Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.
A pair of shark attacks on Long Island last week — one in Nassau and the other in Suffolk — have rattled the nerves of beachgoers and swimmers, just as the weather heats up and tens of thousands of residents flock to the shore.
But while marine scientists concede that shark sightings in the region are up, due in part to climate change, a healthier ecosystem and better tracking of the events, they say the number of attacks from the feared ocean predators remains exceedingly low.
"I wouldn't be particularly concerned," said Hofstra Biology Department Chair Peter Daniel. " … There's a lot of other things to be more worried about. State beaches and county beaches have beefed up their patrols and are really trying to pay attention to it. So with that added oversight, I think that people are pretty safe."
On Thursday, a 37-year-old man was swimming off Jones Beach when he was bitten on his right foot, possibly by a shark, Nassau police said. The man was taken to Nassau University Medical Center, where he was treated for his injury.
Three days later, Zack Gallo, a veteran lifeguard, said he was participating in a training exercise off Smith Point Beach in Shirley when a 4- to 5-foot-long shark bit him on the chest. The shark also bit Gallo’s right hand as he tried to fend off the apex predator, officials said.
Gallo was able to make it to shore, with assistance from other lifeguards who were also participating in the training, and was treated at South Shore University Hospital for stitches and treatment.
On Long Island, there were more than two dozen shark sightings, including blacktip, bull, sandbar and thresher sharks, at South Shore beaches last summer, compared to 20 in the summer of 2020, according to officials.
County and state officials have increased the number of lifeguards on duty at beaches, boosted helicopter patrols and have deployed high-tech drones over waterways looking for sharks.
Daniel attributes the recent uptick of local shark sightings to warmer ocean temperatures that are luring tropical sharks, such as spinners and tiger sharks, further east and an increase in the populations of Atlantic menhaden or bunker fish that sharks feed on.
"It's kind of a good thing because that means there's a lot more baitfish out there, which all these predators count on," he said.
Chris Paparo, Stony Brook University's Marine Sciences Center manager, said increased sightings are also linked to new technology, such as drones, and the widespread use of social media, which makes it easier for the public to share their experiences.
"I don't think … all of a sudden we're swarmed with sharks," said Paparo, a member of the South Fork Natural History Museum’s shark research team. "But technology is allowing us to see these things … When I was a kid, you heard about it through the grapevine but now someone catches a shark, it's being broadcast live on YouTube or Instagram."
Despite the recent attacks, the number of unprovoked shark bites worldwide is extremely low, given the number of people participating in aquatic recreation each year, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File.
The Museum investigated 137 alleged shark-human interactions worldwide in 2021 and confirmed 73 unprovoked shark bites on humans. The 47 confirmed unprovoked shark bites in the U.S. last year is 42% higher than the 33 in 2020, the group found.
And while there were 11 shark-related fatalities last year, only one was in the U.S., according to Museum data.
Experts agree that to avoid a shark encounter, never swim near seals or schools of bait fish; avoid swimming alone, in cloudy water, or at dawn or dusk, which are prime feeding hours.
"We've got to remember, we're going into their environment," Paparo said. " … They're not mindless machines that just feed on surfers and people. I think it comes down to a respect thing."
Sharks off the coast of LI
Sharks, considered the apex predators of the ocean, are commonly seen off Long Island's coast and others waters in New York state. Here are some of those most frequently sited, according to the state department of Environmental Conservation.
- Sandbar shark: can reach up to eight feet long and spends most of its time close to shore. They are not considered dangerous as their diet consists of small fish;
- Dusky shark: Can grow to more than 14 feet and weigh in excess of 700 pounds. They can have among the strongest bite force of any shark species
- Sand tiger shark: can reach 14 feet and has been known to turn aggressive. The species is believed responsible for a pair of nonfatal shark attacks off Fire Island in 2018
- Thresher sharks: can grow to 25 feet and have a large tail used to stun prey. While large, they are considered fairly harmless to humans
- White sharks: can grow up to 18 feet and are considered dangerous to humans because the species, especially juveniles, tend to swim in waters near the coast, including off Long Island. Worldwide, they have been responsible for fatal shark attacks.
Source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation