Great whites and other shark species, both large and small, likely will be sharing the Atlantic with swimmers and surfers again this summer, experts say.
“People will not want to hear this, but I often see sharks either right in the waves or just beyond the waves,” conservation biologist and Shark Week host Craig O'Connell said by email.
“These animals are utilizing areas that have optimal temperatures, ample prey availability, and many other things,” he said.
Improved surveillance and social media may be revealing sharks that previously went undetected, said Thomas Grothues, associate research professor at Rutgers University Marine Field Station.
Yet as rising greenhouse gases warm the oceans, tropical sharks such as spinners, blacktips and tiger sharks are ranging farther, heading north to cooler waters. Great whites are swimming north through New York to summer homes in the Gulf of Maine earlier — and then returning earlier to winter off Florida and the Carolinas, scientists say.
Reviving schools of bunker fish also are luring sharks to New York, where the summer’s shark watch got off to a quick start on Memorial Day weekend, when a 6- or 7-foot mako stranded in the Town of Hempstead, just north of Point Lookout bridge, officials said.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of sightings down there” in the past couple of summers, said Donald Clavin, Hempstead supervisor, adding that makos don’t tend to be aggressive.
New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation will test tissue samples of the mako; officials said it died after being freed.
Attacks on people rare
Shark attacks remain rare — about 70 to 100 every year around the world, with about five deaths, according to the Gainesville-based Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File.
The data reveal “people are far more dangerous to sharks than sharks are to people,” said Catherine Kilduff, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofit conservation group.
Makos, for example, prized for their fins, are so overfished that the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on April 11 recommended any caught be released, though this species is not classified as endangered by New York State or the United States.
Scientists say sharks are vital, as they limit seal and other marine animal populations. “They play a crucial role in keeping the ecosystem in balance,” said Chris Paparo, Stony Brook University Marine Sciences Center manager.
In New York, sharks commonly seen close to shore include sand tiger, dusky and sandbar sharks, like this one caught in 2018.
Credit: Johnny Milano
In New York, sharks ”commonly seen close to shore include, sandbar, sand tiger and dusky sharks,” the DEC said
Growing as long as 14 feet, the dusky likely is the most dangerous of them, experts said.
New visitors also include tropical hammerheads, but they typically feed on bottom-dwellers, like stingrays, Paparo said. “They are not going to come charging up the beach and attack a swimmer because they think it’s going to be a meal.”
Spinners average around 6.5 feet. "They rarely bite people and have never caused a fatality. These bites were considered mistaken identity — one bite and moved on,” said Cami McCandless, a NOAA research fisheries biologist.
Tiger sharks can be aggressive
Blacktips also can grow as long as 6 feet but are viewed as unlikely to harm people unless threatened.
Tiger sharks, however, which can reach 14 feet and turn aggressive, have been spotted off New York and New England since the 1960s. "With ocean warming, some tiger sharks are now arriving earlier and staying longer,” she said.
Tiger, great white and bull sharks, like this one caught in 2020, are the most dangerous for people.
Credit: Courtesy Tj Minutillo
This species, along with bulls, which can stretch nearly a dozen feet, and great whites, which can be as long as 21 feet, is the most dangerous for people.
Last summer, four or five bull sharks were spotted along an 11-mile stretch from Atlantic Beach to Jones Beach State Park, officials said. “Bull sharks are notorious, known for going in shallow areas where people swim,” Clavin said.
Just a few years ago, scientists confirmed the New York Bight — the stretch of water from New Jersey’s Cape May to New York’s Montauk — was a great white nursery.
Young great white sharks "exhibited horizontal movements parallel to Long Island’s southern shoreline and coastal New Jersey,” swimming from 328 feet offshore to 82 miles, said a March 22, 2021, research paper published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.
To thwart attacks, Hempstead deploys jet skis and trains lifeguards to identify different species, Clavin said.
New York’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation said it bolstered its drone program over the winter, training eight more operators and buying two more drones. Lifeguards, it said, “continuously scan and patrol the waters from shore and by surfboat.” A network of 160 municipalities, agencies and private beaches report all sightings.
By the often busy July Fourth weekend, 10 more lifeguards and park police officers will be trained to pilot drones, and three more drones bought, it added.
Experts agree some of the most effective safeguards are straightforward: Never swim near seals or schools of bait fish, whose presence may be revealed by diving birds — and never alone, in cloudy water, or at dawn or dusk, prime feeding hours.
After all, large sharks — though they risk stranding because they cannot swim backward — sometimes chase their next meal quite close to the beach.
“Small sharks enter very shallow water, but so do some large sharks that prey on them,” Grothues said.
Shark experts and the DEC urged beachgoers to adapt to this age-old hazard by following recommended precautions. Said Stony Brook's Paparo: “It’s their ocean. We’re using it."