CHATHAM – In Kate Gould Park, which is swimming with artist’s renderings of great white sharks, Cynthia Wigren said near the end of Saturday’s FINomenal Fest, “This is around the time that the sharks start coming back.”
According to Wigren, executive director of the 3-1/2 year old Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC), the white shark research season is “from the middle of June until the end of October.”
To get to Wigren in the park on Saturday, one had to walk past more than 45 artist renderings of sharks and boats – mostly sharks – for something called “Sharks In the Park,” put on by the Chatham Merchants Association.
And then one reached FINomenal Fest, a one-day event that AWSC co-hosted with the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
At the cusp of the season of great white sharks off of Cape Cod, it appeared that Chatham has embraced the expected visitors off their beaches.
This pleased Wigren, whose group has three roles: funding research, improving public safety, and educating the community.
“We are only now learning about these sharks,” she said. “This happens to be a unique area. This is the only place on the East Coast with predictable access to great white sharks.”
Wigren first became interested in sharks in 2010 when she and her husband, Ben, were living in Amesbury and on vacation in South Africa. They went cage diving with white sharks. “Any kind of wildlife experience interests me,” she said.
“I thought it was going to be the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Instead it was amazing,” said Wigren. Although she was a VP at an online trading company, her husband worked as bond traders, she became more and more interested in sharks.
Greg Skomal, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries senior scientist, and a shark expert, had garnered some publicity for his research work, including tagging sharks off of Cape Cod. So Wigren called Skomal and offered to help in any way she could.
“He said, ‘If you really want to help, you could start a nonprofit to help fund the research’ ” Wigren recalled.
“I literally hung up the phone and began googling how to start a nonprofit,” she said.
Now Wigren lives in Orleans and although Ben still works as a bond trader in Boston, Cynthia, after three years of volunteering for AWSC, finally draws a salary, she said.
She said that AWSC has raised about $500,000 since its first fundraiser in 2013.
A boat “owned by one of our board members, John King,” goes out twice a week during the season, she said. The trips, which typically go from 9 AM to 3 PM, are assisted by a spotting plane, she said.
“Last year, we saw a shark nearly every time we went out,” Wigren said. “We normally go from Monomoy to the Nauset Inlet, but we have gone as far north as Provincetown.”
Great White Sharks, of course, have something of a bad reputation, much of it garnered from the fictional story in the movie “Jaws,” in which a community did not promote shark education in quite the way Chatham has.
Of that reputation, Wigren said, “I respect their role. They are an apex predator.” She added, “People shouldn’t go into the water as if it’s a swimming pool in the back yard.”
Ben Wigren said, “It’s sort of how you shouldn’t go camping with bears. Around here, you are told you shouldn’t swim with seals because inevitably interactions will happen.”
And while there is an obvious need to educate the public about safety, Cynthia Wigren said “sharks have a role in the ecosystem. Their return signals a restoration of a healthy ecosystem.”
The return starts soon.
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A Cape Cod Shark Story; 10-year Anniversary of the Woods Hole Shark – CCW Classic
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