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The Mast-Head: Forget Shark Week

Wed, 08/07/2019 - 12:25

Over dinner on Sunday, the subject turned to sharks. Since it was the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week blitz, this was not surprising. Seated to my right were Craig O’Connell and his wife, Nicole, who run O’Seas, a marine conservation foundation based in Montauk.

To Shark Week viewers, the O’Connells’ work probably is familiar, with documentaries such as “Sharks Among Us” and “Alien Sharks: Stranger Fins” over the past few years. On Twitter and Instagram, you can find Craig as the SharkDoctor. He also runs a summer program for high school students interested in sharks, taking a few at a time off Montauk to observe and take part in tagging and research.

Inevitably at dinner, the safety of the ocean here came up. In terms of sharks, he said, when you are in the water, you are never far from them. Mostly, they leave people alone, uninterested in a foot when there might be a fat bluefish or school of menhaden around. There were caveats, though: great white sharks.

Craig and others have found significant numbers of great whites off Montauk, including in what appears to be a place where pup sharks are born and learn to hunt amid plentiful food. He said that during May and June and October and November, he would think twice about surfing or diving in for a dip because big ones are on their way to and from Cape Cod and its huge year-round seal population.

Few people swim anymore at Chatham, Mass., on Cape Cod during those months, where big great whites cruise the shoreline picking off seals all summer long. Were seals to start hanging around the South Fork all summer, Craig said it would be time to pay attention. Even now, there are many seals around, with bay waters in the 70s.

That white sharks are here already is without question. A few years back a bayman freed a six-foot-plus juvenile from a fish trap at Abram’s Landing in Amagansett. The headline in The Star at the time read something like “Doug Rigby Catches a Man-Eater.”

Surfers notice their curious faces popping up off Montauk all the time. Last summer, a friend and I saw a few swimming around the Ruins north of Gardiner’s Island. A sailor I spoke with this week said he nearly always sees them in Cherry Harbor.

Seal numbers have a way to go before they get anywhere near those on the Cape, however. Conservative estimates put their population there at around 30,000. Craig said whether big sharks start summering off Long Island depends on what the seals do. If they expand north and the population fills in, so too will their predators — and that means great whites.

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