The Shark Spotter

Veteran pilot Wayne Davis’ extraordinary skills for finding white sharks from high above the waters off Chatham helps a local nonprofit organization identify and tag the species.

by Lisa Cavanaugh
Photography by Wayne Davis

It is a spectacular view when you are 800 to 1,000 feet above Cape Cod. You can see the curve of Provincetown, the submerged sandbars along the coast, the changing color of the sea as it moves from shoal to deep waters. And if you have a good eye—a trained eye—you can spot the aquatic life that lives beneath.

“The view over Chatham is just staggeringly beautiful,” says Wayne Davis, a veteran spotter pilot whose 40-plus years in the sky have made him one of the best at finding fish from above. Alone in his Citabria plane, Davis spots bluefin tuna, swordfish, whales, rays, hammerheads and great white sharks. Sometimes he is working for fishermen, researchers or filmmakers, and often for himself, as he is a talented aerial photographer as well. “I find it very calming and exhilarating at the same time,” says Davis.

Davis has been flying off Chatham for decades, but began focusing on Cape Cod’s current marine fascination—Atlantic white sharks—a couple of years ago when his good friend and colleague, Dr. Greg Skomal, enlisted him to spot great whites, which began to appear in larger numbers in the region around 2010. Warming water temperatures and a burgeoning gray seal population were turning the waters off Chatham into an ideal white shark habitat.

Skomal, a senior marine fisheries biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, introduced Davis to a new organization, the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. The AWSC is a volunteer-based nonprofit group that works with the DMF to observe, tag and identify white sharks off Cape Cod, to educate the community and inspire conservation of the species. Davis moved his plane to a friend’s hangar at Chatham Municipal Airport and began spotting great white sharks for the group, which immediately appreciated his extraordinary spotting skills.

“In order to study white sharks, you first need to find them! Wayne’s spotting is critical in locating each shark that the research team works to identify and tag,” says Cynthia Wigren, executive director of AWSC.

“When Wayne spots a white shark, he will direct the research vessel to it,” continues Wigren. The AWSC team then ascertains if the shark has previously been electronically marked, tags it if necessary and gets video footage of the fish. Wigren relies on Davis to keep them in the right area for successful tagging. “Wayne remains close by to look for other sharks or assist if we lose sight of the one we are tracking.”

Despite documenting and tagging dozens of great whites, there is still a thrill when Davis spots one. “Honestly, I think we all feel like a kid at Christmas when Wayne radios in that he’s spotted a shark. We are overwhelmed with excitement each and every time!” says Wigren.

Davis applauds the AWSC for their efforts to alter perceptions of the big sharks. “In the past, people thought of sharks as ‘murderous thugs,’ but luckily this work is changing people’s attitudes about them. Now the folks who come to Chatham to look for seals look for sharks as well. We can learn to co-exist with them, no problem.”

Wigren agrees that people on Cape Cod are moving closer toward embracing the sharks. “Watching beachgoers come to the rescue of two stranded white sharks last summer makes us believe that public perception is changing.”

A major boost for this sea change is that Davis takes incredible aerial photos (see “The Sharks of Summer,” page 80) of the sharks that receive wide publicity—and often go viral. Skomal is enthusiastic about their importance and beauty. “Wayne’s photography is the best aerial imagery I have ever seen—he is an artist, and he is collecting vital information. Each one of his photos also allows us to see white shark behavior, abundance and size.”

The visuals are indeed compelling. An overhead view of the dark, bullet-shape of a great white shark in the clear green water near a foamy shore is both a visceral kick and a humbling reminder of our connection to the ocean environment.

“I didn’t get started taking pictures from my plane until about ’82. At first, it was kind of a hobby that has grown into an obsession,” says Davis, who uses various Canon cameras to get unique and indelible images of the wide variety of fish and marine mammals he sees from his plane. He shares the photos with his clients, on his own website, oceanaerials.com, and in an upcoming photo book that he hopes to have published within a year.

“My next obsession is to fly way offshore and discover marine life that no one gets to see from an aerial perspective,” says Davis. The allure of the air didn’t strike Davis until he was home from service in Vietnam in mid-1969. Born in the Point Judith, R.I., area, he grew up in a fishing family and when he got back stateside (“What a grand feeling to be home in one piece!”), he went back to work on swordfishing boats. It was during those first fishing summers, as he watched a handful of other boats working with airplanes, that he realized fish spotting was something he’d like to try.

“I fished hard and steadily, as a deckhand, for the next four years, stashing cash all the time,” he says. With his accumulated fishing money and a co-sign from his brother, Walt, Davis bought his first plane, a brand new Bellanca Citabria in June of 1973 and started his new career flying for fishermen: harpooners, both for swordfish and bluefin tuna, and also tuna seiners (fishing boats that use a large net to encircle a school of fish). He quickly realized that he had a real gift for finding fish, whether for capture, recording or research, and he has provided this invaluable service to dozens of fishermen, scientists and videographers over the years. It is a talent that has given him four decades of awe-inspiring views of Chatham from the air. Davis is amazed at how much he still loves it. “I still thoroughly enjoy the ever-changing, sometimes by the minute, Cape Cod scenery. It’s nothing short of stupendous.”

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