Shark attacks are rarer than commercial airplane crashes, but draw the same outsized media attention.
Until eclipsed by Tropical Storm Isaias and its aftermath, sharks were a main part of the news diet here on Long Island. And, thanks to an unusual death, nationally.
On July 28, New York City resident Julie Dimperio Holowach, 63, was killed in Maine by a great white shark, the first confirmed shark death in the state. She was wearing a wet suit and was swimming with her daughter about 20 yards off the shore of Bailey Island when she was attacked, Maine Marine Patrol officials said. It is thought that the shark confused her for a seal. Two kayakers helped her get to shore and an ambulance provided further assistance, but she was pronounced dead at the scene. Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the shark was identified as a great white by a tooth fragment.
Three days before her death, Manhasset resident TJ Minutillo, fishing from the shore of Nickerson Beach in the Lido Beach community, snared an extremely rare bull shark, identified as the second deadliest to humans after the great whites. After photographing the 8-foot shark, estimated to weigh between 300 and 400 pounds, Minutillo and his fishing companions released it back to the water.
A shark expert in Florida reportedly confirmed the identity after viewing the photograph.
The day before Holowach’s death, the Town of Hempstead announced that a “significant size shark” was spotted off Lido West Beach by a town lifeguard on a surfboard. Following state shark protocols, the strip of water was “red-flagged” and closed. A number of town beaches in the area were temporarily closed to swimmers.
In the week that followed, the town reported several more sightings and more beach closings, along with limiting swimmers to knee-high or waist-high water.
Experts have weighed in, speculating that the increased sightings are due to warmer waters and the abundance of fish that sharks feed on.
It’s Their Home
Politicians responded to the flurry of sightings and beach closings that included Atlantic Beach, Long Beach, Lido Beach, Point Lookout, TOBAY Beach (Town of Oyster Bay), Nickerson Beach (Nassau County) and Jones Beach State Park.
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Donald Clavin announced a “Shark Patrol,” consisting of lifeguards and bay constables on boats and jet skis.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran held a press conference at Nickerson Beach that drew unprecedented coverage. The set up was on the 25-foot-wide boardwalk leading to the beach, and was jammed with videographers, photographers and reporters.
Curran said that she had directed the Nassau County Police Department to enhance helicopter patrols all along the south coast to scan for sharks. She noted that the choppers are already patrolling the area.
“If anything is spotted coming close to shore and is displaying erratic and aggressive behavior, our pilots will immediately get that info to all beaches and lifeguards, no matter the jurisdiction,” Curran said.
The police department’s Marine Bureau will also be intensifying water patrols, with Curran noting that members are “very experienced in making quick rescues and are trained for every type of situation. The boats—unlike those used by bay constables—are designed to withstand the waves and chops of the ocean. They will supplement the outstanding lifeguards who are trained to spot sharks.”
Curran reminded her audience that the ocean “is the shark’s home, and most sharks are not looking for trouble. Shark attacks are extremely rare.”
Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder stated, “We’ve had 12 attacks [in New York State] since 1837—that’s not a lot. But one death will cause panic.”
Ryder’s figure comes from the International Shark Attack File kept by the Florida Museum in Gainesville.
He reminded listeners that despite the intensified patrols, the sharks could be missed and were still out there.
“The lifeguards are experts at what they do,” he said. “They’re professionals. If they tell you to get out of the water, get out, don’t hesitate. Use common sense and stay close to the shore.”
More advice came from Paul Sieswerda, former New York Aquarium curator and director of the group Gotham Whale, dedicated to marine mammal research in the waters around New York City. Its American Princess boat offers whale watching tours five days a week, he said.
Sieswerda noted that his group’s website has a link where boaters and fishermen can report marine mammal and shark sightings.
“This summer, we’ve been getting reports of sharks that tend to be at the surface. There are other sharks that tend to stay underwater and pose no threats to humans,” he said. “I would say we’re getting more than double the number of shark sightings. And again, not bulls or great whites. Fortunately, the sharks we see are fish-eating sharks, and this unfortunate event in Maine has certainly brought the issue up strongly about the threat of shark attacks.”
Sieswerda put the risks in perspective, noting that there was a much greater chance to getting killed in a car accident driving to the press conference than getting attacked by a shark, pointing to the ocean behind him.
Curran asked about early reports that the Maine victim was attacked by a bull shark. Sieswerda said that “it’s a very difficult process to identify the species—all sharks look alike.”
He made note of a picture he had seen of a stingray with bite marks, washed ashore on a Town of Hempstead beach. He speculated that the evidence showed it could have been made by a bull shark. But the same marks could have been inflicted by a tiger shark.
“So we really don’t know,” he concluded.
Both Curran and Sieswerda gave tips and advice to swimmers:
• If you spot a shark, said Sieswerda, “move slowly to the shore. They’re attracted by splashes
and anything that looks like an animal in distress.”
• Don’t go beyond waist-deep water and stay close to the shore.
• Swim in groups, which can confuse sharks. Solitary swimmers can be seen as a natural prey.
• Avoid swimming at dusk and dawn, prime feeding time for sharks.
• Don’t wear shiny jewelry—it can be confused for fish scales when glinting in sunshine.
• Don’t swim when bleeding; sharks are drawn to even the tiniest amount of blood.
—Additional reporting by Dave Gil DeRubio