Shark (and Whale) Week for Real on Ocean Beaches

Protected species drawn in by baitfish aplenty
Off Wiborg’s Beach in East Hampton on Friday, beachgoers saw a whale breach the ocean waters, one of many such sightings over the past week. George Anderson

Ocean beaches on the eastern end of Southampton Town were briefly closed Monday afternoon after lifeguards in Sagaponack spotted what appeared to be a shark close to the beach. The decision came after days of apparent shark sightings in East Hampton Village and elsewhere.

Beachgoers have also been marveling at humpback whales feeding off the South Fork shoreline for several weeks.

Ed McDonald, the beach manager for East Hampton Village, said swimmers and surfers should not be alarmed. There has never been a shark attack off East Hampton beaches.

Sharks, like the whales and dolphins, are coming closer to the shore because of an increase in menhaden, a kind of densely schooling, oily fish known locally as bunker.

“There has been so much incredible life in the water,” thanks to the schools of bunker, Mr. McDonald said yesterday. “It’s like an aquarium out there. It’s like taking a trip to the New England Aquarium.”

Whales, apparently humpbacks, have been spotted frequently in the last month off the south-facing beaches, including at Two Mile Hollow, Main, and Georgica in East Hampton, Atlantic Avenue in Amagansett, and at Scott Cameron in Water Mill.

Beaches to the west of East Hampton — Sagg Main, Mecox, and Scott Cameron — were closed by Southampton Town officials on Monday after lifeguards tracked a shark moving west from Peter’s Pond.

“We can’t confirm it was a shark, but given his experience and the size of the fish that was spotted, our chief lifeguard, Sean Crowley, felt it best to take precaution,” said Kristen Doulos, the Southampton Town parks director. Bathing beaches were open again on Tuesday morning.

Mr. McDonald was aware of the closings in the neighboring town, as well as reports that people bait-fishing off Georgica Beach had caught a sandbar shark. He said sandbar sharks, also known as brown sharks, can be recognized by their large dorsal fins; they are not aggressive.

Sandbar sharks feed on menhaden, snapper, and crustaceans. Landing sandbar sharks is prohibited in New York waters. According to the State Department of Environmental Conservation, anyone who inadvertently hooks one should cut the line or leader as close to the shark’s mouth as possible while it is still in the water.

Harvey Bennett of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett said that mako, dusky, brown, sand tiger, and thresher sharks had been caught in the surf here since about July 4, “this weekend, over 15 that I heard of.” In photographs from his tackle shop customers that Mr. Bennett shared with a reporter, the sharks appeared to be about four or five feet long and under.

There were no shark sightings at the guarded beaches in the Town of East Hampton, John Ryan Jr., the chief town lifeguard, said. However, he said they are out there, feeding under the baitfish. If a shark were seen at the surface, the lifeguards would pull people out of the water, he said.

“We have to understand,” Mr. Ryan said, “we share the ocean with them. . . . I swim in the Atlantic and I’m never worried in any way. Sharks are, as far as I’m concerned, more afraid of us than we should be of them.”

The closer the bunker schools come to shore, the closer predators come. “You can see them from the beach. It looks like a huge dark spot in the water,” Mr. McDonald said of the smaller fish. “They’ve been about 400 yards off the shore, but occasionally they come up right against the beach. Ospreys, too, are a part of the feeding frenzy.”

While sharks can cause fear among beachgoers and swimmers, humpback whales are a welcomed attraction. “The whales are absolutely gorgeous,” Mr. Ryan said, adding that the sight of them breaching the surface has been quite impressive.

“The humpbacks have been blasting and putting on shows,” Mr. McDonald said. A friend on a whale-watching boat told him that the whales have been going under the bunker schools and coming up with their mouths open wide.

Great white sharks are also out there, of course. OCEARCH, an organization that researches and tracks marine species, tagged a great white it called Mary Lee in the waters near Cape Cod, Mass., five years ago, and she has frequently been tracked along the coast of Long Island, including off East Hampton.

Earlier this week, the musician Jimmy Buffet joined an OCEARCH expedition off Montauk and helped tag a young great white that the crew named JD, in honor of Mr. Buffett’s father, James Delaney Buffett.

The five-foot-long male’s most recent ping on a satellite tracking system was midday Tuesday within sight of the beach in Wainscott.

With Reporting by David E. Rattray

Charlie Egan, above, and Teddy Danforth went out in a two-person kayak, about a half-mile off Napeague Beach and caught a shark, which they then released back into the ocean. Michael Scharfenberger