The Shark Attack That Changed Cape Cod Forever

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Isaac Rocha sat in class trying to concentrate on his schoolwork, but his mind was somewhere else. It was a Friday afternoon in mid-September 2018, and although the academic year had just begun, the 16-year-old Everett High School junior and novice bodyboard surfer was already longing for the weekend. Suddenly, his cell phone buzzed, and he quietly slid it out of his pocket, careful not to alert his teacher. The text screen lit up.

“Yo, what’s up?” it read. “What are you doing?”

Rocha smiled and quickly typed a reply: “I’m in school.”

Seconds later, his phone vibrated again.

“Yo, let’s go to Cape Cod. We’re gonna grab a hotel and go surfing. Go home and grab your stuff and be ready because I’m coming to your house.”

The message came from Arthur Medici, a 26-year-old college student from Brazil who attended Rocha’s church and had known him for years. When the final school bell rang, releasing students like a pack of greyhounds at the track, Rocha hopped onto his motorcycle and raced home. Just as he was gathering his board, wetsuit, and a fresh set of clothes, he heard a knock on the front door.

“Come on out!” Medici shouted excitedly.

Moments later, the two friends climbed into Medici’s black Nissan Altima and began the long trek to the outer edge of Cape Cod. Stuck in bumper-to-bumper Friday-afternoon traffic, they searched for Jack Johnson songs on the radio and caught up on the week, chatting about work, school, and life. Medici had recently asked Rocha’s sister, Emily, to marry him, and Rocha was thrilled his friend would soon become family.

The sun had just started to set when they pulled into a motel along Route 6A in Wellfleet. After checking in, they grabbed their gear and headed for nearby Newcomb Hollow Beach. They had visited the site once before, but the conditions had been too choppy for a day of wave riding. Still, they liked Newcomb Hollow because it was relatively deserted, except for the occasional member of the close-knit surfing community, who had welcomed them with a smile. Today, the conditions were ideal, and they were excited to be back.

As soon as his boogie board touched the water, Medici put on a show for his young friend, performing flips and 360-degree spins. Rocha was still a beginner, but he had a patient teacher; he watched as Medici showed him where to place his hands in order to balance himself. “You need to understand the rhythm of the ocean,” Medici instructed. “The waves run in patterns; two small waves followed by a bigger one. Catch the big one.” They surfed until nightfall, floating in the ocean and watching the sun, with its orange and pink hues, dip below the steep cliffs behind the beach.

The next morning, Medici and Rocha woke up early, ate a light breakfast, and headed back to Newcomb Hollow. As soon as they set up their beach umbrellas, Medici skipped toward the water like a child, kicking up sand as he bounded into the surf.

“Yo, wait up for me!” Rocha called out.

It didn’t take long for Medici to catch the wave of his dreams. Staring out at the horizon, he saw a swell of ocean rise to form a perfect wave and began paddling to its peak. Then he angled his board toward the beach and caught the shoulder of the wave at a steep incline and rode it all the way to shore before disappearing in the crashing foam. Exhilarated, he paddled back toward Rocha. “That was the best of my life,” Medici said, as once again the two friends sat on their boards a few yards apart and took in the sounds of waves tumbling to shore. “This is the life I want to live,” Medici sighed. “This is the life I love. This is what I want to do forever.”

Neither Medici nor Rocha, however, knew what lurked beneath the surface of the ocean. Several weeks earlier, a 61-year-old neurologist from Scarsdale, New York, named William Lytton was swimming 10 feet off the coast of nearby Truro when he felt a great white shark chomp down on his leg. He shrieked in pain as dozens of razor-sharp teeth tore through the tendons in his thigh. Instinctively, Lytton fought back, striking the predator in the gills and then writhing free. A helicopter soon airlifted him to Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where he lay in a coma for two days while surgeons performed half a dozen operations and pumped 12 pints of blood into his body—saving his life. Lytton’s story of survival made national news, including mention of the increasing number of great white sightings off the Cape in recent years. Surprisingly, Medici and Rocha never heard about the attack, unaware of the danger below.

The resurgence of great white sharks is forcing communities to wrestle with how these wild creatures could change the Cape forever.

Lytton’s was far from the first close encounter between human and shark off the coast of Cape Cod in recent years. In 2014, for instance, a great white attacked a pair of female kayakers off Plymouth, biting into one of their boats and knocking both women into the water. In 2017, a shark bit into a paddleboard off Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. In both cases, the people were traumatized but unharmed.

For the past decade, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) has been studying the migration of great white sharks to the region. Their stark conclusion: The scariest fish in the world has returned to Cape Cod. So far, researchers have tagged 151 great whites, most of them from Provincetown to Wellfleet, but have spotted more than double that number, at least 320 predators, on the Outer Cape and in the inner part of Cape Cod Bay. “This is part of their historical migration that’s probably been going on for millions of years,” says Greg Skomal, a shark biologist for the DMF. “They are drawn to the presence of gray seals, whose numbers are now on the rebound after we virtually wiped them out and kept their population down through bounty systems where these animals were killed.”

Instead of downplaying the ever-growing presence of great whites, though, many local businesses have embraced it. From Chatham, the elbow of Cape Cod, to the peninsula’s fist in Provincetown, novelty shops sell T-shirts, towels, and hats with various menacing shark designs to excite hungry shoppers, many looking for their own piece of the phenomenon to take home. In 2015, the Chatham Merchants Association began running its popular outdoor art exhibit “Sharks in the Park,” where artists use shark cutouts for their canvases and designs. The nearby Chatham Orpheum Theater, meanwhile, has traditionally shown Jaws on the big screen during Fourth of July week; the event has become the Cape’s version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with audience members shouting dialogue back at the screen and crushing cans of Narragansett beer along with Quint, captain of the ill-fated shark-hunting boat Orca.

At the same time, the resurgence of great white sharks is also forcing communities to wrestle with how these wild creatures could change the Cape forever. Tourism, the local economy, and residents’ relationship with Mother Nature all hang in the balance. How, after all, do idyllic summer towns along unspoiled beaches deal with the specter of violence in their midst?

Much like the townspeople of the fictional Amity, the Cape community is divided over what to do. In 2017 Barnstable County Commissioner Ron Beaty Jr., who fancies himself something of a real-life legislative version of Quint, publicly called for the all-out destruction of great whites off Cape Cod after seeing blood-curdling video of a shark feeding on a seal. Originally, Beaty proposed what he called a “shark hazard mitigation strategy,” in which baited drum lines with hooks would be placed near popular Outer Cape beaches in an effort to catch great whites before they reached swimmers. If the hook wasn’t enough to kill a shark, Beaty suggested officials should shoot it dead.

Sharks, however, are not Beaty’s only enemy. The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy opposes his ideas, arguing for less-drastic and less-violent measures to keep people safe. Stressing the need for awareness above all else, the group launched a “Sharktivity” phone app in 2016 that provides updated information about sightings near popular beaches, and advocates for increased signage and even beach closures, despite the negative effect on local merchants.

Information and understanding are surely key, but even the most experienced swimmers and divers are nervous about the recent uptick of great white sharks. Explorer Barry Clifford, who gained global acclaim for his discovery of the 18th-century pirate ship the Whydah in the waters off Wellfleet in 1984, estimates that he’s spent half of his life under water. “It’s one thing being on the ocean floor where sharks can’t get under you,” he says, but “it’s another thing to be splashing around on the surface, especially in shallow water where sharks confuse you for a seal. Right now, I would never dream of swimming off the Cape or allow my children or grandchildren to swim there.”

Rocha and Medici on the beach. / Photo courtesy of Isaac Rocha

Under a clear blue sky, 4-foot waves rolled in throughout the morning as Medici and Rocha continued to surf at Newcomb Hollow. Rocha, though, was having a tough time, missing wave after wave and growing frustrated. Medici calmly encouraged his friend to study the rhythm of the waves and practice patience.

A natural-born teacher, Medici was a mentor to Rocha. They had met two years earlier when Medici, 24 years old at the time, became an active member of the Maranatha Christian Church in Revere, where Rocha’s father, Cleverson, served as pastor. Medici, who was drawn to the ocean since he was old enough to float, had grown up in Vila Velha, Espírito Santo, Brazil, where he honed his ocean skills among some of the country’s best surfers and bodyboarders. After graduating from Godofredo Schneider High School, Medici attended a local college before moving 4,755 miles north to Massachusetts to pursue a degree in civil engineering at Bunker Hill Community College.

He took his love for surfing with him. The first time they met, Medici invited Rocha to hit the waves. Rocha had never been on a bodyboard before, but his new friend promised to show him the ropes. They drove down to Rhode Island, found a beach, and laughed nonstop, ultimately forming a strong friendship. Medici later fell in love with Rocha’s older sister, Emily, and asked her to marry him.

For Emily, what wasn’t to like? Medici was grounded and handsome, with an infectious smile. Even more, he was spiritual, and carried his faith with him each time he and Rocha paddled out to sea.

Just past noon, as the late summer sun blazed directly overhead, Rocha finally caught the perfect wave. He’d shown patience, identified the highest point of a crest, caught its shoulder, and rode it effortlessly to shore, allowing the power of the wave to propel him forward. He experienced the thrill that Medici always talked about, and now knew what his “big brother” meant when he said that he “lived to surf.”

Beaming with pride, Rocha couldn’t wait to tell Medici and see his reaction. He swam confidently back toward his future brother-in-law. Rocha momentarily lost sight of Medici as the surf crashed over him, so the teen dived under the waves to get closer. When Rocha came up for air, he heard a terrifying scream.

Rocha quickly scanned the open water. All around him, the sea had turned red. He looked up and saw the unmistakable shape of a shark’s dark dorsal fin cutting a jagged line through the bloody water. Medici, he knew, was under attack.

From the beach, the view was just as grim. Fellow surfers saw a giant eruption of water, followed by the sight of a shark thrashing and whipping its tail back and forth around Medici’s body. Before Rocha could think, his arms and legs began churning furiously toward Medici, closing the distance with each stroke. “Arthur! Come to me, come to me!” he shouted, swallowing and spitting out mouthfuls of bloody saltwater. “You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.”

Medici did not respond, floating motionless atop a small wave. When Rocha finally reached him, Medici was unconscious with his head face-down in the water. The Everett High student and commander of his school’s junior ROTC class instantly remembered his rescue training, getting behind Medici, placing both hands under Medici’s armpits, and swimming several more yards until his feet touched the sand. Rocha used his remaining strength to drag his friend onto the beach.

“Shark! Shark! Shark!” he gasped. “Get people out of the water!”

Exhausted, Rocha collapsed on the sand as dozens of surfers rushed ashore and out of harm’s way. Rocha then staggered to his feet and looked at his friend’s face, wondering if the wounds were by some miracle mostly superficial. “Arthur, Arthur!” he shouted. “You’re okay, dude. Wake up!” But that hope ended the moment Rocha saw the gaping bite mark on Medici’s upper right thigh. Rocha quickly unstrapped Medici’s boogie board from his arm and wrapped the strap in a tourniquet around his leg, but it was no use: Medici had lost all his blood in the water.

Soon, other swimmers arrived and dragged Medici’s body up the beach. Someone dialed 911. “I’m at Newcomb Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and I’ve just seen a surfer get bit by a shark,” the caller told a dispatcher. “About 300 yards down the beach, I saw the whole thing happen…. It was a hell of a hit, man, but I saw the whole thing happen.”

Rocha, too weak and overwhelmed to carry on, dropped to his knees and sobbed.

Isaac Rocha returned to the ocean for a “paddle-out” memorial ceremony in honor of his friend Arthur Medici; he’s unsure if he’ll ever surf again. / Photo courtesy of Joe Rossetti

In the parking lot at Newcomb Hollow, lifeguards began performing CPR. “I can’t find a pulse,” one of them said. When an ambulance arrived several minutes later, paramedics continued to work on Medici during the 34-mile sprint from Wellfleet to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. Rocha rode in the passenger seat. He tried to be hopeful, but deep down he feared his friend was already dead.

As the ambulance sped toward the hospital, Rocha thought about his sister, Emily, the auburn-haired beauty who had fallen for Medici and turned him from family friend to future family member. The young couple had been inseparable. Rocha called his mother, but only had the heart to tell her to drive down to the hospital. Not long after, medics rushed Medici into the emergency room and Rocha was taken to a small room for families. Twenty minutes later, a group of doctors and nurses entered and somberly confirmed that Medici was gone—the first victim of a fatal shark attack in Massachusetts since 1936.

Hours later, Rocha was still teary when his mother and sister walked into the emergency room. “What happened to Arthur?” Emily asked nervously. “Is he dead? Is he dead?”

Rocha told her to wait, unable to deliver the tragic news. Moments later, when the doctor came in, Emily asked once again, “Is he dead?”

The doctor didn’t say a word. He looked around the room, and finally nodded his head yes. Her body buckling, Emily let out a wail and burst into tears. It was the most painful sound Rocha had ever heard.

Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Cynthia Wigren believes that awareness and understanding of the great white shark are the keys to preventing future attacks.

Since Medici’s death, Cape Codders have been searching for answers about what to do about the sharks. Commissioner Beaty says he believes the deadly attack was preventable and that local officials have “blood on their hands,” but won’t go into detail. Still, he is backtracking from this original proposal to hunt and kill sharks. “I’ve had huge pushback from the animal-rights activists,” he says, “even to the point that my life was threatened.” Seals, he now argues, are the real issue, and he wants to choke off the great white’s food supply. “We’re coming upon the summer season,” he says, “and still nothing’s been done and we’re as vulnerable as we have been in the last few years.”

To cull the seals, Beaty is working to amend the 1972 U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the killing of all marine mammals, including seals and sea lions. He wants seals taken off the protected species list now that they have rebounded and recolonized areas on the Outer Cape where they had previously flourished. “We need to do something about the overpopulation of seals, which is directly related to attracting the increasing number of sharks to the Cape each year,” Beaty contends. “I’m a native-born Cape Codder, and not so long ago, we didn’t have this problem.”

Cynthia Wigren, CEO and cofounder of the nonprofit Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, thinks Beaty’s idea to hunt and kill off a large portion of the seal population is ill informed. “If you cull seals, you take away a shark’s natural food source,” she insists. “Sharks will be even more likely to attack humans. We know that both seals and sharks have been culled in other areas without improving the public safety.” Instead, she believes that awareness and an understanding of the great white shark are the keys to preventing future attacks. Meanwhile, the state just granted $383,000 to the towns of Chatham, Eastham, Orleans, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown for stretchers, dune vehicles, and lifeguards’ satellite phones and emergency call boxes at beaches where cell service is either spotty or nonexistent. Other plans include adding more lifeguards and emergency technicians at those locations and providing first-aid training to local residents, especially those in the surfing community. Following Medici’s death, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, the state Division of Marine Fisheries, and the National Park Service continue to post signs and distribute brochures containing shark safety tips. Among the recommendations: Do not swim near seals; swim close to shore where your feet can touch the bottom; do not swim in the ocean at dawn or dusk; and do not swim alone.

Beaty believes this doesn’t go far enough. “Their interest is to continue doing shark research to continue to get grant funding for their industry,” he claims. “That’s how they make their living, and the public be damned. Public safety has been a secondary issue to them, by far. They’re more interested in protecting the sharks than they are human lives. That’s just how I feel.”

There is also a fresh divide in the Outer Cape community regarding the marketing of predator sharks to help boost the local economy. Chatham changed the name of its Sharks in the Park event to the more palatable Art in the Park. But the man who runs the Chatham Orpheum Theater says he has no plans to end traditional summer screenings of Jaws. “We have no issues with showing Jaws again,” says Kevin McLain, executive director of the nonprofit theater. “We’ve been showing it since we opened in 2013. We have always been sensitive to the issues surrounding our local shark population, which is why we have summer screenings, not only to entertain but to educate our visitors about these amazing animals.”

Prior to each screening, the small movie theater runs a promotional video urging filmgoers to visit the nearby Chatham Shark Center, run by Wigren and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. “The towns embracing and promoting sharks is more a reflection and acknowledgement of the reality in the uptick in shark sightings and consumer demand for information and education as well as wanting to bring home a piece of their vacation,” McLain adds. “I think the events of last summer will cause everyone to take a pause and reflect on how they market and sell their shark paraphernalia, but the demand for such items will remain strong.”

Still, swimmers and beach-goers are wary. Orleans summer resident Tom Cunningham, of Wellesley, has become even more vigilant in the wake of Medici’s death. “We’ve been visiting the Cape for years and never thought twice about swimming out far, even after watching Jaws numerous times and the advent of ‘Shark Week’ craziness,” Cunningham says. “But now, my kids, who basically grew up in Cape waters, won’t go out past their waists, and I am always keeping one eye on the water around them. If I see a seal in the water, forget it. No swimming.”

Rocha is in therapy now, trying to process the trauma of the attack. He’s not sure what can be done to prevent another deadly strike from happening in the future, but he does feel there are too many seals and sharks off the Outer Cape. “People have to be careful going into the water, be aware where sharks are,” he says. “I’d hate for this to happen to someone else, because I wouldn’t want anyone to go through the pain I’m going through right now.”

Since Medici died, Rocha has been in the ocean just once, and that was to honor his friend during a “paddle-out” memorial ceremony organized by members of the Cape Cod surfing community at Newcomb Hollow one month after the attack. The bright-colored flowers stood out against the black ocean as more than 30 surfers joined together in a somber prayer circle to remember Medici and celebrate his life and love for the sea. Since then, Rocha has remained unsure whether he’ll ever have the nerve to go back into the ocean. “Arthur never leaves my mind, ever,” Rocha says. “It’s worse at night. Flashbacks, just the scene, and seeing the shark and seeing everything Arthur went through. I see his face in the moment. It happens every night.”

Source URL: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2019/05/14/cape-cod-sharks/