Great White Shark on Hunt at Montauk Surf Spot

Seal was prey as a woman watched from cliff above
Winter surfing has grown in popularity on eastern Long Island at the same time as seals' numbers have skyrocketed. Seals are a favored prey of great white sharks. Jane Bimson

On Monday morning, Zara Beard was walking her dog along the cliffs in Montauk when she stopped at an overlook to gaze out into the cold waters of the Atlantic in Turtle Cove, one of the South Fork’s prime surfing spots. A gray seal was swimming amid the occasional whitecaps, and it went under the water for about a minute before surfacing again about 25 feet from the shore. 

“All of a sudden, something came from underneath,” she said. That something was enormous — as big as a bus, she said, from her vantage point high on the cliffs. She only saw its dark back and its tail flipping.

“His entire body was bumped out of the water,” she said of the seal. Then it made what she called a horrible sound. Dark red blood pooled in that area of the water. 

“If I blinked for too long I would have missed it,” she said. “I just happened to be there . . . it was a very cool moment.” 

Ms. Beard, who lives nearby, said she had never seen a great white shark before, but when she looked it up online, she knew instantly that that was the creature she had seen attack the seal. Shark experts confirmed her suspicions. 

Greg Metzger, a marine biologist and educator who founded the South Fork Natural History Museum’s Shark Research and Education Program, which was launched in May, said that based on his discussion with Ms. Beard, he believes she saw an adult great white shark. However, without photographic evidence it is impossible to know with absolute certainty, he said. 

Still, what Ms. Beard described is “a very, very classic white shark-seal interaction,” he said. Great whites are migrating at this time of year. With the water temperatures in the high 40s, it is still warm enough for some sharks to be in the area. “This one was probably migrating back down south, feeling a little hungry, and took the opportunity,” he said.

If it was, in fact, a great white shark, it would be the first confirmed event of a seal being taken here. There has not even been evidence of seals being bitten. It is a more common occurrence farther north on Cape Cod and in California. While it is not common to see sharks come so close to shore, research Mr. Metzger has been a part of shows that the South Fork is a nursery of sorts for baby great whites.

Two children were bitten in separate shark attacks off Fire Island this summer, but there was no evidence it was anything other than sand or tiger sharks that were pursuing prey fish, Newsday reported at the time. While officials examined a tooth fragment that had been removed from one of the children’s legs, they could not determine the species of shark it came from. 

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Marine Resources Division confirmed it has learned of a reported predation event  involving a large gray seal approximately 25 feet off of Turtle Cove,” a spokeswoman said this week. The staff notified the State Parks Department about the incident and will assist parks staffers in any actions they take, she said. 

 Are people at risk? The simple answer, Mr. Metzger said, is yes. “There is always a risk,” he said. “We have a lot of sharks in our waters.” He would advise that winter surfers “surf with caution given this event. Be aware of your environment. You wouldn’t surf in an area where you see a lot of seals. We know a shark could be there,” Mr. Metzger said. He cautioned against the hysteria that so often is associated with sharks. 

The great white, with its torpedo shape and powerful tail, is the world’s most notorious shark and the largest predatory fish. Its casting in “Jaws” certainly has not helped its reputation. 

“Sharks are amazing animals who play an incredibly important role in our ecosystem, and it’s crucial to remember that the ocean is their home and we’re just visitors. They are not out there hunting for people and there is no reason to be afraid,” Ms. Beard said after speaking to the experts. “It is not about living in fear of nature but rather a reminder to be conscious about the importance of having respect for the ocean, its strength, and all the lives within.” 

Mr. Metzger, who is a marine sciences teacher at Southampton High School, discussed Ms. Beard’s sighting with his students. “This is a really great teaching moment,” he said. “This is an iconic animal doing its thing. National Geographic would spend millions of dollars trying to get this on film.” 

Seeing a great white shark so close to shore is a sign of a healthy environment, too, Mr. Metzger said. It shows a complete food chain. If the seals did not have access to enough food, they would not be here, and if the seals were not here, the sharks — the apex predator — would not be here. 

White sharks are critical in maintaining a healthy and balanced marine ecosystem. They remove sick and weak individuals from prey populations, and regulate species abundance, distribution, and diversity throughout the marine environment, research shows. 

  According to a National Parks Service document for Cape Cod that addresses frequently asked questions about sharks and public safety, white sharks were in decline in the Atlantic until being designated a protected species in federal waters in 1997 and in state waters in 2005. “The protected status of the shark, in combination with a growing seal population, which is rebounding after being hunted to near extinction, is contributing to an increase in sharks near shore,” the document reads.

Mr. Metzger’s group, with help from Ocearch, an organization that researches and tracks marine species, has tagged 23 great white sharks with permanent satellite trackers since 2015. However, he said, none of them could have been the shark Ms. Beard saw because the oldest tagged shark is about three years old and would weigh about 200 pounds. “They couldn’t take out a gray seal,” he said. 

It is possible, though, that the shark could be one that was tagged by Dr. Gregory Skomal of the White Shark Conservancy and Massachusetts Marine Fisheries, and Mr. Metzger will be looking at data as it becomes available (the tracker only sends data to the satellite when the shark’s dorsal fin surfaces).

Ed Michels, the East Hampton Town harbormaster, said he also spoke to Ms. Beard after she filed a report. “I’m not shocked a shark bit a seal. I’d be shocked if a dog bit the seal,” he said. “We know the sharks live there.” He said he had no plans to close the beach to surfing. However, on Dec. 15 of each year he locks the gate to Turtle Cove, which, by court order, must remain open from September through Dec. 15. 

“I guess if we get another one, we’ll have to take a look at it,” he said.