On August 3, researchers discovered a dead mink whale floating belly up off the coast of Cape Cod. The next day, the same carcass was spotted again; ravaged almost beyond recognition. Its tongue, internal organs and most of its skeletal muscles had been ripped off, leaving “little more than the spinal column and skull”.
Image: Elias Levy/Flickr
According to the Center for Coastal Studies, at least two great white sharks went to town on the dead whale. And that’s a good thing, because it indicates that an important marine predator long victimised by fearful humans is finally starting to recover.
“They have been congregating in areas like the Cape because there’s a lot of food there, and they like that food,” James Sulikowski, a professor of marine science at the University of New England in Portland told The Guardian. “It’s a source for them, and they don’t have to work too hard for it.”
Contrary to public opinion (fuelled by decades of shark attack movies), great white sharks are not bloodthirsty monsters. They feed primarily off the sick, dying and already dead, culling populations and helping maintain an ecological balance.
Now, thanks to stricter fishing regulations that have seen grey seals rebound, great white sharks are starting to return to New England waters. A study published in PLOS One in 2014 found an “apparent increases in abundance [of white sharks] since the 1990s when a variety of conservation measures were implemented”. Last week’s latest mink whale banquet, along with several unconfirmed sightings earlier this summer in the US, seem to support that conclusion.
Of course, a few hungry sharks do not mean a full population recovery. Time will tell whether recent events indicate a long-term trend — but thanks to new scientific tools and citizen science monitoring programs, it’s easier to track great whites than ever before. Hopefully, we’ve grown up enough as a society to embrace the return of these awesome creatures rather than panicking about it.