One winter, just about 20 years ago, a storm surge sent a wave up and over the sandbar that had protected Lighthouse Beach from the open ocean. When the wave receeded it drew itself backwards like a saw and made a cut in the sandbar. It wasn't much, the shallowest of trenches, but it was enough.
Each succeeding wave sent water spilling down through the sandbar, digging the trench deeper and wider and it wasn't long before the bar was broken in half and then completely swamped and then sunk and then erased. The headlands were now wide open to the sea, and the sea went to work.
The bottoms of three streets that had ended at the formerly placid backwater lagoon were carved away. A half dozen homes were undermined, swamped, demolished, and carried off on the waves.
This happened in less than an instant of time measured in a geologic time. In human time it took several months. Slow as the process might have been tracked on a calender, it was inexorable. There was nothing the people who owned the houses could do but watch their property being eaten by the sea.
Another big storm came along four years later and dredged the new channel deeper, opening up that stretch of land under the lighthouse even more nakedly to the ocean.
But when the Atlantic was finally done deconstructing it began to build. What it built was beach. (This is pure figure of speech. Building beaches is also a form of unbuilding. Sand that's dumped here has been torn away from somewhere else, and it's only here on a rest stop anyway. Eventually---there are a more than a few millennia in that eventually, of course---everything that is now Cape Cod will be piled up against the southern New Jersey coast.) A big, wide, gorgeous, sandy, post card picture of a beach. But a changing beach. The ocean won't leave it alone.
Every year we return to a rearrangement of shoreline. I mentioned this year that the beach now has a curve it didn't have before. It swings outward towards Portugal where it used to run parallel to the Iberian coast. There's also a second point, this one closer in to the Lighthouse and an acre of shallows between it and the next jut. Monday, the Mannions and Uncle Merlin walked out from the new, first point and out across those shallows, aiming at the high surf crashing on the far point where the boys intended to give their boogie boards a workout.
It's a good hike, and takes time, especially if you're stopping every dozen yards to swim. By the time we were halfway between points a fog from Nantucket Sound had rounded around the elbow of the Cape and we walked into it.
Uncle Merlin decided that with the air suddenly so much cooler he'd be more comfortable if he just swam for it. He's a powerful swimmer and with a few strokes had pulled himself out of sight, lost to us in the fog. He wasn't worried about actually being lost. But he began to hear a roaring that sounded to him like the two-cycle engine of a jet ski. Then something broke up out of the water ahead of him.
The big, black head of a seal.
Then the breeze shifted, the fog shredded, and he saw that the water was full of big, black heads, and beyond them was a small island that was black with big, fat, tubular bodies, dozens of them.
Uncle Merlin decided it would be a good time to stop swimming.
We had caught up with him, by this time, and the five of us spent the better part of an hour alternately watching seals through the binoculars and swimming in the low breakers.
We didn't sing to them, although commenter ajay recommends it, having serendaded seals himself in his time.
...they like anything melodic. We always tried Scots songs and hymns when I was a kid. The seals used to get interested, swim closer inshore and sing back. Very eerie experience.
Thirty years ago, almost all the gray seals had been driven off the Cape. Too many people, too many boats, too few fish. It's estimated that there were as few as twenty left in the 1970s.
Conservation, habitat protection, regulated fishing, and, probably, some natural selection have combined so that now the seals' numbers are reckoned to be around 6000 on the Monomoy Islands, which is just south of Lighthouse Beach.
Seals attract attention.
Not just people's attention.
As I said, we were out there Monday. On Saturday somebody else was out there enjoying the seals.
On Saturday, Paul Bremser was at Chatham's Lighthouse Beach preparing to go surfing. He had one leg into his wetsuit when he heard someone yell, ''Shark!''
He looked up to see a big fin circling a seal, just beyond the breakers about 75 feet away.
''After it came around in a full circle, the shark came off from the back side and cut him in half with one bite,'' said Bremser, a commercial fishermen with 28 years of experience fishing out of Chatham. The seal tried to swim away as a pool of blood spread around it. The shark went down, then the seal dropped out of sight.
''It's a classic, textbook, attack pattern for a great white,'' said Greg Skomal, shark expert for the state Division of Marine Fisheries.
The sight of a great white shark hunting down seals among swimmers and surfers is not comforting and could be the start of a disturbing trend.
That's from Tuesday's Cape Cod Times.
''With an increasing seal population, in all likelihood we may see a redistribution of white sharks to target that,'' Skomal said.
Two years ago, Skomal tagged a 14-foot, 1,700-pound great white that was trapped in a shallow lagoon and coastal waters off Naushon Island for two weeks.
But, he noted, great whites are still extremely rare in our waters. No great white has ever been hooked in the 19 years of the Martha's Vineyard shark fishing tournament, with more than 200 vessels participating each year. And Skomal has been trying in vain for two years to find another great white to tag, after the tag fell off the Naushon beast soon after it was freed.
In hundreds of years, Massachusetts has had only three possible attacks by great whites, the last one in 1938 in Buzzards Bay.
''You don't have very high attacks on people, even in South Africa (where there are far more sharks),'' Skomal said.
Chatham Town Administrator William Hinchey said the town had increased patrols on land and sea following the incident Saturday, but had seen no evidence of sharks in the area. He said the town would continue beefed-up patrolling into the near future.
Skomal ruled out seal eaters like the Greenland shark, which prefers deeper, colder waters far offshore, and the tiger shark, a tropical species found 60 miles or more out in the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream.
He said he would be coming to Chatham to look for the shark and tag it.
End of Part One.