The Bite of a Great White

The distinct bite marks on a half-eaten seal found near Ditch Plain last Thursday and a common dolphin found bitten in half there Saturday are indicative of a white shark, probably feeding relatively close to shore. Mike Martinson

       Early Thanksgiving morning, George Drago was walking the beach at Ditch Plain in Montauk. He was just west of the spot surfers refer to as “Poles,” a now-empty beach named after the supports for a bulkhead built to protect the bluff below the old Rheinstein estate. Poles, bluff, and estate are long-gone, eaten by the sea.

       And speaking of eaten, Drago, who was giving thanks for the clear crisp morning — watching the explosive shorebreak from the storm that passed through the previous day — came upon a seal, half a seal that is. What remained told the story: two half-moon-shaped bites, big, 24-inch-diameter bites that left nothing but scalloped edges and a few punctures made by teeth that were the cutting edge of powerful jaws.

       The seal carcass was quite fresh, suggesting the attack was recent and made relatively close to shore, a Thanksgiving treat for a big shark. It was not the only marine mammal found bitten in half in recent days. While we’re only guessing at the species, it’s a good guess given the time of year — white sharks are semi-warm-blooded, enabling them to enjoy colder water — and given that, in the cold eyes of a great white, a plump seal looks like a Thanksgiving turkey fresh from the oven, trussed up, crispy on top, with juices flowing. Worldwide, seals are among the apex predators’ favorite foods.

       Which brings us to Peter Beard, master of the unvarnished view. He’s been in our thoughts these days as he recovers from what was described as a mini-stroke. We wish him well.

       George Drago photographed the seal using his cellphone. The graphic image would be right at home in one of Peter’s collages — our dog-eat-dog existence in a nutshell.

       His often-bloody scribblings in notebooks and art testify to the downward spiral that befalls societies, elephant, human, and otherwise, when there are “too many seals on a rock,” as he puts it: changes in behavior, aggression, followed by depleted resources, starvation and ultimately mass die-offs. Nature works to even things out. The balancing act can seem cruel.

       Changes in weather patterns and conservation efforts have led to a greater number seals taking up residency here each year. White sharks are a protected species as well.

       Populations of harbor seals, but also grays and harps, are expanding their range. Up until now, Carcharadon carcharias, the great white, has fed on fish and weak, dead, or young whales offshore in our area, according to the shark specialists at the National Marine Fisheries Service labs in Narragansett, R.I. But things could be changing.

       Mike Martinson, co-owner of the Montauk Pearls oyster farm, reported finding a common dolphin bitten in half on Saturday on the same stretch of beach the seal was found on. “You could tell it was a white shark by the size of the bite, wide teeth with serrated cuts.” He posted his photos on Facebook, as did Serena Vegessi, who had also come upon the dolphin. 

       Nancy Kohler, a shark biologist, said several years ago that it was only a matter of time before white sharks started feeding on the growing seal resource. Last summer, several beaches at Cape Cod were closed because of one or more prowling whites.

       Of course, this is not great news for surfers who coexist with seals in Montauk’s waves, and when wetsuited, must look seal-like from a nondiscriminating shark’s perspective.

       Sand eels seems to be the reason striped bass, mostly small, continued to be caught during the week. Glenn Grothmann, a master surfcaster who works the counter at Paulie’s Tackle shop on occasion, reported small bass being taken at Georgica Beach in East Hampton with a few fish weighing in the teens.

       “Just let ’em lie on the bottom,” he suggested, meaning “tins,” silver lures. “You can feel them mouthing it. When you pick it up, they inhale it. The sand eels are this big,” Grothmann said, holding his hands just shy of a foot apart. If bigger bass are still moving south, they would probably pass Montauk offshore. “Ed Miller used to catch them while cod fishing in 120 feet of water this time of year.”

       The state season for catching striped bass will end on Dec. 15. The Montauk SurfMasters tournament ended Saturday morning. The largest bass caught during the tournament was a 38.08-pounder reeled to the beach on Oct. 5 by Mike Milano. Milano took top honors in the wader division. Richie Michelson and Sam Doughty finished second and third.

       John Bruno’s 37.22-pound striper was the winning fish in the tournament’s wetsuit division. Mary Ellen Kane took first and second places in the women’s division with 21.6 and 19.35-pound bass. Christine Schnell was a close third given the 19.12-pound bass she caught. Brenden Farrell was the top of the leader board in the tournament’s youth division. His 23.04-pound bass set the mark nearly reached by second place finisher Philip Schnell and his 19.52-pounder. James Kim finished third among the youths with yet another 19-plus-pound bass. At 19.12 pounds it was only a few sand eels shy of the other contenders’ catches.