PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Great white, basking or sunfish?

That’s the question researcher John Chisholm looks to answer when vetting public sightings on the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s great white shark tracking and reporting app, Sharktivity.

The app reflects tagged shark receiver detections, shark alerts at local beaches, and confirmed or unconfirmed public sightings. The sightings that come from the public must go through Chisholm, who determines if the animal sighted was a great white shark or a case of mistaken identity.

Chisholm, an adjunct scientist at the New England Aquarium, will attempt to get photos and a description of the animal sighted to confirm whether it’s a great white shark or not.

“A lot of mistaken identity cases,” Chisholm said. “A lot of people now with the cellphone technology we have, people when they send in sightings can send in a cellphone picture, so that’s helpful and that makes it much easier for me to try to figure out what’s going on.”

Chisholm tells 12 News his questions are procedural, to get the person to describe the sighting without leading them in one direction or another.

A basking shark is often confused for a white shark, but the difference in fin shape is a giveaway. A basking’s fin is rounded at the top, where a great white’s comes to a point. Another animal often mistaken to be a shark is the ocean sunfish, but their fins look like they paddle back and forth when the fish is swimming.

Chisholm said that despite these visual differences, if you see a fin, you should err on the side of caution and get out of the water.

When asked how many submissions are actually white sharks, Chisholm said many of the submissions they get are pranks. But white shark sightings have been on the rise in the last few years.

In July, Horseneck Beach in Westport closed to swimming after a lifeguard reported a shark sighting. The sighting was submitted to “Sharktivity,” but Chisholm was unable to confirm whether it was a white shark or not.

“Because I couldn’t confirm the sighting, it goes up as an unconfirmed sighting, which is just as important because it makes people aware white sharks are there in addition to other species of sharks,” Chisholm explained.

Chisholm said while downloading and monitoring the app is useful, it’s important not to rely solely on it to determine if there are sharks in the water or not.

“And just because there might not be a sighting or detection at the beach that day, doesn’t mean that they’re not there,” Chisholm added.

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The National Parks Service (NPS) promotes “Shark Smart Tips,” which include avoiding areas where seals and schools of fish are present.

“Don’t swim with the bait,” Chisholm said. “If you see birds feeding, that means there’s activity there. If you see a lot of seals, don’t go out alone in deep water. Stay close to shore. And really, you’ve got to be vigilant.”

The NPS also encourages beachgoers to avoid low-visibility water, limit splashing, follow signage at beaches, do water activities in groups, stay close to shore, and be aware that sharks hunt for seals in shallow waters.

In the end, Chisolm wants beachgoers to be prepared to enter a wilderness area.

“If you’re going to go out on safari, to the Serengeti or the Amazon, you’re not going to pack a bathing suit and flip flops,” Chisholm said. “You’re going to prepare and be ready for anything that you might encounter. And when people go to the beach, they kind of forget that they’re going into a wilderness area.”

To learn more about sharks in local waters, watch our 12 on 12 Digital Original: Sharks.

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