In the silent of the night, on a full moon high tide a great white shark slipped into a small lagoon off Naushon Inlet and got caught there as the tide dropped.
It happened a few years ago in early September and I was part of a team of state biologist and fishermen that would try to get the 14-foot, 1700-pound great white shark out of the lagoon without harming her.
The shark got stuck in an inlet that is overlooked by a billionaire family, their turn of the century summer cottages and herds of sheep and llama. Usually a quiet secluded getaway for the Forbes family until this unwittingly creature stirred up waters when she came upon the scene.
To add insult to possible injury crowds had arrived in powerboats, sailboats, inflatable rafts and canoes to catch a glimpse of the animal vilified by a 1970s movie filmed in close proximity to this very site.
My husband and I own and operate fish weirs in Nantucket Sound and when we got a call from state officials asking us to help herd the fish out of the area I quickly volunteered as crew. I was not going to miss out on the opportunity to photograph the event and be part of this unique challenge. Besides Ernie’s weir catches often take him to a point that he needs to understand the behavior of fish and how they move. After 30 years of fishing and along with the fact he often has to release tens of thousand pounds of fish out of weir alive and in good condition, he and other weir men have become fish herders of sorts and the state guys who work with them know their stewardship.
After a visit to the lagoon, Ernie came up with a plan to work with the fish’s behavior, observing her movement of methodically circling the lagoon. Our team devised a plan of blocking off, section by section with elongated weir nets, portions of the lagoon until the great white had little but no choice but to waft over a shallow portion of water to deeper section and make her way out of our world and back to hers.
We set out from Falmouth in 20-foot boats loaded with our crew, our nets, shark gear, shark experts, and shark biologists, the state fisheries director Paul Diodati and Fisheries Commissioner Dave Peters. I was on board a whaler with Dave Lyman who was a National Marine Fisheries large marine mammal expert. He dealt with whales and was there to assist in anyway he could seeing there were very few people who have actually done such a task as we were about to do.
As the two of us rounded the corner of the quiet lagoon, my heart pounded a bit harder. Memories of Jaws the movie created notions of man-eating toothsome creatures attacking the boat and me in the water being propelled around in circles, slowly slipping to my demise as Ernie and his boat came into site. That notion would quickly change when I caught my first glimpse of this gentile creature’s fin circling the lagoon impervious to our presence
Ernie and the crew did what they do when they arrive into a weir. Each of them was in the bow of the boats scanning the calm waters. My brother-in law John Eldredge made a sighting, Chip our crew guy another. A small eddy pooled in her wake as she made a turn circling the lagoon.
Officially, the state guys called a meeting, the boats rafted up. Peter’s wanted to make it clear that they, the State was in charge and would make the calls on the actions of the day.
Just in that moment we saw an opportunity to take the plan to action but it was lost as we impatiently listened to the beauracratic protocol, rules and regulations, points and counter points. The fish circled again to the farther end of the lagoon. Opportunity missed again.
Finally and anxiously, we set up our gear and waited. The plan would be to tie one end of our weir net to a tree on one side of the lagoon and when the shark made her circle and passed the boat we would tow the rest of the net to the other side, tie it to a tree creating a weir; cutting off a section of the lagoon.
We were really uncertain whether the fish would break through the nets. Was she determined to keep her circuitous pattern? The shark experts added small electric charges to the net to further change her behavioral path.
At first try all worked well, the net was across the lagoon. The fish came head on to the net and tried to push through- we held our collective breath and then whoosh she back down and made a turn. Circling in a smaller area of the lagoon.
We continued to set the nets across the lagoon a second time. Shortening her area of swimming even more.
Working with a fish that if in a more hungered state have been known to leap out of the water to catch prey made me respectful of her limited swim-able area, and mindful yet again of that dreaded summer of 76 movies. I felt awe struck being in the presence of a great. Her eyes were soul-less, her movements graceful-a dichotomy between not and being.
The world around us was quiet only the short orders from the crew as we slowly made her way to freedom and the outboard engines of our boats. Until about noontime.
An onslaught of helicopters descended upon the area to capture film segments of the shark for live noon televised news updates. The shark was the late- summer’s media darling making news all over the world. My friends called from a pub in Ireland to report that Gretel was on the news
At one point I saw a man had climbed a tree take pictures, people had climbed masts of boats to view the action from the Sound. In an attempt to keep the helicopters at bay the US Coast Guard arrived and set themselves so low near the water that in the air the water churned up the wake of its spinning blades.
The shark got agitated and the pattern of swimming around the lagoon lost. Ernie frantically waving to the USCG to get out of away- it was becoming dangerous.
They lifted and flew off after the others left and all was quiet again as we began our last attempt of getting her freed. A Forbes family crowd had gathered to watch the activity: the nerve wracking attempt as ever. The Shark had little room to move and we had little time to act.
My job was to cut the line to release the weir if the fish became agitated. Quickly the net was deployed and the fish was about to get behind it when the crew started too bang on the side of the boat which made her turn away.
Hoorays and claps from the shoreline exploded with a feeling of exhilaration and our team exploded in high- fives as if they had just hauled the biggest catch of fish in their lives.
Still working to get the fish over the narrow shoal and out to the deeper water, the State stepped into direct high powered water hoses and after some effort were successful.
With our work done for the day we grabbed a boat to head back to Falmouth and as we past over the shoal ourselves and were in deeper water we wanted to capture a last glance at the shark, so we waited a moment scanning the water.
And as if not able to break habits of the day, Gretel came along side the boat and bumped it. We, the weir crew together reached down and touch her rough skin. Her powerful being in an instance was gone to deeper water. I was humbled by her majestic final gesture. ~SD revised from 2004.