WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOAT
Members of the local diving and fishing community have reportedly spotted great whites a quarter mile from shore—twice farther than long-distance swimmers go, but closer to surfers.
“Word of mouth is the best system at the moment,” says Kirby Kurkomelis, a local scuba diving instructor who has seen his share of sharks. He supports the shark alert system idea since cell phone cameras and the Internet have allowed fishermen to share photos of shark sightings more quickly.
But not every seadog has the same fish stories.
“They’re just not in that range right now and I don’t expect that to change anytime,” says 58-year-old Jay Fruin of Montauk, with nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group. He’s spent years sitting on a surfboard waiting for waves and has yet to encounter a shark—except when he’s shark fishing farther offshore.
Odds of being bitten are better in Florida—by far the nation’s shark attack capital—Hawaii or California, home to the last unprovoked fatal shark attack in October 2010, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
This summer, the story is in North Carolina, where two girls, ages 10 and 6, were bitten on their legs by sharks last month in 3.5 feet and 1 foot of water, both while boogie boarding.
The worst case in Tri-state history involved five shark attacks that claimed four lives over 12 days along the Jersey Shore during a 1916 heat wave. These days, there is change in the waters.
Kim Durham, rescue program director for the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, says this year is the first time gray seals and harbor seals have been arriving earlier, lingering into the summer and not just passing through in the winter.
Seals, among big sharks’ favorite foods, seem to like Gull Island off the North Fork. The first gray seal pup in New York was found in Montauk in February, she says.
Durham is also pro shark alert.
“I’m a fan of anything that opens the eyes to Long Islanders…that there is a whole different environment in that water,” she says.
Although sharks are mostly found in the tropics, parts of Cape Cod have reportedly become great white feeding grounds in recent years since the local seal population exploded. Authorities banned some swimming in Chatham on Aug. 8 after sharks were spotted nearby.
Long Islanders should be more worried about those texting while driving on their way to the beach, quips Carl Safina, head of the Blue Ocean Institute, a Cold Spring Harbor-based international research and conservation group.
“The danger on Long Island is incredibly low, and to try and express the fact that there are sharks offshore with a colored alert system gives a distorted view there is a danger when for all practical purposes there is not,” he says.
Still, questioning the need for an alert system seems worthy of debate. Worst case, Cupsogue Beach County Park would have had more sightseers when a shiver of 20-foot basking sharks was spotted off Westhampton in May and June.
Although the toothless species were only gulping plankton, signs posted at the time with big bold red type read: “Absolutely no swimming due to recent shark sightings.”
Just in case, Kramer is simply asking for that same level of urgency to be more quickly and widely shared.
“I hope and pray I’m wrong,” says Kramer, “but if someone gets bit by a shark, we’ll be saying, ‘Hey, let’s get a shark alert system.’”