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Carnivores in the Bras d’Or: Sharks likely ply waters of Cape Breton lake

Participants of St. Peter's Swim the Canal event watch as the lock gates open on the Atlantic Ocean side of the historic waterway. More than 350 swimmers took part in the annual event that this year marked the 150th anniversary of the St. Peter's Canal. (KELLY GOULD PHOTO)
Participants of St. Peter's Swim the Canal event watch as the lock gates open on the Atlantic Ocean side of the historic waterway. More than 350 swimmers took part in the annual event that this year marked the 150th anniversary of the St. Peter's Canal. (KELLY GOULD PHOTO) - Contributed
SYDNEY, N.S. —

Since the arrival of celebrity shark Hilton in 2017, it’s been proven that the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Breton is home to a significant population of great whites.

It’s also likely that some sharks make their way into the Bras d’Or Lake.

Chris Fischer is the founder and expedition leader of Ocearch, a Florida-based research group that caught four great white sharks off the coast of Main-a-Dieu in September and affixed satellite tags to their dorsal fins.

Chris Fischer
Chris Fischer

He said there’s no reason to believe various shark species — including the occasional great white — don’t ply the Bras d’Or, a 1,000-square-kilometre saltwater estuary that has three passages to the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s all salt water and it’s got good flow, right? Yeah, you’re going to have all kinds of different sharks in there,” said Fischer, who hopes to return to Cape Breton for a second expedition next year. “The only reason you would find a white shark in there is if you had a massive seal haul out in there, or there was a massive fish aggregation of menhaden, or stripers, or mackerel and there was a huge biomass in there, then they come in there no problem. We see our white sharks coming into rivers and estuaries when there’s big events regularly along the southeastern United States and the whole East Coast, really. So it’s all about the life and the volume of life and if it’s there, they’ll be on it. They’re not afraid to go in there.”

However, Fischer said, people don’t have to be afraid of sharks in the Atlantic or the Bras d’Or.

The Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File keeps a record of shark attacks worldwide dating back to 1580 and there’s never been a documented incident in Canadian waters.

Fischer said despite the fact wetsuits allow more people to surf and swim later in the season, often alongside the great white’s main prey, seals, the odds of being attacked are one in 13 million.

“People there have been swimming with white sharks their whole lives. Nothing has changed. We just know (they're there) now,” he said.

“These things are invisible. They are like a lion in the forest: you know it’s there but you never see it. They are not going to reveal themselves, they are incredibly nervous and they’re invisible in the water — especially up there where it’s not crystal blue water. These things are clever. Even though you have surfers up there swimming with their food, dressed up like a seal, in the midst of seals, it’s still not happening. So it shows you that the animals are amazing at telling the difference. Every once in a while, they’ll make a mistake but if you look at it, it’s only six times worldwide or eight times worldwide. Shockingly infrequent because here we are dressing up like their food and swimming with their food or surfing with their food and they still figure it out. And we’re trying to fool them.

“Go enjoy the water, do your thing. Be somewhat clever though. If you’re in an area and you’re on a nice quiet beach and then all of a sudden there’s a bunch of seals there, go move to a nicer, quieter piece of beach.”

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