“People swim with sharks all the time, they just don’t know it,” Hans Walters, a shark
expert at the New York Aquarium, told WCBS 880 news amid the recent series of sharks biting
people in this area.
I saw this quite clearly—and surprisingly—a number of years ago from our sailboat heading from Long Island to the Elizabeth Islands off Massachusetts.
We were sailing along the coast of Rhode Island and, passing a busy beach, I steered closer to shore to see what a Rhode Island beach might be like. Holding the tiller with my left hand, I looked out at the folks frolicking in the water—and between me and them, 10 feet from our boat, the fin of a shark appeared. I doubt any of those swimmers knew a shark was off shore.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone says of the shark situation here, “there may be a
new reality that we’re in.” It’s a scary “new reality” for those who like to swim in the ocean.
Governor Kathy Hochul in Suffolk last week announced stepped-up shark surveillance
efforts. “Whether it’s land, sea or air, we are going to be having more robust patrols on the
shorelines,” she said. Drones and state police helicopters will be utilized, and there’ll be more
lifeguards at state beaches.
A website named “Xplore Our Planet” which describes itself “as a resource for wildlife
enthusiasts and those who love to explore the world” declares: “Swimming with sharks sounds
dangerous, but it isn’t—relatively speaking anyway. All things in life carry risk, but swimming
with sharks is very low on the list. Only five people [worldwide] are killed each year—that’s 100
times less than by elephants—and these attacks are often either accidental as a case of mistaken identity or provoked by humans.” OK, but to be considered, too, are injuries, such as in Florida
this month requiring the amputation of part of a young woman’s leg.
“It is safe to swim with sharks if you do it properly,” says the website. But “how do you
swim with sharks safely?” First, it advises “Be Careful Around the Big Three.” It says: “Almost
every serious or fatal incident is caused by a collection of just three animals: great white sharks,
bull sharks, and tiger sharks.” OK, but how can an average person identify those among the more
than 500 shark species said to be in the seas of the world?
Then, it says, “A floundering fish or a panicking seal tells them it’s meal time, and they’ll
charge in for an easy kill. If you get into difficulties and start flapping about, or jump in and out
of the water with too much enthusiasm, you’ll mimic the sensations of injured prey and invite the
opportunity for confusion and an accidental attack.” But not “flapping about” or being
enthusiastic in the water, is that always possible?
Then there’s “Consider Water Conditions.” “Xplore Our Planet” says: “Despite popular
misconceptions, sharks have excellent eyesight. But, that eyesight doesn’t work in murky
waters….Good visibility is essential for safe shark swimming, if only to let the sharks know you
aren’t on the dinner menu.” OK, but the ocean off Long Island isn’t so clear usually, not like the
Caribbean, for example. Murkiness is common.
And then there’s “Dive in Groups.” The website says: “A lone target, by nature, is less of
a threat and more vulnerable. By swimming in groups, you present what you might call a united
front against aggression.” OK, but not so easy if there is scant attendance on a beach.
A big question for this area: why suddenly so many shark attacks?
Explanations being given focus on climate change and warmer ocean temperatures luring
sharks to Long Island’s ocean waters—and that, I think, is indeed the main issue. Another explanation: an increase in bunker fish on which sharks like to feed. A further explanation: ocean
waters are cleaner these days off Long Island and this encourages sharks to come here.
Newsday just ran an editorial titled, “Now our woes include sharks.” It began noting
that to “the pressurized fire hose of catastrophic problems shot into our lives daily, let us add
sharks.” But, it stressed, “There are an average of five shark deaths annually worldwide, and
about 236,000 drowning deaths. And the shark-centric resources being thrown at Long Island
beaches—including drones and patrols—can only serve the big question in the affirmative: Yes,
there absolutely are sharks out there. But in many ways shark attacks are the danger best fixated
on, because sharks likely won’t get us.” OK people, stop fixating.
I learned to swim mostly in the Long Island Sound. Shark-wise, it’s not the Atlantic. But
still, a 10-foot great white shark was spotted in the sound off Connecticut in 2019. It was tagged
in 2018 so later in 2019, CNN reported, “was detected…in the New York Bight, south of Long