More great white sharks than ever are being spotted off the coast of Nova Scotia—including a 10-foot female who pinged in Halifax's harbour last month.
Sharks aren't new visitors to these waters—about 20 different kinds of sharks have been regularly inhabiting the area for hundreds of years. But, just as grizzly bears aren't native to Nova Scotia's forests, great whites were never a run-of-the-mill sighting here.
Dalton Lahey, 29, has been full-time fishing crab, lobster, halibut, and sea urchins off the coast of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, for the past 10 years. He saw his first great white shark last year, about 100 kilometres from shore.
"It was chasing seals, and came pretty well right out of the water," he said, while getting ready for early-morning mackerel fishing. "From nose to tail, [it was] probably 10 to 12 feet, at least. Definitely not something you expected to see."
According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, there have been roughly 57 confirmed sightings of great white sharks in Atlantic Canadian waters since the 1800s; 22 of them occurred in the past nine years.
Chris Fischer, expedition leader and founder of Ocearch, the real-time worldwide ocean animal-tracking organization largely responsible for the increase in local white shark awareness, says the sharks have always called North Atlantic waters their home.
"We've been able to uncover, for the first time, the full migratory range of these animals," Fischer said.
Ocearch—which is funded by SeaWorld—started its worldwide research and animal tracking in 2007. Since then, it has completed 34 expeditions, including one in in Nova Scotia last September where the crew spotted 11 great whites and tagged seven.
There are several Ocearch-tagged great whites that seem to be swimming in Nova Scotia waters, including 10-foot Jane who pinged off of McNabs Island in Halifax Harbour last month. Among them right now are 12-foot Hal, 9-foot Cabot, 12-foot Jefferson, and 15-foot Luna.
Fischer, who will be back in Nova Scotia this fall with his expedition team, says for every tagged shark in Nova Scotia, he thinks there's 1,000 more.
"You got white sharks strung out from the Bay of Fundy, all the way to P.E.I. That's a massive area," Fischer said.
For the past few years, Warren Joyce, a fisheries technician with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has been working with colleagues in Cape Cod, studying and tagging sharks in efforts to learn about their patterns in Canadian waters.
"Until [we] and other groups around the world started tagging more of these animals, we didn't have a good estimate on just how common they actually were," he said.
Joyce says the apparent increase in white sharks is in part due to the endangered species finally reaching a recovered population status, and also due to modern technology allowing us the ability to see what's always been swimming below the surface.
But Joyce doesn't rule out climate change as a contributing factor.
"I'm not an oceanographer, but some have detected increases in water temperature off our coast in the last several years, so it could be a factor," he said. "But at the moment we just don't have enough data to find out if it actually is climate change driving some of them up here."
A recent report published by the Canadian government says that Canada's oceans are gradually getting warmer, with one of the most affected areas being southern Atlantic Canada, "where subtropical water is projected to shift further north." It also reports that "upper-ocean temperature has increased in [...] most areas of the Northwest Atlantic over the last century, consistent with anthropogenic climate change."
According to both Joyce and Lahey, in recent years, Nova Scotia has been visited by non-native marine species rarely seen in the area, such as tiger sharks, sixgill sharks, and swordfish.
"Dalhousie [University] students caught a tiger shark a few years ago—that's weird," said marine conservation biologist and shark expert David Shiffman. "That might be more likely to do with temporarily warmer waters. That was a younger tiger shark, not yet the ocean voyager size, so that type of thing is definitely happening."
But Shiffman says there's no definitive proof that the great whites' migratory patterns are being affected by warming waters.
"I don't know if anyone knows the answer to this. I definitely don't," Shiffman said. He agrees that the seeming increase is due to our ability to track them, combined with the population recovery of the species.
Every August in Nova Scotia, fishermen and trophy-fish hunters partake in annual "shark derby" tournaments, where a couple dozen boats head out to haul in the biggest catch. According to Lahey, there's a particularly different type of buzz in the air this year. "People are getting more interested in it because they want to see or catch [a great white], I'm sure," Fischer said. "Nobody's caught one yet [but] it's bound to happen."
Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintains that great white sharks are still on the endangered species list. "Everyone seems to want to see the white shark because it is the apex predator, and it's everyone's dream to see the white shark," said Joyce. "But people should not actively go out and find these things, and certainly not try to fish them. There could be serious, serious fines involved with that."
As for shark attacks? "Sharks don't eat people," Fischer said. "They occasionally get confused, typically when people put themselves in a bad spot. If sharks ate people, there would be 10,000 people a day eaten. They would just swim along the shore and slurp up people."
Fischer's advice for Nova Scotia beachgoers: scope out the scene before hopping in. "If there are a bunch of seals, or mackerel, or baitfish, well maybe the white shark will be here," he said. "The best thing anyone can do is go down to the water and look at it."
Hillary Gillis is a writer living in Halifax. She swam from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island in 2013 and was glad she didn't see any dorsals along the way.