A decade ago if you told the average person you'd seen a great white shark from a Cape Cod beach, it was in the same league as saying you'd been abducted by aliens.
These sharks were elusive, feeding off dead whales far offshore.
But that's all changed in the past few years. It's almost as if great whites suddenly discovered there are pretty good live pickings just off Cape beaches. Recently, attacks on seals started happening in front of beachgoers in Chatham, Wellfleet and Truro.
While there hasn't been an attack on a human in Massachusetts since Joseph Troy Jr. went for a swim in Buzzards Bay in July 1936, was mauled and died on the operating table, lifeguards, beach administrators and emergency medical personnel have already turned the corner in accepting the fact that it may happen.
And they say they're ready if it ever occurs again.
Keith McFarland, the supervisor for lifeguards in the southern district of the Cape Cod National Seashore, said great whites were largely mythical when he started lifeguarding in 1994.
"We talked about them; we didn't see them," he said. "I don't know about beachgoers, but for some of the senior guards the shift started happening a couple of years ago. It was an abstract, and now it's a reality."
Procedures for National Seashore guards have changed in recent years. While they still train in the water and do fitness swims, they now swim alongshore in relatively shallow water and do not head straight out to a buoy farther offshore. Lifeguards at other town beaches said they do the same.
Lifeguards are also keeping swimmers closer to shore than they did before and have removed the seaward buoys at Nauset Light Beach.
As to how they would respond to an attack, most lifeguards say it's probably going to come down to decisions made on the beach.
"We're going out on rescue boards, not swimmers in the water," McFarland said. They will use multiple rescuers in the hope that would discourage the shark.
Are they still out there?
But, before they go out, they are supposed to determine whether the shark is still in the area. "We're not putting a responder at risk," he said.
It is a judgment call, said Chris Brewster, president of the United States Lifesaving Association, but the data supports going out right away.
"In very few cases of (great whites) attacking people do they continue to attack," he said.
Brewster believes the chance of an attack by a great white on a human is remote, that you have a much greater chance of an accident while driving to the beach. But Cape responders have still prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Greg Johnson, head lifeguard at Nauset Beach in Orleans, said there have been meetings with town safety officials talking about the protocol in the event of a shark attack.
"The first thing you do is decide if the scene is safe," Johnson said, comparing firefighters assessing whether a burning building is safe before they attempt a rescue. Johnson believes lifeguards may need more than just paddleboards, something more like a personal watercraft towing a sled, if they are going to go after a victim while the attack is under way.
"It's a reactionary process," Johnson said, "Things are developing. I don't think we're 100 percent, but we're talking about it."
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