How to stay safe from sharks: Experts weigh in

SUFFOLK COUNTY, NY – With three shark bites reported in Suffolk County waters in recent days and another recorded in Nassau County, experts are offering advice to keep swimmers safe in the water.

On Friday, the Suffolk County Parks Department listed advice on social media:

– Avoid areas with schools of baitfish, diving seabirds or the presence of marine mammals such as dolphins or seals.
– Avoid swimming in the ocean at dusk, dawn or night.
– Avoid swimming in cloudy water.
– Always swim, paddle, kayak and surf in a group
– Always follow the instructions of lifeguards and park staff

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“As shark and marine life activity has increased in the waters around Suffolk County this year, we wanted to share some important tips to help you stay safe while enjoying the beach this season. ‘Remember that we share these waters with a variety of marine life and it’s important to stay alert and take care when entering these habitats,’ the post said.

Suffolk County Steve Bellone said the shark bites were “unprecedented”.

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He added that prior to the three recent bites, no shark bites had been recorded in Suffolk County since Smith Point opened in 1959.

And now there have been two reports at Smith Point on Tuesday alone, he said.

Bellone emphasized that the ocean was a marine environment. “The sharks are here. What we’re going through may have become the new norm, with more interactions – that remains to be seen, but from what we’ve been through so far this season, it’s very probably the case.”

The county executive also described some of the increased efforts underway to protect beachgoers, including drones providing visuals and lifeguards on jet skis, paddleboards and surfboards in response to the “wave of shark bites in Suffolk County waters”.

Bellone urged swimmers to avoid dusk and dawn, not to wear shiny jewelry and not to enter the water if bleeding, all common sense measures; also, he says, go into the water with someone so if someone is in distress, help is near.

Adding to reports from Suffolk, a 37-year-old man recently suffered a cut on his right foot while swimming in the ocean at Jones Beach recently, police said.

Sharks have become a more visible presence in the East End in recent years: In 2016, a nursery of great white sharks was discovered in the waters off Montauk, according to Ocearch founder Chris Fischer.

According to Ocearch COO Fernanda Ubatuba at the time – Ocearch is a non-profit organization dedicated to shark research – shark attacks on humans are extremely rare – odds are around one out of 12 million. Most victims of shark attacks survive; bites on humans by sharks are normally exploratory.

Worldwide, 200,000 sharks are killed every day; in contrast, about 10 to 12 human lives are lost each year as a result of shark attacks, researchers told Patch.

Sharks, experts agree, are far less dangerous to humans than humanity is to sharks.

“You’re more likely to die from a faulty toaster or driving a car than a shark attack, but that’s a perception,” Ubatuba said.

There are few shark attacks in the world, Ubatuba said.

Joe Yaiullo, curator and co-founder of the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center, told Patch in previous interviews that there are precautions swimmers can take, such as not entering the water at dawn or at dusk when baitfish, such as bunker, are fed. “It is always wise to avoid this situation,” he said.

But, for the most part, humans aren’t the first choice for sharks, he said. “We’re not on the menu. If we were, the sharks would just be lining up outside Jones Beach, Robert Moses and the Hamptons, just waiting for us to come in. But they’re not,” Yaiuloo said. “We are big, obnoxious, bony creatures in the water.”

Sharks, Yaiullo said, don’t have fingers to smell; instead, they “put things in their mouths”, and often a shark attack is “just them being curious, asking, ‘Is this something I want to eat?’ Most shark attacks aren’t a person getting eaten, it’s usually a bite, and the shark swims away, leaving the person mostly unharmed.”

Caution is key, Yaiullo said. “It’s something to be aware of. Just like going for a walk on the plains of Africa, you are wary of a lion,” he said.

Shark sightings are actually a good thing, he said. “With them being the top of the food chain, if they’re here it’s a good thing for humans,” Yaiullo explained. “People shouldn’t think that more sharks in the water means they’re going to be attacked. That’s not the case at all.”

Sharks are a sign of a healthy ecosystem with abundant fish, clean water and less pollution, an indicator that the United States is doing a good job managing its fisheries, he said.

In the East End, Mike Bottini said one of the reasons for the increase in shark numbers could be the explosion in the gray seal population after the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed and the removal of the seal bounty in the 1970s, he said. Gray seals are a major food source for great white sharks, he said.

But despite the fact that the likelihood of a shark attack is relatively nil, Bottini said when he was working at Jones Beach and “Jaws” had just come out, “Everyone else sitting on the beach that summer had this book. It scared a lot of people, including veteran lifeguards. They’re out of sight, so you think, ‘Maybe they’re in there. How do I know?” It’s a little scary.”

How to stay safe

“People have this fear of sharks,” Fischer said in a previous interview. “They look up and see a little 4 or 5 foot shark, eating something the size of a menhaden or a little squid or a mackerel – that’s not something you need to worry too much about.”

It’s not until the sharks are much older, around 10 to 12 feet long, that they start targeting larger prey such as seals, he said.

Common sense in the water is key, Fischer said: “Don’t go swimming looking like a seal,” he said. “But people do that every day. They put on wetsuits, dressed like shark food, when they go swimming with real shark food. That’s the kind of stuff you want to avoid.”

Even “dressed as shark food,” most of the time sharks can tell the difference between a human and a seal, Fischer said.

Another tip, he said, is don’t go swimming if there’s a lot of activity, like birds coming down to feed on bait, with seals in the area. “Don’t swim in the middle of this. The food chain is on, and if there’s a great white shark in the area, it will be there, balancing the system,” Fischer said. “Think of it as if you were going for a hike in the forest and you knew the mountain lions were stalking deer. You would probably be walking in the opposite direction; you wouldn’t be walking through the middle of it. Humans seem to not apply the same kind of logic in the ocean that we do in the forest. Once you’re in the waves, deep in the ocean, you’re deep in nature and anything can happen. It’s not swimming pool.

Fischer added, “Be practical, watch what’s going on. Make safe, good decisions, use common sense, and enjoy the ocean.”


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