Nova Scotia

Pumpkin the great white shark feasting in Nova Scotia's Minas Basin

The toothy, 300-kilogram tourist is taking in the underwater sights and culinary delights of Nova Scotia's Minas Basin.

No need to worry: Pumpkin is more interested in seals and rotting whales than in swimmers

Pumpkin is a 2.7-metre, 300-kilogram great white shark detected in the Minas Basin this past weekend. (Atlantic White Shark Conservancy)

A toothy, 300-kilogram tourist is taking in the underwater sights and culinary delights of Nova Scotia's Minas Basin. 

Pumpkin, a 2.7-metre-long great white shark, was detected on Saturday near where the Avon River empties into the Minas Basin off Avonport, Bramber and Cheverie. 

Biologists Greg Skomal and John Chisholm, who are with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, tagged the female with an acoustic transmitter on July 15, 2016, off Cape Cod.

Great white sharks are listed as endangered under the Canadian Species At Risk Act. However, sharks like Pumpkin aren't uncommon in Canadian waters thanks to our "robust" number of seals and other prey.

"They're likely there not only to hunt seals but they're scavenging whale carcasses, they're feeding on other sharks that are throughout Canadian waters and also fishes that live in Canadian waters in the summertime," said Skomal. 

"You've got highly productive waters in Canada that draw these sharks." 

In fact, Skomal said since 2011 there have been six great whites detected in the Minas Basin alone. 

Working with fishermen 'critical'

Scientist are understanding more about great whites, but there are still plenty of mysteries surrounding the elusive creatures. One thing that can be learned by tracking their movements is where sharks feed and when.

Skomal said his work depends on co-operation with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Dalhousie's Ocean Tracking Network and local fishermen.

"Collaborating with fishermen is critical, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "These are folks that are on the water, all the time. They know the water, they know what lives in the water and not to tap into their experience would be ridiculous."

Skomal and his team have successfully tagged more than 100 sharks. (Atlantic White Shark Conservancy)

Once a month, fisherman-researcher Darren Porter takes his small boat out to visit a receiver anchored in the Minas Basin. He then retrieves the data and shares it with shark researchers like Skomal.

Porter has been involved with tracking sharks for a few years and said the collaboration with both scientists and Indigenous people is good for everyone. 

"You've got much fuller science because you've got fishermen working with academics and traditional knowledge holders in the Indigenous communities," he said. "We're trying to promote a new approach to science ... where you get three different knowledges working together to create wisdom."

'If they love it they'll protect it'

Porter said one of his goals is to share his love of the ocean with others.

"I do this because I'm passionate about the ocean and I love the ecosystem and I want people to understand it and I want to show them what's there and educate them on what's there," he said. 

"If they love it, they'll protect it and that's the whole goal."

The fact that great whites frequent his fishing grounds doesn't make him lose much sleep. 

"I have a little phobia of sharks so I don't get into the water but it doesn't bug me, her being there. She's keeping the seals in balance and she's got her place in the ecosystem," he said.

Great white sharks are listed as endangered under the Canadian Species At Risk Act. (Andrew Brandy Casagrande/Discovery Channel/The Associated Press)

Skomal agrees the risk to swimmers is nil. 

"The phenomenon of sharks going to Canada is not new," he said. "They've been going there likely for hundreds of thousands of years so if there was any threat from these animals on humans, you would have seen some attacks."

Tagging sharks no easy task

So, how does one tag a shark that's as big a full-grown moose? Carefully.

A plane spots sharks from the air. Meanwhile, Skomal and his team set off in a small boat and try to find the sharks that were spotted.

Lydia is another tagged great white shark that has been detected off Canada's East Coast. (Robert Snow/Ocearch Jacksonville Expedition/Canadian Press)

The team tries to get as close as possible to the shark and wait for their opportunity to place a tag at the base of the fish's dorsal fin using a long tagging pole with a needle on the end. 

"Everything has to click," Skomal said. "The plane has to find the shark, the boat has to be close to it, the shark has to co-operate, I've got to place the tag in a very precise position on the body of the shark so I don't harm the shark." 

Acoustic tags, like the one on Pumpkin, is just one of a few methods to track sharks. Pumpkin's tag was manufactured by Nova Scotia-based company Vemco. It emits a high frequency "ping" that is detected by receivers researchers have placed in the water throughout North America. 

Unlike real-time satellite tags, acoustic tags don't require a shark to surface in order to be detected.

Shark-tagging beer? 

This summer, the Ocean Tracking Network is partnering with Cape Breton's Big Spruce Brewing Company to produce the Tag! You're it! beer.

The IPA will go on sale Aug. 3. Fifty cents from the sale of each can will go to support OTN's tagging and tracking sharks initiative and other research programs.

Cans of Tag! You're it! IPA from Big Spruce go on sale Aug. 3. (Darren Porter)


Seasick marine biologist, turned journalist. She lives in Halifax. In 2018 she helped lead a team of reporters and editors to win the RTDNA Ron Laidlaw Continuing Coverage Award for work on the Deep Trouble series. The series delved into the plight of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. She can be reached at, on Twitter @cassiehwilliams