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The Journals are the premier publications for high-quality, hyperlocal news and advertising in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Sep 24, 2021

The Shore’s Sharks: You Are Safer Than You Realize

Submitted by Mike Hudson and Robert Heyer

Just mention shark at any beach and you instantly have everyone’s attention. People have a curious fascination and almost unreasonable fear of sharks. Most beachgoers know at least some version of the story of the 1916 shark attacks. Many will say it was here that Peter Benchley became inspired here to write his 1974 book “Jaws.” Many are not sure just where or what year the fatal attacks occurred; they even adamantly say that shark attacks in New Jersey happen “all the time.” The bottom line is that most beachgoers will admit to having at least a little fear of sharks on the Jersey Shore. But just how justifiable is this fear? 

Let’s start with some facts and then look at the ways local lifeguards in Sea Bright use shark science to predict behavior to protect the public when sharks are spotted along the beach.

The NJSAF allows fact-based conclusions on the danger of sharks by utilizing years of shark attack investigations. Here are just a few conclusions derived from historical accounts of attacks based on information from interviews with swimmers, surfers, clammers, fishermen, beachgoers and biologists who have directly been witness to predatory shark behavior.

1. First and foremost, the chances of shark attack are extremely rare. Millions of people enter the waters of New York and New Jersey every year without incident. The chances of having a negative encounter with a shark are so small they are nearly unmeasurable. 

2. Just over 100 recorded incidents have been investigated for the waters of New York and New Jersey. That’s 100 incidents since the late 1900s in all the hundreds of thousands of people who have entered the Atlantic every summer. The probability of encountering a shark is ultra-minuscule, and there’s even less probability of being attacked. 

3. The majority of New Jersey’s recorded shark incidents were the result of human actions which directly or indirectly triggered natural responses from various shark species. Case in point is New Jersey’s first recorded shark attack in 1842. A group of boys were clamming on the flats of the bay at Absecon when they spotted a large shark that had been trapped in the shallow water as the tide went out. One of the boys began to hit it with an oar and the shark lunged at the attackers to defend itself. The boy fell as he turned to run and was grabbed by the shark, resulting in a horribly mutilated leg. The other boys killed the shark. 

So what kind of sharks inhabit the waters of New York and New Jersey? Our waters are home to several species. The vast majority are the non “man-eater” classification – docile predators, innocuous and completely harmless to humans. These mostly harmless species found around New Jersey include the Smooth Dogfish and the shark’s closest cousins, the cow nose stingray and common Little Skate. 

Sharks that are considered potentially dangerous must be big enough and possess the right type of teeth to cause harm. Some of the dangerous sharks that patrol the mid-Atlantic region, from least probable of encounter to most probable are Tiger Sharks, Hammerhead Sharks, Great White Sharks, Bull Sharks, as well as the most prominent and likely suspect to attack when provoked, the Sand Tiger Shark. All have a reputation for being potentially dangerous to humans.

Sharks are an important part of our ecosystem. They are in far more in danger of extinction from our activities than we are of theirs. As apex predators, sharks keep their prey species fit and healthy. Shark sightings have increased, but reports of interaction are mostly nil. As our water quality continues to improve, we can expect to see more sharks, which is actually good news for our oceans. The presence of a diverse healthy population of prey and sharks is a great indicator that our marine ecosystem is thriving. 

Lifeguard shark sightings as well as civilian shark sightings are up this year throughout New York and New Jersey, but this should not keep you out of the water, as long as you use common sense and resist the urge to get a closer look at anomalies in the water, like an injured sea turtle or large bait ball. 

Every summer, Sea Bright’s ocean and river lifeguards witness beachgoers entering the water to get a closer look at the frequent phenomenon known as a “bait ball.” This is when thousands of fish traveling together often coming within a few feet of the shore line. These fish are pursued by any number of apex predators including sharks. Humans chasing bait balls can lead to a trip to the emergency room. All apex predators chasing prey or actively feeding will instinctually attack anything it believes to be food or competition for food. If people stay out of the water when large schools of fish are being predated upon, the probability of being bit drops to zero. When lifeguards spot a bait ball moving through a swimming area, they will clear the water until the fish have egressed away from the shore.

The prominent fact is that sharks are some of nature’s best risk managers. Based on studies, it is safe to say that sharks relate human interaction as being a major personal risk, not as a potential food source. Most human interactions or reports involving sharks are non-fatal or don’t involve sharks at all. The vast majority of Monmouth County’s shark sightings are, in fact, mistaken identity. They are often dolphins or large pelagic fish like Sun Fish or Sail Fish who are mating or sunning themselves on the surface of the water. The only firm evidence of non-fatal shark incidents in New Jersey involves (probable) Sand Tigers. There is also some strong evidence from the 1800s involving non-fatal Bull Shark attacks in the Navesink Estuary. There are so few recorded shark incidents for our region. 

How can you avoid interaction with an aquatic apex predator? 

1. For starters, swim only on lifeguarded beaches. In Sea Bright, the town’s lifeguard division has developed shark incident protocols, rescue techniques and risk mitigation procedures endorsed by the NJSAF and endorsed by biologists from the Miami Shark Lab, Bimini Shark Lab and professional white shark researchers from New York City and Cape Cod. 

2. Stay out of the water when large schools of fish are present, especially when they are leaping out of the water. Leaping indicates they are being chased by predators.

3. If you see a fin moving on the water, get out and report the sighting to the nearest lifeguard or public safety official. Wait at least 20 minutes to go back in. Lifeguards will clear the water until the threat has moved away and will warn neighboring lifeguard services along the potential direction of travel. 

4. Do not bring plastic water bottles in the water. The sound of a plastic bottle being squeezed is believed to mimic the sound of bones crunching during feeding, basically a dinner bell for sharks. Squeezing an empty water bottle is a proven technique used by shark week divers to attract sharks. 

5. Avoid swimming alone during the known times apex predators feed, early in the morning and in the evening before sunset.

6. If you encounter a sick or injured shark in shallow water or onshore, leave it alone and report its location.

7. If you have no immediate escape and you see a shark swimming toward you, do the same: swim towards it aggressively. Almost 100 percent of the time, even the biggest shark will turn tale if something more than 100 pounds swims toward it. Remember as excellent risk managers, sharks want mostly to avoid potential conflict with other apex predators, including humans. 

Beach towns are reluctant to even mention the word “shark” for fear of scaring tourists. Perhaps it would be wise to celebrate our sharks with well-planned events like shark festivals and Shark Week-related events that can educate water lovers on how to share the ocean’s resources with these magnificent animals safely.

If you were to ask us “Should I be worried about sharks?” our answer would be a unified no, however this does not nullify the risks for future negative encounters. With so many people enjoying the water coupled with increasing shark numbers, future incidents could happen at any time. Swim only at protected beaches and be aware of nature. Realize that you are a guest in the shark’s home, so respect the animal and use common sense. If you happen to see a shark in its natural environment, admire them from the shore and consider yourself as extremely lucky as you have just seen one of nature’s oldest and most effective apex predators that has no need or natural instinct to interact with humans.  

Mike Hudson is the chief lifeguard for Sea Bright Ocean Rescue. In the winter he works as the lead paramedic and rescue diver for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. He has more than 18 years of experience working with the large sharks in open water, and he is still alive and so far unscathed. 

Robert Heyer has logged more than 25 years as the primary coordinator and investigator for the New Jersey Shark Attack File, which documents every known shark attack in the Garden State. He has published two books, “The New Jersey Shark Attack File” and “New York Shark Attack File.”