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Great white sharks are the ocean’s top predators.
Mike Parry/Minden Pictures
Jim McMahon
A great white shark swims along the shore near Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Wayne Davis/ Atlantic White Shark Conservancy via AP
Every time a great white loses a tooth, a tooth in the row behind it slides into place.
Jeff Rotman/Getty Images
A great white shark can live for more than 70 years.
Reinhard Dirscherl/ ullstein bild via Getty Images
Shark Alert
A large number of great white sharks are showing up along the shore in Massachusetts.

By Tricia Culligan

Every summer, millions of Americans head to the beach. But this year, people won’t be the only swimmers in the waters near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The number of great white sharks spotted near the shoreline there rose in each of the last two summers. Researchers at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have closely tracked the great white shark population near Cape Cod. They spotted 80 great whites in 2014. By last year, that number had grown to 147.

Great whites migrate (move to another area at a particular time of year) to Cape Cod each summer in search of their main prey, gray seals. After years of government protection, the seal population has grown, attracting more sharks. The seals warm themselves in the shallow waters near the shore. As a result, the sharks swim closer to the shore—and to swimmers—than usual.

Of course, Cape Cod isn’t the only place where sharks swim in the shallow waters. Every summer, beachgoers wonder if it’s safe to swim in the habitat of one of the world’s top predators. But, experts say, sharks should be more afraid of humans than we are of them.

NOT A FAIR FIGHT

Few animals strike more fear in people than great whites. Found in oceans around the world, these sharks can be more than 20 feet long and weigh more than 5,000 pounds. Their jaws are lined with about 300 huge, razor-sharp teeth. “They can crunch through a sea turtle’s shell like a potato chip,” says George Burgess. He’s a shark researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Luckily, humans are not on sharks’ regular menu. Great whites have a reputation (estimation of something’s character, as judged by others) as man-eaters. But they hunt fish, seals, and other ocean animals. If they do attack people, it’s often because the sharks mistake them for their prey. In fact, other animals pose a bigger threat. Each year, more people in the U.S. are killed by dogs, horses, and deer. You’re also 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark.

A shark’s chances of being killed by a human are much higher. An average of only six humans are killed by sharks each year. Meanwhile, humans kill more than 10 million times that number of sharks. One of the main reasons is shark finning. Fishermen catch sharks for their fins, which are used to make a popular soup in some Asian countries. “It’s easy to see who the victim is in this relationship,” says Burgess.

SUMMER CELEBRITIES

Thanks to conservation efforts, the number of great whites spotted in the waters near the U.S. has risen over the past two decades. In 1997, Congress passed a law that bans the hunting of great whites.

In Cape Cod, many people look forward to the arrival of the famous finned visitors. To try to catch a rare glimpse of a shark, people can use an app on their phones to find out where one has been spotted. This also lets them know when to avoid going in the water. Experts say swimmers should be cautious and stay away from beaches with a lot of seals.

But even as the number of sharks has grown, there hasn’t been a fatal (causing or leading to death) attack in Cape Cod in more than 80 years. “The chances of you finding a shark, or a shark finding you, are incredibly low,” Burgess says.

This article appeared in the May 15, 2017, issue of Scholastic News Edition 4.