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Career Day

High in the air, with an eye on sharks

Wayne Davis started photographing great whites for a scientific study. He hasn’t seen them the same way since.

By Amy Sutherland

In a single engine plane high above Cape Cod’s coastline, Wayne Davis spots and photographs great white sharks for a scientific study, which is sponsored by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

How did you get into shark spotting?
I did swordfish and tuna spotting for commercial harpoon guys for years. I retired, but then biologist Greg Skomal (the lead scientist on the shark study) called me in 2014. When I see a shark, I relay that to the research boat so they can tag it. Between the study and flying for National Geographic or The History Channel, I probably fly two and a half days a week from July to September. This is my dream retirement job.

How is shark spotting different from swordfish spotting?
All the shark spotting is within a half-mile of the beach, and usually much closer than that. When they’re in shallow water and it’s clear, you can’t mistake them. Even on a lousy day, when it’s overcast and windy, you can see their silhouettes on the bottom. But they are almost impossible to see when they are around rocks or around schools of fish.

“They are very peaceful characters, swimming up and down the beach until they get hungry or bump into something.”

Is it possible to recognize individual sharks?
No. I’ve speculated before by where a shark is swimming. We have one big one that hangs around the mouth of Chatham Harbor. That’s James. He’s everyone’s favorite.

Do you have any other favorite sharks?
Not really. The one I took my nicest photos of was Avery, a girl shark. She was in real shallow water swimming out through the surf. She’s so close to the beach her belly is rubbing on the bottom and her fin is sticking way out.

What do you like best about shark spotting?
Taking pictures and seeing what’s out there. Back in 2014 when I started this, I was going up and down the beach seeing nothing, nothing, nothing. I thought, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ I landed and realized I had to change my attitude. I made a point of noticing the beauty of Cape Cod.

Is it hard to photograph the sharks while you are flying?
Imagine yourself driving down the road, picking up your cell phone to talk — which is illegal, by the way. Taking pictures while flying is easier than that. Basically, you don’t have to look where you’re going because up there it’s easy to spot an airplane within a mile. You get your plane in a circle, stabilize it, and start shooting. I use two or three Canons.

Has doing this changed your thinking about sharks?
Absolutely. In five years, I’ve seen sharks eating seals about a dozen times. Each time there was never ever another shark in the scene. I’ve never seen a feeding frenzy. The other realization is they are very peaceful characters, swimming up and down the beach until they get hungry or bump into something. In muddy water, a shark can’t see anything, so they bite something to see what it is. If isn’t edible, they swim away.

Are your sightings relayed to the lifeguards on the beach?
Rarely, because we rarely need to. We don’t say anything unless the sharks are close to a bathing beach, which hardly ever happens. Believe me, most of the time they are just nonchalantly cruising up and down the shore at a slow speed. They aren’t looking for people.

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Amy Sutherland is a writer based in Boston.

Illustration by Verónica Grech

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