The Sharks Among Us

The shark situation has introduced a seemingly new factor in life on the barefoot paradise of Fire Island. Why the increase in sharks – in the ocean from the Rockaways, along Jones Beach, in the waters off Fire Island, and out to the Hamptons?

One explanation involves climate change and warmer ocean temperatures luring sharks to these waters. As Chris Paparo of the South Fork Natural History Museum’s shark research team told the New York Post: “Climate change is definitely playing a role … especially in the sightings we’re seeing this year and last year. As sea temperatures are rising due to climate change, a lot of fish populations are shift- ing north.” Another explanation: there’s been an in- crease in in bunker fish on which sharks like to feed. A further explanation: ocean waters in the region are cleaner and this encourages sharks to come here.

But as Hans Walters, a shark expert at the New York Aquarium, told WCBS 880 news this summer: “People swim with sharks all the time, they just don’t know it.”

I saw this clearly a number of years ago from our sailboat heading from the North Fork of Long Island to the Elizabeth Islands off Massachusetts (our destination was Cuttyhunk Island).

We were sailing along the coast of Rhode Island and, passing a busy beach, I steered closer to shore to see what a Rhode Island beach might be like. Hold- ing the tiller with my left hand, I looked out at the folks frolicking in the water – and between me and them, 10 feet from our boat, the fin of a shark appeared. I doubt any of those swimmers knew a shark was off shore.

Of an increase in shark activity in waters here, Steve Bellone, the county executive of Suffolk County, said this summer at Smith Point County Beach, east of Fire Island, “There may be a new reality that we’re in.”

It’s a scary “new reality” for those who like to swim in the ocean.

But, emphasizes Peter Benchley, the author of the 1973 novel “Jaws,” which once it was turned into a 1975 film was key to getting people very scared of sharks, “The truth is that the hysteria is not justified by statistics or other facts.”

Starting his 2005 book, “Shark Life, True Stories About Sharks & The Sea,” and unlike the book or movie “Jaws,” Benchley tries to put an emphasis on “true” in this book – he declares: “Shark attacks are natural news leaders. They are the perfect showstopping spectacle: blood and guts (ANIMALS SAVAGING HUMAN!).” The capital letters and parenthesis are Benchley’s.

And, he goes on, “Mystery (INVISIBLE TERROR FROM THE DEEP), and they are highly videogenic. Even if the camera can’t get a shot of shark or victim, it can pan the empty beach and the for- bidding ocean, focus on the BEACH CLOSED OR DANGER SHARKS signs, and capture the comments of panicky witnesses.”

“Shark attacks continue to occur,” he continues. “But in the United States homicide or fatal accidents at work are 10 times more frequent. And motor-vehicle deaths are over a 1,000 times more common than shark attacks. As for shark-attack fatalities, well, they’re so rare that they’re not even on the scale.

“I’ve swum with sharks of all species, sizes, and temperaments all over the world, from Australia to Bermuda, South Africa to San Diego, almost always on purpose but sometimes by accident. I’ve been threatened but sometimes by accident. I’ve been threatened but never attacked, bumped and shoved but never bitten, and – many times – frightened out of my flippers.”

“Over the years,” Benchley goes on, “I’ve learned how to swim, snorkel, and dive safely in the ocean. I’ve learned how to co-exist, really – with sharks and the hundreds of other marine animals I’ve been lucky enough to encounter.

“Shark attacks on human beings generate a tremendous amount of media coverage. That’s partly because they occur so rarely. But it’s also because people are, and always have been, both intrigued and terrified by sharks. Sharks come from one part of the dark castle where our nightmares live – the deep water beyond our sight and understanding. So, they stimulate our fears and fantasies.”

“Of all the shark statistics,” he declares, “one that is almost totally ignored by the media and the public is the most horrible of all: for every human being killed by a shark, roughly ten million sharks are killed by humans. Sometimes they’re killed for their skins and their meat. But mostly they’re killed for their fins, which are made into soup that is sold for as much as a hundred dollars a bowl all over the world. Shark fin soup is regarded as a delicacy in China and other Asian nations.”

And Benchley emphasizes: “Sharks are critical to the ocean’ natural balance in ways we know and in ways we are still discovering. Wiping them out, through greed, recklessness, or simple ignorance, would be a tragedy – not just a moral tragedy, but an environmental one as well.”

The book “Jaws,” not too incidentally, was based on a fictional town on Long Island, while the subsequent movie was filmed on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (just across Buzzards Bay from Cuttyhunk, the Massachusetts island to which my wife and I were heading, and reached, in our sailboat).

Newsday ran a story last month headlined: “EDUCATION MAY BE BEST PROTECTION AGAINST SHARKS.” The subhead stated that “in the end humans must learn to live with them: experts.”

It’s not as simple as that.

A website named Xplore Our Planet, which describes itself “as a resource for wildlife enthusiasts and those who love to explore the world,” declares: “Swimming with sharks sounds dangerous, but it isn’t – relatively speaking anyway. All things in life carry risk, but swimming with sharks is very low on the list. Only five people [worldwide] are killed each year – that’s 100 times less than by elephants – and these attacks are often either accidental as a case of mistaken identity or provoked by humans.” Okay, but to be considered, too, are injuries, such as a shark attack in Florida in June requiring the amputation of part of a leg of 17-year-old woman who was out scalloping.

“It is safe to swim with sharks if you do it properly,” says the website. But “how do you swim with sharks safely?” First, it advises “Be Careful Around the Big Three.” It says: “Almost every serious or fatal incident is caused by a collection of just three animals: great white sharks, bull sharks, and tiger sharks.” Okay, but how can an average person identify those among the more than 500 shark species said to be in the seas of the world?

Then, it says, “A floundering fish or a panicking seal tells them it’s meal time, and they’ll charge in for an easy kill. If you get into difficulties and start flapping about, or jump in and out of the water with too much enthusiasm, you’ll mimic the sensations of injured prey and invite the opportunity for confusion and an accidental attack.” But not “flapping about” or being enthusiastic in the water, is that always possible?

Then there’s “Consider Water Conditions.” Xplore Our Planet says: “Despite popular misconceptions, sharks have excellent eyesight. But that eyesight doesn’t work in murky waters … Good visibility is essential for safe shark swimming, if only to let the sharks know you aren’t on the dinner menu.” Okay, but ocean waters off Fire Island, notably those close to shore, aren’t so clear usually, not like the Caribbean, for example.

Yes, there absolutely are sharks out there. But in many ways shark attacks are the danger best fixated on, because sharks likely won’t get us.

OK, people, stop fixating – if we can.