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Swimming With the Sharks

By Doug Fraser
Cape Cod Times Correspondent

June 2, 2017

ORLEANS — If you think it’s hard to win the hearts and minds of middle-schoolers on any given day, try an assembly at the end of day, on the precipice of summer vacation.

But Yarmouth veterinarian Thomas Burns had teeth on his side. Big pointy teeth.

And he had a message for the hundreds of Nauset Middle School students in the auditorium Thursday.

“Find your passion,” Burns said. Sure, that directive looks pretty tread worn, a staple of many a commencement speech, but Burns’ passion for diving with, photographing and studying sharks all over the world has burned bright for him for over 25 years. He’s the hospital director at the Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod, but packs vacations, weekends and downtime with diving trips. He doesn’t have that classic marine biology degree, but finds that, with so little known about sharks as a species, there are still research opportunities for those who don’t fit the mold.

Science, which requires the rather unglamorous but necessary lab work and study, also involves field work that can be immensely satisfying, Burns said. Off Guadalupe Island, Mexico, he watched great whites emerged from the depths, hundreds of feet below to swim past his shark cage. He dove with scalloped hammerhead sharks off Cocos Island, Costa Rica; with Galapagos sharks in Hawaii; oceanic whitetips and tiger sharks in the Bahamas; and Yucatan whale sharks.

Along the way, he discovered that the Cape — uniquely positioned near the Gulf Stream but infused with the fertile cold waters from the north — has a surprisingly diverse collection of sharks, beyond the great white sharks that have been frequenting our shores in recent years, including many that people think of as tropical.

“For a long time, I thought you had to go to South Africa, the Bahamas, Hawaii,” Burns said following his lecture. “Back in 2010, my focus started turning back towards here.”

That was around the time that great whites started making their presence known on Cape Cod. Robust seal populations were attracting hundreds of great whites to our beaches and shark researchers like Division of Marine Fisheries scientists Gregory Skomal and John Chisholm began their tagging and population studies. Burns purchased a vessel and, using a permit authorized by Skomal, conducted a predation study looking at how white sharks attack their prey.

Burns noticed Cape white sharks attacked differently than elsewhere in the world where researchers observed that great whites liked to attack from below hiding in deep water and hitting prey with a swift upward rush, something that was impossible here with the Cape’s necklace of shoaling sandbars.

Instead our great whites relentless patrol, often close to the shore, hoping to surprise seals in our relatively murky water, and attack in a horizontal rush, sometimes chasing them right up onto the beach. It illustrates, Burns said, how little is known of white sharks, and other large marine animals that don’t have anywhere near their research cachet.

This summer Burns and fisherman Eric Savetsky are hoping to tag whale sharks as part of an international study involving the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the state DMF. They will be freediving on these sharks, which can grow to 50 feet in length and are the largest fish in the world, in deep water over 100 miles offshore.

He urged students to take advantage of the marine wildlife opportunities in the waters off Cape Cod.

“I think there’s a lot of hope there and they seem to get it,” Burns said of student interest. “This generation is pretty savvy, with a lot of information at their fingertips. A lot of them already know sharks are in trouble and that there’s a lot of plastic in the ocean, and that there are a lot of problems with that.”