CAPE COD – “Over the last couple of summers and falls, every single day if you are a member of the surfing community on Cape Cod, you hear about an incident,” said Brendan McCray, who has been surfing on the Cape since the early 1980s.
McCray, of Orleans, continued, “Whether it’s somebody saw a fin, somebody saw a breach, somebody got bumped… every single day there is a story of someone who had an encounter with a great white shark.”
McCray was one of seven longtime surfers Cape Cod Wave talked with who were deeply saddened but not surprised that there was recently a fatal shark attack on the Cape, the first in eighty years. It was the second attack on a human in one month.
“Every single day there is a story of someone who had an encounter with a great white shark.” – Brendan McCray of Orleans
On August 15, 61-year-old William Lytton of New York was bitten while swimming at Long Nook Beach in Truro. He survived. One month later, on September 15, 26-year-old Arthur Medici of Revere was boogie boarding at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet when he was bitten. Medici died.
And while McCray and other surfers were not surprised that an attack occurred, the sad reality of what actually happened has some surfers rethinking when, where and if they will surf again on Cape Cod.
Ken Merrill, of Dennis, was surfing at Newcomb Hollow Beach on the evening of September 14. Medici and his friend, both good boogie boarders, were also at the beach that night, the night before the attack that killed Medici.
“It’s different to see kids boogie boarding who are really good boogie boarders. They were really cranking, doing tricks in the waves,” said Merrill.
The waves that night “were clean, chest high or better. Once you caught that first wave, all you were thinking about was the next wave,” Merrill recalled.
Merrill remembered being with the boogie boarders in the line of surfers out in the water that night. “I locked eyes with one of the kids, go-go-go that-wave-is-yours kind of thing,” he said.
The next day, when he got a call from a friend who told him what happened, Merrill said, “I was blown away. I knew instantly when he said it was a boogie boarder that it was one of those kids.”
That Friday night surfing at Newcomb Hollow, Merrill recalled seeing “bait fish jumping everywhere. It was a feeding ground and they were on their little boogie boards, you know.” Thinking about it afterwards, Merrill said, “It’s crazy.”
Chris Zocca of Harwich, a body surfer who rides a wooden Alaia board, which he explained is “a Hawaiian board design that’s a couple of centuries old,” said he was at Newcomb Hollow an hour before the attack but left. “It was a good day for surfing, but not a good day for body boarding. I don’t use fins,” he said.
Medici was boogie boarding wearing a wetsuit and flippers.
“I’ve been profoundly shaken by it.” – Chris Zocca of Harwich
Zocca heard about the attack the same way many surfers heard, which was not from a news media report. Before it got out to the world, a surfer friend called. The community is very tight.
“I’ve been profoundly shaken by it,” said Zocca. “It’s such a tragedy and you feel so bad for the young man and his family.”
Rick Weeks, of Orleans, was at Newcomb Hollow up until 15 minutes before the incident. “I don’t like using the word ‘attack,’” he said. “They’re just feeding. We don’t call it an attack when your cat catches a mouse.”
Weeks said that the water that day was “pure glass.” He said young surf families were at the beach. “It was a real locals day. It wasn’t a tourist day.”
Weeks said, “It sucks to learn somebody’s name this way.”
John Driscoll of Centerville was surfing in the water at Newcomb Hollow, 100 yards or so down the beach, when the attack occurred, he said.
“All of a sudden a woman goes, something just happened up the beach. I think someone got bit. I looked, and there were people pulling somebody out of the ocean,” said Driscoll.
“I looked up the beach and everybody started yelling to everybody else, ‘Get out of the water!’ “ he said.
“There was a fairly large crowd assembled around him… they did everything they could,” he said.
“I’m still digesting it,” he said. “I had my whole family on the beach. It was strange. Everybody was trying to believe that the boy was going to be okay. But they had already called off the air rescue. Everybody just kind of looked at each other and wandered around,” said Driscoll.
Chick Frodigh of Pembroke and Eastham said he and his family were an hour behind schedule when they arrived at Newcomb Hollow Beach. He recalled looking out and “the water was crystal clear.”
“My wife would have been boogie boarding right next to those guys,” he said.
But when he arrived, he noticed a lot of police and “everybody was walking with guns in the parking lot,” he said. “I’m not sure what they were going to shoot,” said Frodigh.
“Oh my God, what a tragedy,” said Jim Papadonis of Brewster. He said he heard from friends who were on the scene and participated in the rescue and they were particularly shaken.
“I am very saddened by the tragic incident and the loss of life. I’m very depressed by the whole situation,” said Papadonis. “It’s such a beautiful beachfront and oceanside for all the water people.”
Zocca, who is 70, said, “The first 40 years of my life, I saw one seal. I told people about it for a week afterward, it was such a rare thing.”
Frodigh recalled a time as a boy, before the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, when people could bring a seal nose to town hall and get five dollars. “The fishermen realized the seals would just overrun things if given a chance,” he said.
Papadonis said, “I have been surfing in Wellfleet, don’t laugh, for 50 years. I would say that approximately 20 years ago I was at Whitecrest Beach with my family and everybody got excited on the beach. They saw a seal.”
Papodonis said even then he knew “this is a problem because of the feeding chain. Seals are eating the bass and bluefish, and what’s going to come and eat the seals?”
“The last estimate I heard is that there are 60,000 seals on the Cape. That’s a grand open free country buffet for sharks,” said Papadonis.
McCray said, “It was unusual to see a seal on the Cape when I was a kid. You only saw them in the winter time and you would only see one sort of random seal. And you’d never see them in the summer.”
As a young adult, McCray left the Cape for 12 years. He lived in Hawaii and Brazil. When he returned in the early 2000s, “I was definitely blown away by how many seals there were. It was a big surprise. It was noticeable. Wow, they’re everywhere.”
And McCray’s reaction to the seals? “Whatever, it’s their ocean,” he said. “Even then, we didn’t think about sharks.”
He helped start a surf contest, the Cape Cod Surf Challenge held at Outer Beach in Orleans. “But then the shark population started to increase and we stopped doing that surf contest on the Outer Beach because we were worried about it.”
“I don’t mind surfing with seals. If I am going to be in a restaurant, I don’t want to be the only thing on the buffet.” – Rick Weeks of Orleans
Driscoll said, “Probably in 2003 to 2006, we started seeing pods of seals. And there’d be groups going by. It was odd that there were that many seals in the water.”
In fact, in 2004 a shark that stayed for 13 days in a lagoon off of Woods Hole was the first ever seen in Cape waters by Greg Skomal, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries senior scientist and shark expert. In 2014, Skomal called that 2004 shark sighting, a “harbinger.”
There have been many more since then. This summer, Skomal tagged his first shark of the season on July 9 off of Truro. He went on to spot 149 great white sharks off Cape Cod in July alone.
“There is a dynamic seal population,” said Driscoll. When he sees a seal, he thinks, “Why are you here? Why are the fish jumping out of the water when I am surfing?”
Zocca said that seals “have a tendency to be inquisitive, and they have a herd instinct.” This means the seals, often in groups, want to come near the surfers and see what’s going on, he said. Splashing water gets them to go away, he said.
Frodigh said, “I try to stay away from [seals]. Hopefully a shark is smart enough to go to them instead of me. [When seals are] off to the left and to the right of where the surfers are, I kind of think that’s not a bad thing.”
And Weeks said, “I don’t mind surfing with seals. If I am going to be in a restaurant, I don’t want to be the only thing on the buffet. If we stop seeing seals, all of us get nervous. If we see seals herding up there on the beach, we all all know a shark may be nearby.”
Merrill said, “Anytime it’s foggy, you think about it. If you see a seal pop up, you’re shitting bricks, you know?”
“Three years ago I was paddling around on the Outer Beach off of Nauset in Chatham. We call it the Outer Beach. I was trying my friend’s board out, paddling around between two sandbars, kind of afraid of my own shadow,” said McCray.
“The evening light is like that. You see everything. You see your shadow. You see the seals. I was paddling with my friend. We saw a big splash, and thrashing fins and splashing and a blood cloud. It was like ten minutes long,” said McCray.
“It was a shark devouring seal right where I was paddling, looking for waves,” he said.
“It was like watching a National Geographic video live. I guess it was awe inspiring… it’s definitely, I don’t know, it’s mixed emotions. Really, it’s a beautiful sort of thing to see this apex predator doing its thing. But at the same time, I don’t want to get mistaken for its favorite food.”
Papadonis said, “I saw my first great white shark two weeks ago. It was the most spectacular wildlife thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I was at Nauset Light Beach, said Papadonis. “This great white missiled up in the water. It was straight up in the air. The tail fin was four feet above the surface of the water. It was an incredible sight. It was about 100 yards away from us.”
After seeing the shark from the beach, Papadonis said, “We got in the water. We weren’t in any way threatened.”
Eileen Varner of Eastham said she has had many encounters with sharks, including sharks swimming underneath her when she was surfing. “It didn’t change me,” she said. “But it put a little bit more fear in me.”
“I saw my first great white shark two weeks ago. It was the most spectacular wildlife thing I’ve ever seen.” – Jim Papadonis of Brewster
Frodigh said, “To this day, I’ve never seen one. I’ve seen plenty of seals. I’ve seen the results of what’s going on. I’ve even had guys tell me that right after I took off they saw a fin.”
Weeks’s story is similar. “I have never seen a great white. I have been in the water when people next to me see them, but somehow I am blessed with blinders.”
Merrill said he has not seen a shark while surfing off of Cape Cod but he was bitten on the heel by a bull shark while surfing off of St. Augustine, Florida.
Merrill said, “I was scared shitless. I lost my board. It bit through my leash.” But he got away with a minor injury after “swinging at the water and hitting him in the head. I just got lucky, I guess.”
“I went surfing the next day,” said Merrill.
Surfers expressed zero surprise that there has been a fatal shark attack off an Outer Cape beach.
“We all knew it was just a matter of when,” said Papadonis. “Here it is. Two attacks in one month. Obviously it’s very concerning.”
Frodigh called the attack “long overdue, as far as the odds go.”
McCray said, “I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t shocked. We’ve been expecting it for so long.”
Weeks was also not surprised. “I’m sort of amused at everyone’s reaction. I don’t know what glasses they were wearing for the last eight years.”
As far as when do surfers start to think differently, Driscoll said, “I think the conversation started last Saturday [September 15]. “That’s when the shit hit the fan.”
“One of my friends said the age of innocence is gone,” said Zocca. “That’s probably a good description. You now realize that someone died.”
“Surfing life on Cape Cod as I know it has changed,” said Papadonis.
Papadonis said, “I worked really hard with a dream of retiring on Cape Cod and being able to surf here at will and now, yikes, what’s going to happen?”
“I have two kids, 32 and 34 years old and they are both very good and avid surfers,” said Papadonis. “Right now, I don’t feel I’d be setting a good example if I went charging into the water.”
Frodigh echoed the sentiment. “I’m 66. If I get killed, I’ve had a great life. But if one of my kids get killed, how could I ever live with myself.”
“Every surfer has their own personal decision to make. I have put mine on hold in terms of surfing on Cape Cod,” said Papadonis. “I have not surfed, and there have been some really nice waves here since the last attack.”
Papadonis said he has surfed in Rhode Island for “a couple of really good sessions, but it’s not as good as if I would have stayed in my own backyard.”
Frodigh said he believed there were three types of surfers dealing with the situation. The first type, he said, were the “alpha males who say ‘I am not going to let a shark bother me,’” he said.
The second type, he said, are the surfers “who don’t realize there’s a bridge that they can cross to find waves off Cape. The third type are the sheep, the followers who will watch to see that others are not getting bit before they go back in the water. I’m probably one of those,” he said.
“I went surfing afterwards, but off Cape,” said Frodigh.
“There’s a lot of false bravado,” said Driscoll. “I think there’s an insensitivity that people would go right back out there after a boy died.” But, he added, “human beings have memories that are shorter than gnats sometimes.”
“It’s already changed a lot of guys surfing behavior,” said Merrill. He includes himself among them. He now drives to Rhode Island to surf. Surfing on Cape Cod, he said “is a risk not worth taking at this point. Unless we’re to get some double-overhead barrel and it’s January.”
“There’s a lot of false bravado.” – John Driscoll of Centerville
“It’s changed my behavior,” said McCray. He has not stopped surfing, he said but “I am less likely to race to the beach to surf after work.”
“Last week we had some stormy conditions and then one of the afternoons the surf cleaned up and got really good in Truro,” said McCray, a building contractor. “Normally, I would have dropped everything and headed out to go surfing. Instead, I continued on with my work day.”
The presence of sharks, said McCray, “makes it so much easier to miss the waves. In the past, it has always been really hard to miss waves on Cape Cod because they are so infrequent. But now you say to yourself, is this worth getting eaten over?”
He added, “It’s unlikely I am going to surf by myself in the early morning, which is something we all grew up doing.”
Zocca, who rides the Hawaiian alaia body board, said, “I used to really enjoy getting away from the main beach and walking down to a place that was secluded and remote. Now, I look for a place where other people are in the water. I don’t want to be the first person in the water. Safety in numbers, I guess.”
McCray said, of the sharks, “It’s their ocean. But also, we grew up surfing here. It’s sad.” But, he said, sometimes the waves are so good that the risk seems worth taking.
As Zocca said, “It will probably be a case of wave quality versus the risk you are taking.”
“I guess it’s an addiction,” said McCray. “But it’s so much more than an addiction. We’ve focused a lot of our decisions and lives around riding waves. People have traveled around the world chasing waves. People have stayed self-employed. A lot of people have stayed single.”
And while he will continue to surf, he said, “It’s unlikely that I am going to ride my short board in the summertime.”
“A lot of my friends have gone on with business as usual,” said Papadonis, who is surfing off Cape for now. “It’s making it more difficult for me because misery loves company.”
His friends, he said, “are trying to do common sense things.” Still, Papadonis said, “I find it fascinating that some of them really believe that they’re smarter than anyone else. They think the things they are doing, sticking together in packs, paddle boarding versus surfing, are going to keep them safer.”
“There’s still a group of hardcore guys out there on paddle boards,” said Driscoll.
McCray said he now surfs on a Stand-Up Paddle (SUP) board “for two reasons. One, we’ve got great small waves. And two, we’ve got real big sharks. I’m not comfortable paddling out on a shortboard.”
Weeks said, “I was in the water today and people were talking about it more than I expected. I surf with all good watermen. A lot of them are surfing Stand-Ups more than surfboards because of the great whites.”
Weeks, who changed years ago to SUP because it was easier than surfing as he aged, said he thinks the growing presence of sharks will have “more people making the change to Stand-Up because they are more comfortable on a Stand-Up board than they are sitting on their board.”
Weeks said, “I was pleasantly surprised that I went surfing the day after the attack and I wasn’t much concerned at all. I didn’t think about it much once I was out.”
“We thought there’s probably a great white shark out there but none of us left the water,” said Weeks. “Not because we were being foolish but because all of us assume there’s always a great white shark out there.”
Weeks said he has friends in Jacksonville, Florida and “people get bit all the time, dog bites from smaller sharks. Sharks bump them in the water, they see them all the time. For us to have sharks, and ours are huge, they are pretty good at figuring out their prey. People aren’t getting bit left and right.”
“I’m retired. I love Cape Cod,” said Weeks. “I love paddling here. There’s no where else I can live and do Stand-Up that has the beauty of Cape Cod. We get good waves here, but if people start getting killed regularly, I’ll have to re-evaluate. Two in a month is a lot but none of them was on a board. Being on a board is a safety measure I take.”
Another measure Weeks takes is that if he falls, he gets back on the board as fast as he can.
“I watched a video years ago that stuck with me,” he said. In the video, Weeks said that when something is dropped in the water most fish dart away “but a great white snaps to attention and looks right at the event.”
“Nobody is going to stop me from doing what I love.” – Eileen Varner of Eastham
“Every time I’ve fallen in the water after that I know that if there is a great white around, I’ve totally just grabbed his attention,” said Weeks. “So I get on the board as fast as possible, which is not really that fast. I’m 70 years old.”
Like Weeks, Varner said, “I’m not afraid… Nobody is going to stop me from doing what I love.” She also went out surfing the day after the attack.
Varner, like many, also cited the camaraderie of her surfing friends as part of the whole magical appeal of surfing.
McCray said, “We all kind of grew up together.”
Varner said that when she and friends went out the day after the attack at Coast Guard Beach, “It was scary. I stood there with five of the people I surf with and we were all kind of in shock because it’s reality. But when we went out, it was a beautiful experience.”
Varner said part of that beautiful experience is “being out there with sharks. You might see a huge whale. You go out, see the sunrise, see the seals, see a bird flying, see a rainbow, you see all these beautiful things and then you see a wave and you catch a wave.”
“I feel bad for the people who don’t have passions,” said Varner. “Those people who live in the city and go about their daily lives and don’t do something that makes them feel alive.”
Every surfer is doing their own calculus right now. “What I can speculate where I’m going to come out is I’m going to rationalize that it’s okay given that there aren’t any more attacks,” said Papadonis.
Frodigh said, “If it happens once every five years, people are going to go back in the water. But if it happens once a week, are people going to change? You bet.”
“If it happens once every ten, will people go back in the water? Yes,” said Frodigh. “You do the math in your head, risk versus reward.”
And many surfers have remarked that the risks seem over-emphasized by the non-surfing public. McCray recalled how a friend was smoking a cigarette telling McCray that he was crazy to surf because he might get killed. McCray pointed out, “Cigarettes cause cancer.”
Weeks said, “When you drive down Route 6, do you say, ‘Thank God, I made it.’? There’s all kinds of insanity everywhere.”
And Varner said, “The day that guy got airlifted from Truro, two car accidents got airlifted as well.”
And, she said, “You want to know what happened to me after we went out on that first day after the shark attack?” She proceeded to tell a story about driving to Chatham to work and an erratic driver weaving and tailgating her.
During that incident while driving her car, she said, “I was petrified for my life.”
For a few days after the fatal attack, the town of Wellfleet shut down their beaches.
Frodigh said the move to shut down the beaches was just the town’s way to “cover their ass.”
Still, it didn’t stop some surfers from going in the water.
“We surf at dawn. We surf at dusk. We surf on crappy days and on good days. We surf all the time,” said Weeks. “There’s no way the government can protect all of us at all times.”
And, Weeks said, “It can’t be a policy that we’ll shut down all the beaches in town for an undetermined length of time. There’s hundreds of great whites off of Cape Cod today. They were there a month ago,” he said.
And while many surfers are, indeed, changing their behavior and all are calculating the risks, Zocca said that closing beaches in Wellfleet hurts surfers.
Zocca began listing beaches, starting with Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, which “has good waves not enough parking.” Nauset Light Beach, he said, “is not ideal for body boarding, Marconi [Beach], the stairs are washed away so there’s no access to Marconi,” he said.
“Then the Wellfleet beaches were closed so you can either ignore the closed sign or, if you are a law-abiding wave rider, the next open beach is Head Of The Meadow [in Truro], which was closed the most times all summer for shark warnings.”
“I think Head Of The Meadow is one of the most dangerous beaches to ride at,” said Zocca. “But if you want to ride waves, they are essentially telling you to ride at Head Of The Meadow Beach.”
And Papadonis echoed many when he said he was disturbed that the official “attitude towards prevention is to just stay out of the water.”
On the other hand, many surfers suggested that many people, especially tourists, are going to do exactly that – stay out of Cape Cod waters.
“I think a lot of people that have kids will keep their kids away from the water. Myself included,” said McCray. He said kids will “be doing skim boarding instead.”
“I think it will start trickling down to the economy next year,” said Driscoll. “I don’t know what these towns are going to do to guarantee anything.”
And Weeks said, “If you were planning your vacation for next summer and you had a little kid who liked boogie boarding, would you come to Cape Cod?”
Cape Cod Wave reached out to two surf shops, and two surf schools for this story. Our calls were not returned.
Decisions are going to be debated and possibly made by people who have never been on a surfboard in their life. Some are urging that all the seals and sharks be killed. Others say humans must change their behavior.
For this story, Cape Cod Wave talked only to surfers – the people spending the most time in the water near the sharks.
“I love nature. I love the environment,” said Papadonis. “I understand the whole white shark conservancy need. I also have really close friends that say kill all the seals and kill all the sharks. I say let’s deal with this in a thoughtful way that protects the wildlife and the people.”
But Papadonis added, “I think it’s time to start thinking more about protecting us, the people, than the wildlife.”
Specifically, surfers pointed to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 as the turning point that led to this summer’s attack.
Before the seals were protected, said Zocca, “the sharks were still around, but they were offshore. I don’t think the bureaucrats realize the impact the seals have had on the ecology that existed before they were here.”
He said protecting the seals led to “the law of unintended consequences,” including the demise of surfcasting.
And Frodigh said, “For hundreds of years, we culled the seals and there weren’t sharks and the fishing industry was pretty good.”
Thus, Frodigh suggested there be “a vigilante effort on the part of fishermen or people on boats. We either become like coddled Europeans and wait for the government to take care of it, or we do what Americans have always done and get the job done ourselves.”
But Weeks said that even if all the seals were culled, it would take sharks years to learn not come back to Cape waters, the same as it took years for them to learn to come here. In the meantime, Weeks said, with no seals to eat “they would be eating people.”
Driscoll said he would like to see a variance for Cape Cod to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. “I think the place to start is probably Washington D.C.,” he said.
Driscoll is in favor of an effort to kill the sharks and said the shark responsible for the attack in Wellfleet was spotted by a news helicopter. “I think that shark should have been killed,” he said.
“If you’re are mountain biking and you get mauled by a bear,” said Driscoll, “they kill the bear.”
Frodigh compared great white sharks in the ocean to a saber-toothed tiger roaming a Cape Cod golf course, which, he said, “I promise you would be taken care of.”
And Frodigh had a strong opinion about naming sharks. “They came up with cute little names like, Wilma. Well, did Wilma attack two people?”
Besides just killing sharks, Driscoll said, “I don’t think sharks are impervious to being hassled,” and said that should be part of an overall strategy to get them to leave.
“They came up with cute little names like, Wilma. Well, did Wilma attack two people?” – Chick Frodigh of Eastham
Weeks said that the best thing that can be done, “because great white shark attacks are such a blood event,” is to improve rapid response and “make sure we have enough plasma available on short notice for these kind of events.”
Otherwise, things such as spotter planes can be used, said Weeks, but even if the plane sees a shark, the next issue is notifying everyone in the water.
Papadonis suggested drones could be helpful, but that still creates the same issue. Plus, as he said, “drones are not 100 percent foolproof.”
More than one surfer suggested that they have been told there are a lot of young sharks in the area.
Weeks said perhaps the sharks that attacked two people were young sharks that were switching their diet from fish to seals and just learning to hunt seals.
Driscoll, who wants to kill the sharks, said, “the big thing for the apologists for this shark is that it just made a mistake. I want them to approach this as a problem. I don’t want this kid’s life taken and not have something happen.”
Driscoll said he was not impressed that the only safety measure “was to have people tell us that we don’t belong in the water.”
The attacks happened in shallow water in daylight, disproving at least some of the theories about it being safer to be in shallow water and to swim during the day, instead of dusk and dawn.
Varner, who continues to surf at dawn at Coast Guard Beach, said, “There’s not a theory. They are animals. They are creatures of nature. If they are hungry, they eat. They are just like us. We can’t predict them, and we can’t protect ourselves 100 percent.”
– Please like us on Facebook.
For more stories like this, please see Longform stories
All Cape Cod Wave Surfing Stories