A young boy restored our faith in humanity this week after he and his father encountered a large great white shark off the coast of Massachusetts. 

The shark was filmed by local resident James Gibbons and his son near Cape Cod, and while headlines have certainly turned the sighting into a narrowly avoided bloodbath, the pair were in no real danger. 

News reports have largely focused on Gibbons, whose concerned reaction can clearly be heard in the video. "He's lurking around us. He's sizing us up for dinner," he said of the predator. His son, on the other hand, expressed a refreshing combination of excitement and shark-spotting know-how. 

One of the cutest remarks from the boy was the suggestion to contact Sharktivity, an app developed by the teams at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWS) and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MADMF) to track the state's shark visitors, raise awareness and help sharks and humans coexist peacefully. 

With the help of the app, this shark was identified as "Scyther", a 15-foot female who was tagged back in July by MADMF biologist Dr Greg Skomal. 

"An awesome white shark sighting," the AWS team wrote on Facebook after seeing Gibbons's clip. They note that a second appearance, filmed by fishermen Peter Flood and Tyler Macallister the same day, and subsequently shared on Sharktivity, also stars Scyther. "This is citizen science in action!"

But if Scyther wasn't eyeing a human snack, why was she circling the boat? Contrary to the misconceptions you'll find in films like Jaws (and, more recently, The Shallows), circling is not always an aggressive shark behaviour.

"It is simply their way of trying to form an image of what they are confronting in the water," explains shark biologist Dr Erich K. Ritter. Many sharks, including great whites, must continually swim to keep oxygen flowing over their gills, so stopping for a look-see isn't an option. "The shark can only choose between two available forms of behaviour, circling or swimming a figure eight – moving up and down around the object of interest," says Ritter.

It might look aggressive, but the motion can also be a defensive tactic: by starting wide, a shark can keep a safe distance from an unknown object, which gives it time to react to stimuli like sound, electrical impulses and movement. Gibbons's loud voice, for example, would undoubtedly prompt a shark like Scyther to move in for a closer investigation, and she would do this repeatedly to form a clear picture of the situation. Is this thing food? Does this thing drop food? Is this thing a threat? If the answers to such questions are "no", sharks tend to move along. And that's exactly what Scyther did.

Only two incidents of shark bites have been recorded in Massachusetts since 2000, and neither of these was fatal. Still, to ensure you stay as safe as possible during a shark encounter, here are some helpful tips.


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