Five shark attacks have been reported in the past two weeks off Long Island, N.Y., including two within hours Wednesday, a dramatic increase in shark encounters that officials there said may represent a “new normal.”
None of the victims were seriously injured, and the sharks sighted were estimated to be four to five feet in length, officials said.
Shark sightings have been increasing off U.S. coasts, which scientists attribute to successful conservation efforts that have restored populations closer to historical levels. Still, the recent spate of attacks was highly unusual — there were only 47 confirmed unprovoked attacks nationwide in 2021, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File.
“This is not something that is precedented in any way in our history here in Suffolk County,” Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone said at a news conference Thursday. “Prior to July 3, we had not had a recorded shark bite at [Smith Point Beach] since it had opened, during beach hours, back in 1959.”
Bellone said the county is deploying drones and increased lifeguard patrols to monitor the waters, acknowledging that the uptick may represent the “new normal.”
“The idea of more frequent contact with these kind of sharks may be what we will be coming to expect,” Bellone said at a separate news conference Wednesday, ahead of the fifth attack.
The first of the recent attacks took place June 30, when a 57-year-old man swimming at Jones Beach suffered a laceration on his right foot that paramedics identified as a “possible shark bite,” according to the Nassau County Police Department.
Three days later, Zach Gallo, 33, a lifeguard at Smith Point Beach, was playing the role of a victim in a rescue training exercise when he became one himself, WABC reported. He felt a roughly four-foot shark whip him with its tail and then bite his hand, according to the station.
“I felt pressure in my hand, pulled it back and I just started hammering, punching and I connected with the shark three times, and then on the third time it spun away,” Gallo told WABC. “I guess my adrenaline, survival instincts kicked in.”
Gallo returned to work Thursday, saying at the news conference with Bellone that he was grateful his injuries were minor and that his fellow lifeguards came to his aid.
“If you do go in the ocean, make sure you are going into an area that’s protected by lifeguards,” Gallo said.
On July 7, first-year lifeguard John Mullins, 17, was bitten on his foot while also playing the role of a victim during a training exercise near Ocean Beach, according to CBS New York.
“The teeth were inside my skin and when I pulled my foot out, it kind of just felt like a scrape, like a rake going up my foot,” Mullins told the station. “We never expect to be attacked while we’re training, but they handled it well.”
Mullins received five stitches and was out of work while his foot healed, CBS New York reported.
On Wednesday morning, a surfer was bitten by a roughly four-foot tiger shark, leaving a four-inch gash, according to Bellone. The man was knocked off his board and saw the shark circling back toward him, but a wave carried him into shore, Bellone said.
Roughly 11 hours later, police were called to Seaview Beach after a 49-year-old Arizona man standing in “waist deep water” was bitten from behind on his left wrist and buttocks, according to Suffolk County police. He walked out of the water and was taken by helicopter to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, police said.
Christopher Paparo, manager of the Marine Science Center at Stony Brook University, said the series of attacks is “definitely something that you don’t hear every day,” but stressed that the chances of encountering a shark remain “very low.”
He said the sharks off Long Island are mostly sand tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, and dusky sharks, all fish eaters that probably attack humans mistakenly while hunting bait fish.
“They don’t have the teeth or jaw structure where they could eat a person even if they wanted to,” he said. “They’re not out there looking for a swimmer or surfer.”
Paparo said the increase in encounters is a “sign that we’re doing things right” in terms of conservation.
“What happened in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, they were heavily fished, and many of their populations neared complete collapse,” he said. “Then through regulation and conservation of not only sharks, but their food — the Atlantic menhaden, which is better-known as bunker — these populations have rebounded, and we’re starting to now see them once again in the numbers that they used to be.”
Paparo said beachgoers should swim in lifeguard-protected areas and avoid the water when it is murky or they see schooling fish. Sharks also typically feed more at dawn and dusk, he added.
Bellone said officials do not expect any serious injuries from shark attacks given the species that have been sighted, but urged beachgoers to be conscious of their surroundings. Do not wear shiny jewelry or enter the water while bleeding, and stay closer to shore, he said.
At a news conference Sunday, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman jumped into the water himself, seeking to reassure beachgoers that they can avoid sharks with simple precautions.
“If you’re going to go in the ocean, it’s good to go with a partner. Always go on a protected beach where there are lifeguards,” Blakeman said. “If you do those things, you will be safe.”