WELLFLEET, Mass. — Anxiety is hanging over the Cape Cod beaches this summer.
It is in lifeguards’ gazes as they scan the water.
It is in the three young men playing a game by the shoreline who do not swim out to retrieve their ball when it lands too far out in the surf.
It is in the panicked stampede out of the water when a seal swims by and someone on the beach mistakenly yells the word already hovering in the back of everyone’s mind: “Shark!”
It is feeling more than a little like Amity Island on the Cape this season.
Nearly a year ago, in September, a 26-year-old man named Arthur Medici died after he was bitten by a great white shark while boogie boarding on a beach in the Outer Cape town of Wellfleet.
There had not been a fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936, but in recent years many people on the Cape had thought it was only a matter of time. Great white sharks had become increasingly prevalent along the Cape’s beaches, attracted by the expanding population of gray seals. A tourist had been bitten in 2012, and a month before Medici’s death, a doctor was bitten, surviving but requiring nine operations.
But if many people on the Cape, including local officials, had been able to ignore the shark problem or play it down, Medici’s death changed that. It has altered life for anyone who goes into the ocean and has set off intense debates over what should be done, from deploying buoys or drones that would detect sharks to culling the seal population.
It is rare for sharks to attack humans. There were 66 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks in 2018, four of which were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File by the University of Florida. Nearly half of those attacks occurred in the United States, and nearly a quarter of them in Florida.
But those statistics have not reduced the agitation on Cape Cod, where the saga that has unfolded has enough characters and subplots to fill out a “Jaws” reboot. There are the cautious town officials, wary of taking any measures to deter an attack that might give beachgoers a false sense of security and expose their towns to liability.
Marine biologists and conservationists have been providing critical information to the towns, though some frustrated citizens deride them as “shark whisperers” who care more about animals than humans. Tourists have been dutifully going into the water no further than waist deep, as they have been advised, and exiting the water when a shark has been spotted, as has happened nearly once a day on a Cape beach this month.
For now, the Cape’s six Atlantic-facing towns have focused on warning people about the risks and putting tools on the beach to respond to attacks, like trauma kits and 911 call boxes. They have hired an environmental consulting firm to analyze shark mitigation tactics. That report is expected in September.
Daniel Hoort, the town administrator in Wellfleet, acknowledged that the discussion of sharks had grown contentious and that many people wanted the towns to move faster.
“If we had a proven method that was proven to work, we would absolutely consider it, but right now we just have a lot of salespeople who are trying to sell us products,” he said.
One day last week, at Head of the Meadow Beach in Truro, further up the Cape from Wellfleet, lifeguards had to clear the water twice because they had spotted sharks. But most beachgoers seemed to be taking the sharks in stride.
Cara Abraham, a social studies teacher from Roxbury, Connecticut, was watching her children play in shallow water. She said she and her husband had grown up coming to the Cape and were not overly alarmed, although no one in the family would go very far into the water.
“I think what’s actually scarier to me is that they’re finding them on the Bay side” of the Cape, she said of the sharks. “Those are the safe beaches. That’s where you take your toddlers.”
The sharks have driven away Nina Lanctot, 26, a surfer, former lifeguard in Wellfleet and trained emergency medical technician. Lanctot was on the beach last year when Medici was attacked. She put a tourniquet on his leg and performed CPR while waiting for an ambulance.
She said she had known that such a day might come — she had kept tourniquets in her car for the last six summers. Still, she said she was stunned by what happened. In January, she left her parents and friends behind and moved to Maine, where she said she can surf without worrying about sharks.
As much as she loves Cape Cod and the ocean, she said, “It’s not worth risking my life over anymore.”