On Cape Cod, Heatmaps Could Help Swimmers and Great White Sharks Coexist

cdascher/iStock via Getty Images
cdascher/iStock via Getty Images / cdascher/iStock via Getty Images

Tourists aren't the only group descending upon Cape Cod each summer. When the waters off the Massachusetts coast start to warm up, great white sharks appear, and their numbers have become greater in recent years. Though the vast majority of great whites don't bother humans, more sharks mean more chances for potentially tragic encounters. In 2018, Cape Cod recorded its first fatal shark attack in 82 years. Now, scientists are planning to balance shark conservation with swimmer safety by treating shark activity like the weather.

As Undark reports, researchers at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy believe shark heatmaps could be the key to coexistence between humans and great whites. Scientists have already been collecting data on shark behavior for years. Devices like underwater drones and high-tech tags can be used to track a great white's movements around the Cape. By comparing this data to environmental conditions like tides, ocean temperatures, and moon phases, experts can anticipate where the sharks will be before they arrive.

To use this data to potentially save lives, scientists need to present it in a way the public will understand. A heat map uses color-coding to show the probability of shark activity around Cape Cod on a specific date. The blue areas show safer waters, and the red hot spots show where great white encounters may be more likely. The ultimate goal is to create automated shark maps that towns and public safety officials can use to assess risk every day during shark season, which runs from July to October on the Cape.

Though the increase in great white sightings can be scary for beachgoers, it's actually a good sign for the health of the area. The sharks are attracted to the region's seal population, which rebounded thanks to conservation action like the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. By relying on heatmaps, safety officials can protect the public without changing the sharks' behavior.

Though many great white attacks are blamed on sharks mistaking people (especially surfers) for seals, experts are skeptical. Great white sharks are pretty good at identifying their prey, and when they do bite humans, it's usually out of curiosity. Here are more facts about the iconic shark species.

[h/t Undark]