoming much more abundant. (Source)
As we continued spotting shark after shark, all of them within 500 yards of shore, it became increasingly apparent just how smart these animals are. On this particular Sunday on Cape Cod in early August, there were thousands of beach-goers lining the coast from Chatham to Provincetown. Thousands upon thousands of opportunities for a shark to bite a human, and yet, only one bite has been reported since 1936. (Source)
This speaks heavily to the argument that sharks are not out there searching for human prey. In fact, they often swim away from humans when they encounter them. Some may think it’s newsworthy that an intelligent, 15-foot long predator with rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth made the decision not to bite a human. But this happens multiple times a day. Every. Single. Day.
Over the course of the flight, I saw dozens of sharks co-inhabiting a region that draws millions of tourists each year. With an abundant food source and a federally-protected habitat, these sharks are likely here to stay. But don’t worry, it’s well-established that sharks don’t actively hunt humans. However, when we enter their environment, we need to be aware of the risks. There’s a few easy precautions you should take: swim in groups close to shore, minimize splashing and shiny jewelry, and don’t swim near seals. Click here for more information on shark safety in Cape Cod.
Our fuel soon began running low, signaling the end to our time in the sky. We made our way back to the airport and landed softly in the grass alongside the runway. I grabbed my cameras and climbed out of the cockpit, nearly in shock trying to comprehend what I’d just witnessed. I’ve always known there were large numbers of sharks out there, but I’d never understood just how many there were. After seeing dozens of white sharks close to shore with my own eyes, I felt a new enlightenment and a deeper understanding for how profound our coexistence truly is.
For more information on white sharks, please visit The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.