Experts have identified a large shark spotted over the weekend swimming in the shallow waters near the Shinnecock Yacht Club as a juvenile basking shark — and not some fearsome great white straight out of Jaws.
"Completely harmless" is how Greg Metzger, shark expert and chief field coordinator for the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, described the species.
He said basking sharks, which can grow to 30 to 40 feet in length, are so-called "filter feeders" and feed on plankton, larval fish, fish eggs and copepods — small crustaceans common to both freshwater and salt water habitats.
The shark, by best estimates ranging somewhere between 9 to 12 feet in length, was spotted Saturday in Penniman Creek in Quogue.
“It’s not something you see every day,” said Ian Connett, the sailor who spotted it and posted a photo to social media, citing his years of summers in Westhampton.
“I’m walking right along the dock; I see two enormous fins, and this thing just flopping around the beach,” he said. “I stopped … It swam right up near the beach, in Penniman Creek, off the Shinnecock Yacht Club. It’s just kind hanging out there in the creek.”
Connett said other yacht club members also saw the shark around 9 a.m. The police and the U.S. Coast Guard were alerted to what at first appeared to be potential danger, an uncommon occurrence for the area as sharks are ocean dwellers.
“We wanted to make sure no one was thinking about going paddleboarding or swimming in that area; it was definitely a very large shark,” Connett said, estimating the two fins seen in his photo were about the same distance apart as the pilings on the dock beside it — and they are about 6 feet apart.
The water is only a few feet deep there, and “It was flopping around a little bit, I thought it was it was going to beach itself at first.”
Metzger said that, at first, it was near impossible for the experts at the South Fork Museum to identify the species of shark, because all they had available was an overhead view obtained via drone footage provided by the Southampton Town Bay Constables. But, Metzger said, he and the chief scientist at the museum, Dr. Tobey Curtis, later were able to identify the species as a juvenile basking shark after Connett's photograph revealed the shape, size and color of the shark's dorsal fin.
"Once we saw the dorsal fin it was obvious we were dealing with a basking shark," Metzger said. "Only one shark, the basking shark, has that type of fin: dark in color, very broad and rounded at the top. Only the basking shark has that profile."
While basking sharks are relatively common in the ocean waters off the South Shore, Metzger said, he said "for one to be in Shinneock Bay and the western Shinnecock Bay area where its [the water] is very warm is abnormal."
He said more than likely the shark was cruising the ocean waters off the South Shore and either got swept into the bay or became disoriented and entered the bay, though he said it also was possible the shark could've been sick or injured.
"There's a shark sighting and everyone's in Jaws mode," he said. "What we're trying to do is educate, to deflate the hysteria … It's like, people, that [Jaws] is not real."
There have been 12 confirmed shark bites in New York waters since 1837, according to the International Shark Attack File, which tracks shark-human interactions and is based at the University of Florida.
With Joan Gralla