Spring 2019

Swimming with Sharks

An alum helps us better understand sharks through photography and research.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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Photo: Dan Cutrona

Tom Burns, V00, usually tries not to splash quite so much. He knows that divers who splash jumping off their boats risk triggering the prey drive of sharks. But in 2003, an awkward entry into waters off Costa Rica brought Burns face-to-face with a silky shark, a species that can grow to eight feet long and swims fast enough to catch tuna.

“I saw this shark come rocketing toward me,” Burns recalled. It closed the gap in three terrifying seconds, closed its mouth on Burns’ chest, and—in a fraction of a second—decided he wasn’t food. “I know how lucky I was,” said Burns, whose wetsuit barely showed a scratch. “We were hours from shore, so even a small shark bite would’ve been a big problem.”

Tom Burns tags a whale shark off the coast of New England. Photo: Eric Savetsky

But sharks are not indiscriminate consumers, which Burns knows because, over the last 25 years, he has spent hundreds of hours diving alongside—and photographing—the ocean’s apex predators. A small-animal veterinarian and owner of Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod, Burns finds himself in his spare time as a kind of interpreter of sharks to people through his camera lens. His photos tell the story of how millions of years of evolution built a perfect predator—and how it all could be undone by humans’ recklessness and lack of understanding. “Sharks are not cute, cuddly koala bears, and I respect and love them for that,” Burns said. “But they also aren’t the mindless, dangerous eating machines they’re commonly portrayed as.”

Almost every time he dives with sharks, Burns sees evidence of human interactions responsible for killing an estimated 100 million sharks a year—putting many species on the path to extinction, whether through overfishing or being accidentally caught by fishing gear meant for other species. “About a third to half of the sharks I see have fishing hooks or a facial deformity from being landed,” he said, “and I have seen more than one shark in New England trailing more than 10 feet of long line, sometimes with trash adhered.”

Burns, on Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach, with one
of the tools of his trade. Photo: Dan Cutrona

To help protect sharks and their habitats, Burns lends his photographs to conservation organizations and others working on their behalf. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has used his pictures in CITES protection hearings for sharks threatened by international demand for shark-fin soup, for example. And University of Miami researchers used one of his images to put a face to the scalloped hammerhead shark, a species endangered around the world.

“Like many animals on this planet, sharks are in a lot of trouble,” Burns said. “Issues like ‘finning’ and fishing bycatch often aren’t on the public’s radar. But it’s really imperative that we have a healthy ocean for a healthy planet. The ocean’s health is our health.”

 

Although Tom Burns was a self-described “shark nut” since the first grade, it wasn’t until his fourth year at Cummings School that he had an experience that overturned his perception of man-eating sharks. He had traveled to South Africa for a research project at the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board Maritime Centre of Excellence, which manages underwater nets installed along the country’s tourist beaches to keep out sharks. On the trip, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Burns studied with researchers who were trying to better understand shark biology. In return, Burns taught them how to provide basic first aid to creatures often inadvertently caught in, and sometimes killed by, the nets, including sharks, sea turtles, dolphins, and whales.

Photo: Tom Burns

Near the end of his visit, one of the postdoctoral students encouraged Burns to go diving on a reef where tiger sharks had been spotted. “At the time, it felt almost like a suicide mission,” Burns recalled. He had never heard of anyone swimming with tiger sharks without chainmail suits as protection, and he didn’t have one. Still, before the trip Burns had scrimped to buy a waterproof housing for his 35-millimeter camera, and he was eager to try it out.

He was about 30 minutes into his dive when a 14-foot tiger shark emerged from the murky deep. “For a moment, I was in sheer awe, with a tinge of panic,” Burns said. But the enormous shark was anything but vicious—instead, Burns found her “calculating, intelligent, and careful.” As she passed, he snapped his first picture of a tiger shark. He was hooked.

Photo: Tom Burns

Later, Burns struggled to describe to friends and family what the encounter was really like. “Other people didn’t understand there was a real beauty in sharks,” Burns said. “They are such an evolutionary marvel. They’ve been on this planet so much longer than humans and other terrestrial animals, and many species haven’t changed for a hundred million years. They are survivors.” But if the full experience of swimming with sharks was hard for Burns to put into words, his photos could tell the story for him. “I wanted people to see what I was seeing,” he said, “to experience sharks through my eyes.”

 

Increasingly, the story Burns is telling through his photographs is the arrival of more sharks off Cape Cod. When Burns first moved to the Cape in 2000, he never saw great white sharks. But he did see seals and watched their numbers grow. After being decimated by seal hunts and bounties more than a century ago, the gray seal population had rebounded to levels not seen since the 1800s—the result of nearly a half-century of population regrowth after the Marine Mammal Protection Act passed in 1972.

Photo: Tom Burns

And just as if someone had flipped a switch, great white sharks, the seals’ natural predator, started arriving, too.

“When I first started seeing great white sharks here about nine years ago, they were so wild that if you got anywhere near them, they just took off,” Burns said. But that has been changing in more recent years, as he sees great white sharks swimming closer to people, “up and down the beach, all
day long.”

What struck Burns most about their behavior was that it’s so divergent from what’s known about their relatives in California, South Africa, Mexico, and Australia. Scientists have recorded great white sharks in those areas hunting seals usually close to 100 feet deep. “We all believed they need that deep water to avoid being spotted by seals and to have enough vertical space to gather the speed needed to launch themselves up to catch a seal,” said Burns. “But on the Cape, I saw great white sharks feeding in shallow water,” sometimes as shallow as five to seven feet. That behavior piqued Burns’ interest, so in 2015 he enlisted a friend—renowned National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry—to conduct a study to document the unusual predation style he was seeing.

Photo: Tom Burns

At that time, few predations had been observed on the Cape, and scientists’ attempts to provoke a great white shark attack on a decoy also had been unsuccessful. Some would try to get a shark to bite by dragging a piece of carpet through the water, thinking sharks would mistake it for a seal. “As I like to joke though, sharks don’t get big by being stupid,” Burns said. “Some of these animals can be 50 to 60 years old—certainly around long enough to recognize that kind of decoy as being like the trash they see every day in the ocean.” So Burns designed his own three-dimensional decoys based on the anatomy of juvenile gray seals and made of marine foam. “So that when a shark bit one, it was soft,” he said, “and if a shark destroyed one, we could just pick up the floating stuffing.”

The decoys proved convincing: Over 10 weeks, the research team captured 16 predatory events of sharks attacking the decoy seals—sometimes in as little as nine feet of water. (In 2016, National Geographic featured the stunning videos and photos in its magazine and on a television program called “Mission Critical: Sharks Under Attack.”) The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and some Cape communities are already using that finding to advise beachgoers to stick to water that’s waist-deep or shallower.

Photo: Tom Burns

Burns and the team also were surprised to document attacks by sharks that were far younger and smaller than those known to hunt seals elsewhere, he said. “Little seven-foot great white sharks hit the decoys in the same way as the huge 18-foot adults.” The researchers suspect that social hierarchies may still be developing among the Cape sharks, giving smaller animals access to prey they normally wouldn’t enjoy.

 

Burns believes additional research is necessary to fully understand the new kinds of predation behavior taking place on the Cape. But unfortunately, the mix of sharks, seals, and beachgoers all in close proximity has already proven dangerous. In September, 26-year-old Arthur Medici died after being bitten by a great white while boogie boarding in Wellfleet. He was the first Massachusetts shark fatality in more than 80 years and one of only four shark fatalities worldwide in 2018. Yet Medici died only a month after 61-year-old William Lytton sustained life-threatening wounds from a great white while swimming in Truro; Lytton required six surgeries at Tufts Medical Center to recover.

Photo: Tom Burns

Though both attacks were probable cases of mistaken identity—the sharks likely thought people were seals—they made a serious impact on shark-human relations on the Cape. “Sharks were good for the local economy—they really did draw people in,” Burns said. “But everyone’s relationship with the water has changed somewhat, even shark guys like me.”

Much remains to be done on Cape Cod to modify human behavior and adopt new technologies to navigate these new waters, Burns said. But he’s optimistic that the community will find the best way forward. “Cape Codders are progressive. They were more accepting of the sharks than a lot of places would be, and hopefully successful cohabitating strategies will come out of this tragedy,” he said. “Cape Cod has the resources and hopefully the will to lead the world when it comes to shark-human interaction.”

“Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, And yet very few people know they come around here. it’s crazy if you think about it.”

And although great whites tend to monopolize media attention around sharks, Burns stressed that it’s important to recognize they are just one of more than 500 shark species worldwide and that there also are many less-hazardous species to discover, even on the Cape. For example, Burns has been working for a study led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to satellite-tag a local population of whale sharks: polka-dotted gentle giants that vacuum up great amounts of water to filter out microscopic plankton to eat. “Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean,” Burns said, “and yet very few people know they come around here. It’s crazy if you think about it.”

Photo: Tom Burns

In 2016, Burns tagged an 18-foot female dubbed “Rocky,” the first whale shark to be satellite-tagged in the northwest Atlantic. The following year, he photographed his research partner tagging a 30-foot male, “Canyon,” the first whale shark added to Ocearch, an online tracking system followed by hundreds of thousands of people.

The team will continue their tagging work this summer. “We want to discover if these whale sharks are part of the Gulf of Mexico population, how long they stay here, and where else they go,” he said of the seasonal visitors. Virtually nothing is known about whale sharks in the northwest Atlantic, so understanding their broad-scale movements is critical to any future conservation or protection efforts.

Photo: Tom Burns

The demands of being a veterinary practice owner, clinician, and father of three—coupled with his research—keep Burns busy. But he still finds time to travel the globe to swim with sharks for two or three weeks a year. His family vacations now often include exploring the oceans, and his children (ages 14, 12, and 9) have all dived with sharks of some kind. “They’re developing a love of the ocean much like my own,” Burns said, and that gives him plenty of hope for the future. “After all, people don’t care about what they don’t know is out there.”

Send comments to Genevieve Rajewski, the editor of this magazine, at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

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