Marine biologist Craig O'Connell and his pediatrician wife, Nicolle O'Connell are co-founders of Montauk-based O'Seas Conservation Foundation, which yokes its various conservation efforts to youth education programs. He's also starring in three of Discovery's "Shark Week" programs — "Lair of the Great White" (Friday, Aug. 14, 9 p.m.), "Sharks of Ghost Island" (Saturday, Aug. 15, 8), and … what's this? …"Tyson vs. Jaws: Rumble on the Reef" (Sunday, 9).
That'd be Mike, by the way.
An edited version of our recent chat:
With all the Long Island beach closings, is it your sense that there are more sharks out there this year than last?
What's most interesting is the recent capture of a bull shark [off the South Shore.] Those sharks are typically tropical species and you don't often see them in the summer. To me what's happening in that particular case is global warming — each year the waters here are getting a little bit warmer, which means the sharks' migratory patterns — their ranges — are expanding.
A danger to swimmers?
They are very aggressive and often swim in areas right along the shoreline, or in rivers or river mouths [so] we're more likely to come into contact with them. It's also important to note that they're not out there hunting us.
What sort of sharks led to the beach closings here?
Some of the larger whites have already pushed through and gone on to Cape Cod, but also some still lingering here [but] you're mainly going to see pups in this area [now]. The New York Bight [is] a white shark nursery ground.
The adults push their way north because their diet changes. When they're younger, or newborns, they're feeding on skates, dogfish, so the New York Bight is the perfect habitat. They don't have to leave and will typically stay the duration of the summer, then move south. The larger ones head on up to the seal buffet in Chatham [off the Cape] where all those large seal colonies are.
So you believe those were whites that forced the closings?
I've caught [and tagged] them this time of year, so it's likely. But whites can be mixed in with other sharks in the area — and it's actually a very productive one. You get sandbars and duskier and hammerheads right off the beach here.
Hammerheads, bulls, whites (oh my). Don't think I'm going in again.
The important thing for people to realize is you're more likely to get hit on the head by a coconut or die by having a vending machine fall on you than ever get bitten by a shark. [but] would suggest for people not to go in the water at either dawn or dusk; a lot of sharks happen to be crepuscular — that's when they become more active and are feeding … [But] the sharks have always been there and we've been swimming with them. We just didn't know it because we're not on their menu.
What do you make of the recent tragic attack in Maine — Julie Holowach, 63, the retired fashion executive from New York who was killed by a great white?
Populations have rebounded [and] we're going to see more and more of them along our shoreline along the northeast. We have to be a little more careful in terms of what we do. But the sharks are not targeting humans. These aren't the mindless killing machines everyone thinks they are but they are actually very curious. What may have happened here is that this animal was curious. When we're curious, we can investigate with our hands. Sharks don't have that luxury. They have sharp teeth and massive jaws and when they investigate they bite, and when it's a great white, those bites tend to be fatal.
This might lead some people to suggest we drop conservation efforts, right?
I hear that a lot — 'they're out there eating all our fish and we can't catch as many..' but it's the exact opposite: When you protect the apex predators of your environment, the great white sharks, they have the ability to maintain the balance of the entire ecosystem. It's like a giant jenga puzzle, right? You have all these little pieces that fit together but if you remove the wrong piece, which in this case would be the great white shark, that entire jenga will collapse [so] it's vitally important that we protect the sharks.
Speaking of the ecosystem, how quickly has it changed here? It's amazing how quickly things turn. I wanted to go out there and see if I can find bull sharks as an indication that global warming is happening [and] there's visual confirmation right here in New York [so] it's crazy. We're [also] catching Spanish mackerel which is something you usually see in the Bahamas which is something I've never seen [here] before either. Warm water species are moving further and further north.
Meanwhile, you have a show where Mike Tyson swims with the fishes. I don't even know where to begin with this question. Let's start with the "why?"
The idea was, let's see if we can get Mike Tyson out there — someone who has millions of followers — to see if we can change his mindset to the point where he likes sharks [and] by participating in the science eventually share his experience with all these followers. That was my goal — for him to show how awesome the experience is and then maybe they'll like sharks too.
How'd that go?
When I told him what we're going to do, he looked me dead in the eyes and goes, 'you sound stupid.' I don't want to give away the whole episode but we saw an amazing transition — from someone who was just completely fearful of what he was getting himself into and the absolute joy by the end.
Is he a true-blue shark lover now?
After his fourth dive, he was completely transformed … We accomplished what we went out there to accomplish.
What kind of sharks did Mike go up against?
Quite a few different ones — Caribbean reef sharks, lemon sharks, nurse sharks … At one point, there were thirty sharks swimming around us. He was in the middle of a feeding frenzy with Caribbean reef sharks [and] I didn't tell him but I got knocked out underwater by them once, so he was in a pretty serious situation and couldn't make a wrong move. He was wearing chain mail, but still, the force of a shark biting your arm could dislocate it or it could break your hand. [But] he did great.
Meanwhile, your research has undertaken an exciting new turn, right?
Yes, we caught and tagged an [immature] great white off Montauk so we're going to be able to see where this shark is moving on to or if it is staying right here. It's really exciting [because] we've developed a camera system that we put on the dorsal fin. The cameras will record their movements and tell us the depth that they're swimming and at what temperature they prefer — all really important information [and] we've found this spot off Montauk where I think we're going to have a lot of success the rest of the summer.
Are you worried about the future of sharks or have you found something that gives you hope?
What gives me hope is that the younger generation [kids] are starting to understand the importance of sharks. That's the purpose of our nonprofit — O'seas. They're going to be the future ambassadors of sharks. [But] the more I travel the more I see shark mortality at super-high levels. We're killing around 100 million sharks every single year and because sharks reproduce at a slow rate, and they have very few young, and mature at a late age, the possibility of them recovering from such substantial mortality is really slim. We need to find ways to minimize that mortality so they actually have a chance out there