There were thousands of people on Robert Moses Beach on New York’s Long Island on Saturday, but in this heat wave, few ventured beyond their ankles or knees into the Atlantic water.
Mothers kept their children close. A series of boats, helicopters and drones moved up and down the surf. And teams of lifeguards at their posts stood by with whistles to order people out of the water.
“Even if we see a shark, we have to get everyone out of the water,” said Orlando Diaz, a lifeguard with 30 years of experience who estimated that the guards had already done this 10 times on this stretch of beach. year. “We see whales, we see dolphins, sometimes stingrays, but it stinks a bit when we see a shark because it ruins the day for the beachgoers.”
But, Diaz reasoned, “They belong in the ocean. We do not.”
That perspective — essentially “my house, my rules” — is one that beachgoers quickly adapted to during the great (white) shark scare of 2022. There have been at least six shark-human encounters along this stretch of coast, none. fatal, but some require medical attention.
In early July, lifeguard Zach Gallo was playing a victim in a water training exercise when a four-foot shark bit him in the chest and right hand at Smith Point Beach, 70 miles east of Manhattan. Gallo was able to walk out of the water, was bandaged and treated at a local hospital and soon returned to work.
Two weeks later, after authorities stepped up patrols, a juvenile great white washed up on a nearby beach. The tide took away the carcass before scientists could study it.
The waters off Long Island are known to marine biologists as a nursery for the species, and it’s a testament to the health of the oceans — and successful long-term conservation efforts — that they’re here and feeding. with schools of baitfish, mainly Atlantic menhaden. The increase in encounters isn’t complicated to explain: warmer sea temperatures mean more food and more reason for sharks to get by.
“There are also a dozen other species, including sand tiger sharks, sandbar sharks and dusky sharks, that share the habitat,” said Tobey Curtis, a specialist in fisheries management and migratory species with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a recent interview. “If there are more sharks and more people in the same place at the same time, there is more chance of interaction.”
Most of the time, Curtis noted, sharks and humans are very close together, with people just not being aware of it. But with more food, more sharks and more people on the beaches escaping brutal heat waves, interactions have become more commonplace.
“The sharks’ natural food is close to the beaches, so the sharks are hunting their prey there, and there are thousands of New York swimmers there, so that’s what led to this cluster of bites,” Curtis added. The likely culprits, he adds, aren’t the young great whites, but the sand tigers.
But for many, the owner of the teeth – big or small – is less important than the teeth themselves. And of course their sharpness and the jaws behind it. A mother said on Saturday that her children did not go into the water.
“I’d still go in, but maybe not that far out,” Dawn Gary said with a laugh. “This is the shark’s house and we only use a little bit of it.”
Another said she told her children to stay close. “Because of talking about it, it makes you think, so even I didn’t go much further than the kids,” said Suzanne Francis.
Long Island surfer Scott Carberry said he noticed changes in the water. Armadas of red jellyfish were gone and there was less seaweed.
“All of a sudden we’re seeing tons of dolphins, so I think that means the waters are cleaner,” Carberry said.
Still, the cleaner water isn’t enough to seduce Carberry’s wife, Liz.
“Normally I would go in, but not this year,” she said. “I’m fine. I don’t want to be bitten by a shark.”
Last week, New York Governor Kathy Hochul, in response to the surge in shark encounters, called on government agencies to increase patrols on land, in the air using drones and helicopters, and at sea, and to information to beachgoers about sharks.
Swimming, the governor said, would be suspended for at least an hour after seeing a shark so the shoreline could be inspected by a drone. “Our top priority is their safety,” Hochul added.
Greg Metzger, chief field coordinator for the shark research and education program at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, New York, said he caught, tagged and released many sharks of various species this year.
Metzger said conservation efforts were beginning to pay off, adding: “It’s not climate change, it’s not Donald Trump, not that sharks like to eat humans, it’s just positive conservation efforts helping prey and predators. “
But, Metzger said, in percentage terms, with more sharks and humans in the water, the chances of an “encounter” are probably the same as ever: close to zero.
For a species researcher, however, the summer of 2022 was a godsend. “We unpack them and get so much data it’s fantastic,” he said.
Perhaps the best chance for swimmers to reduce shark-human encounters is to learn when to swim — and how to do it more safely.
Early morning and evening when fish start to move and eat in low light is not so good. If you see schools of fish, birds feeding, or whales and dolphins, there are sharks in the area to possibly eat.
“All the drones, lifeguards and helicopters in the world will not prevent the interaction between humans and sharks,” Metzger said. “If you see a lot of activity, get out of the water.”