A shark swimming underwater.
A shark off Montauk, New York. Eliot Ferguson/500px via Getty Images
Science

The Summer Everyone Saw the Sharks

After a season of bites, panicked beaches, and annoyed researchers, it’s clear sharks are back in New York. We’re not ready for what that means.

About 10 years ago, I saw a shark leap out of the water from somewhere near Beach 108th Street in Rockaway Beach, Queens. I had come out with friends to swim on a hot weekend day and just happened to be gazing out at the right moment. The shark breached, was airborne for a single second, and then landed with an inaudible splash about a mile from shore.

When I told my compatriots, none of them believed me. “Perhaps,” one suggested, “you saw a dolphin?”

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Why was it so hard to believe that there might be a shark in the Atlantic Ocean? Don’t they live there? Sure, my friends said—everybody knows that there are sharks in the ocean. But I definitely hadn’t seen one jump out of the water in New York City.

That conversation would go differently now. This summer, the reality that New Yorkers share the ocean with an increasing number of sharks has broken through some kind of cognitive barrier. Several surfers and swimmers have been bitten nearby, ushering in a wave of local and semi-national shark stories. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that state agencies would be stepping up shark patrols by helicopter, boat, and drone, particularly along the south shore of Long Island, where all of the incidents occurred. Beaches in Rockaway, where I now live and work, were closed for swimming twice in July because of shark sightings from shore. (Surfers, who use un-lifeguarded beaches at their own risk, happily stayed in the water.)

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According to fishermen, marine biologists, ocean lifeguards, and just about anyone else in a position to know anything about the matter, there are more sharks around than at any time in at least the past half-century. This is a big win, from a conservation perspective. Measures as broad as the Clean Water Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, both from 1972, and as specific as a 2019 state law banning commercial purse-seine boats from fishing for bunker in New York state waters, deserve enormous credit for restoring whale, dolphin, and shark populations along the coast of New York and nearby states. After the enormous pressures on them over the course of several centuries, sharks—even endangered ones—are finally recovering.

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On the other hand: There are more sharks around than at any time in at least the past half-century!

When I was a kid, I used to press my face up to the glass at the New York Aquarium to try to get good looks when sharks swam by. In my role running youth education programs in Rockaway, I have been working with high school–aged students to support the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s bid to designate the Hudson Canyon—a vast underwater geological feature about 100 miles southeast of the city—a marine sanctuary, protecting it permanently from oil, gas, and mineral exploitation. The students spent afternoons collecting signatures on the boardwalk, explaining how important the upwelling of nutrients created by the canyon is for sharks, among other animals.

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In other words: I still love sharks. But in the decade or so since that first sighting in Rockaway, I’ve kept my eyes on the ocean, both with wonder and a little trepidation. I’ve spent the better part of several fishing trips gazing out at the surface in search of a fin. My binoculars—which, as a birder, I bring nearly everywhere, just in case—have been more or less useless in that pursuit. In the time it takes to bring the glasses to my eyes, a shark that came up will usually be gone. Even so, I’ve had a few real, startling sightings: an airborne shark here and there from beaches, a few fins flashing through schools of baitfish on the surface. Once, during a fishless fishing trip one Labor Day, I watched an enormous hammerhead swim along the edge of Jones Beach mere feet from the boat I was in. It was invisible to the crowd of beachgoers splashing around a few hundred yards away.

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Most sharks will remain this way: right there with us in the water, but just out of view. Yet as sightings increase, and sharks also begin to repopulate our minds in New York City and along the East Coast, what this rebirth means for both the sharks and the humans here is coming into view. And it’s clear that the humans, at least, are far from ready for what’s coming.

The vast majority of the sharks I’ve seen have been from a two-seater plastic kayak in Fire Island, with a fishing rod in my hand. The kayak belongs to Ben, a childhood friend and, more recently, my roommate in Rockaway. He spends his summers working as a lifeguard on Fire Island, a job that allows him to scan the ocean for sharks for hours. He sees a lot of them.

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As far as I am concerned, Ben invented the style of shark fishing that he practices in his kayak. He incrementally adjusted his strategies and swapped out equipment over the years until his system was streamlined enough that just about anyone (even me) could get in the kayak with him and catch a shark. On board there is a 7-foot spinning rod rigged with light monofilament line and a weighted treble hook, along with the “shark rod”—a much shorter custom rod fitted with a Penn Senator, 50-pound braided line, a steel wire leader, and a large, shark-sized circle hook. (Ben files the barb to make the releases easier and less damaging to the animal.) An inflated rubber buoy about the size of a cantaloupe serves as a bobber.

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Out on the water, half a mile or more from the beach, Ben uses the longer rod first to snag a bunker out of an enormous, dense school. He reels in the baitfish, unhooks it, rehooks it with the shark hook, and tosses the bobber, leader, and bait back out, before handing the shark rod to me.

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“Sharks,” he told me the first time we went out, “are incredibly lazy.” He wanted to prepare me, I think, for the fact that this wasn’t going to be an experience that resembled, say, a fight with a large striped bass or a bluefish. The shark swims, taking as much line as it wants. When it slows down, we paddle for slack and reel. It runs again (sometimes, if the drag on the reel is set tightly enough, the shark will pull the kayak like a sled across the surface for a moment), and when it stops pulling, we paddle and reel. Unlike a bluefish or a striper, a shark seems less panicked than annoyed about the predicament of being hooked. Eventually, when it gets tired of tugging, it swims more or less voluntarily up alongside the boat, where we admire it briefly and then release it. The truly magical part of the experience would come when the animal, which had so far remained invisible, appeared below the water on its way up—a shimmering, indistinct shape that slowly comes into focus and then surfaces alongside the boat. It is at that moment that we began to be able to make estimates about the size, and try to determine the species.

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If the type of recreational shark fishing I’ve described sounds unethical or rubs you the wrong way, I’m sorry. You’re probably right. Fishing, which I love, is not a very nice sport. In the kayak, unenclosed and barefoot, more or less at the level of the sharks, it at least felt like we had a little skin in the game. (The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has rules about shark fishing, and we followed them, even beyond what the law required.) It’s now been years since we loaded up the kayak with shark gear. We sometimes joke that we’re “retired” from that pastime. The last few summers, he tells me, he mostly takes a paddle board out, dragging the ankle tether behind him, which the sharks sometimes come up to investigate.

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What I mean to convey is that I’ve known, and seen, what’s just off the coast for years. Until recently, though, I had compartmentalized the sharks there. There was the beach, where people swam, and surfed, and built sandcastles, and then the vast expanses offshore, which you had to get in a boat to see.

A foot on a hospital bed with visible bite marks.
Peter Wyman’s injuries. Peter Wyman
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My first indication that the summer of 2022 might be a little sharkier than most came from Ben. In late June, Long Island lifeguards were talking about a surfer who had been bitten in Fair Harbor, a Fire Island town about five miles west of the beach Ben works on, and about 30 miles east of the beach on our block in Queens. Underwater, there are no barriers separating any of these places. A grown shark could cover the entire distance—passing our Rockaway beach, the Fair Harbor surfing break, and the swimming area in front of Ben’s lifeguard chair—in an afternoon.

The initial local news coverage was understated, almost to the point of being misleading. Something, an expert agreed, had bitten the surfer, but it was strongly suggested that a bluefish might have been responsible. When I got in touch with Peter Wyman, the surfer, he sent me an image of his foot from the hospital. The wound followed the unmistakable outline of a jaw—a semi-circular trail of gashes, beginning at his small toe and curving steadily around his ankle toward the top of his foot. I don’t know if the expert quoted in the story ever saw the photo I saw, but I can say with near-certainty that Wyman was bitten by a shark.

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The first hour or so of Jaws follows Police Chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, as he tries to make the case that beaches in the fictional town of Amity Island should be closed to protect the public after a string of shark attacks. The skeptical antagonists throughout this first act are the local business owners and officials, some of them played by real year-round residents of Martha’s Vineyard, where the movie was filmed. Amity Island’s Mayor Larry Vaughn, the chief shark skeptic, is played to sleazy perfection by Murray Hamilton. “You yell barracuda,” he tells Brody, after pulling him aside just as the summer kicks off, “everyone says ‘Huh? What?’ You yell ‘Shark,’ and we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”

In the case of Peter Wyman’s shark encounter, the scientists may have been the ones yelling “barracuda.” Days after the incident, a swimmer was bitten in Jones Beach. Soon afterward, another surfer on Fire Island took a bite to the leg. Incident followed incident, and the narrative changed: There were sharks around, and they were nipping people.

Many marine biologists, particularly those who study sharks, take issue with Jaws (as well as with a good deal of reporting on sharks). They feel, with some justification, that it is unfair to paint sharks—which they say are more or less indifferent to human beings and have as much right to be in the ocean as any of the other animals that live there—as monsters. Most shark bites, they explain, are accidental. Sharks don’t want to hurt or eat people, and only bite when they have mistaken a person for prey. The shark in the movie is a villain, a cold-blooded and driven killer. The final act of Jaws, set entirely at sea, is all about Brody’s mission to catch and kill the great white that has besieged Amity Island—and the shark’s equal determination to eat him.

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On the one hand, I see their point. On the other, “sharks belong in the ocean” is not a fully satisfying, or complete, response to the sudden realization that there are a lot more of them around than most people realized. Since that first shark bite in New York this summer, there have been at least five more. There’s no reason to believe that, as the years go by, the issue won’t continue to come up. In Massachusetts, where seal populations have made an enormous recovery, the situation is more serious. Great whites, some of the largest and most deadly sharks in the ocean, have started to congregate near its beach towns (including the beaches where Jaws was filmed). In 2018, the state saw its first fatal shark attack in nearly a century. Two years later, in Maine, another swimmer was killed by a great white—the first fatal attack in the state’s recorded history. I think it’s worth contemplating what this might mean for the millions of people who live along that coastline, and about how our relationship to the ocean might change as a result.

I understand why marine biologists don’t always feel good about the way that journalists write shark stories. This summer, there seems to be more shark news every day, much of it widely broadcast and sensational. Both Rockaway Beach closures drew groans from locals, and helicopters from every major local television news station. Teams from Eyewitness News, News 12, and NY1 buzzed up and down the shoreline trying to get shark footage. The closures came in the middle of a heatwave—one of the many, many things that, statistically speaking, is much more likely to kill you than a shark. The following day, everyone was back in the water.

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Not all of the coverage was sensational, though. A number of the shark stories that followed echoed the “don’t panic” line, with detailed missives from biologists. “Everything,” they seemed to be saying, “is all right.”

Indeed, no one should panic about sharks here. But I’ve heard stories that are quieter and more worrisome, if admittedly difficult to verify. One friend who visited a city beach described watching a large shark tear through the waves, weaving through a throng of oblivious swimmers on a crowded Saturday a few weeks after the beach closures. A surfer told me that one afternoon, while surfing, she had seen what she believed to be a great white shark fin in the water past the break. It’s difficult to identify a shark by its fin alone, but it’s not impossible that a great white would turn up here. Their migration routes, which can be followed on the Ocearch database of tagged white sharks, regularly track along New York’s coastline, although they tend to stay pretty far offshore.

I even had what could be described as a minor Mayor Vaughn moment when a young woman on my staff who was supposed to take a group of students out kayaking on Jamaica Bay called to say that some of the people who live on houseboats in the marina had warned them that a large shark was in the area. The marina where my students kayak and learn about marine ecology isn’t particularly close to the inlet that connects Jamaica Bay to the ocean. There are sharks in the bay, sure, but how big could anything in our shallow little pocket of estuary be? People get a little crazy about sharks, I told her: Don’t use the S-word around the students and make sure everyone is wearing a life jacket. Two hours later, I received several photographs of the kids posing next to the animal—a thresher shark that a local fisherman had (to my dismay) caught and strung up near the kayak ramp. It was about the same size as the fisherman.

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The species is practically harmless—there are no documented attacks on humans that I could find. Still, I thought twice about my sense of security.

In 2014, a fisherman-scientist working off New York caught a large mako shark near Shinnecock, Long Island. The shark was outfitted with a rubber tag with a phone number on it and released. Later that year, a commercial fisherman working off the coast of South Africa discovered the shark in a net and called the number.

The moment was a breakthrough in efforts to understand sharks locally. Frank Quevedo, the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum, now oversees an enormous shark research operation that collects data about the movements of sharks that inhabit the waters off of New York. Since the 2014 capture, working with Ocearch and a variety of other ocean conservation organizations, Quevedo’s team has been working every year to outfit dozens of animals with satellite trackers that give updates on the movements of sharks captured along the East Coast. The operation helped to establish that parts of the ocean off of the south shore of Long Island served as a great white shark nursery, where juveniles hunt for fish before they’re old enough to take on larger prey like seals. At the moment of this writing, I can see satellite pings from several swimming off the coast not far from where I live.

“There’s a lot about sharks that we still don’t know,” Quevedo told me. The public, however, is further behind. Even the name “great white shark” is a misnomer, Frank explained: Scientists actually call them “white sharks.” What’s more, the preferred nomenclature for what has been happening this summer on Long Island is not “shark attack” but “shark interaction.”

“A shark attack,” he explained, “is when they bite your limb off.”

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The victims, or interact-ees, of Long Island sharks this summer, he pointed out, were all released from the hospital with at most a few stitches. Nobody is losing arms, or being killed by the animals—at least so far in New York.

He, too, noted that the misconception that sharks pose a serious risk to people nearly proved fatal for them. “When Jaws came out in 1975,” Quevedo told me, “it pretty much demonized that species.” Fishermen began hunting and killing white sharks for sport. The movie had given them permission, suddenly, to treat the animals the way that the characters in the film had. Around Long Island, where much of that shark fishing was taking place, he told me, white sharks were nearly extirpated.

Quevedo credits good management of both the sharks and the Atlantic menhaden—or bunker—that the animals eat with restoring the local population. “Everything is thriving out there,” he said. “This has been a long time coming for scientists and conservationists.”

Of the 50 or so shark species in the Atlantic around New York, Quevedo said, there are about 12 that come close enough to shore to “interact” with people. Several of them, like the sand tiger shark and the dusky shark, are endangered species, off limits even for catch and release fishing.

The menhaden are, in Quevedo’s view, at the heart of the uptick in shark interactions. “When these bunker come inshore, the sharks are feeding on them,” he said. “Sharks don’t have tools or gear to fish with. They use their mouths.” In most cases, he believes, the sharks are more or less bumping into people mouth-first while they hunt for fish.

Still, the ocean is always changing. Over the following decades, Quevedo said, if a seal colony eventually establishes itself on the south shore of Long Island, we could see mature white sharks return to New York waters—something that could, eventually, lead to the type of fatal shark attacks that were seen in Massachusetts and Maine in recent years. Until then, we can probably expect to see more of the types of interactions we’ve seen this summer. The odds of being bitten, or “interacted with,” even in this way, remain tiny.

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“Out of the millions of people who went swimming this summer,” Quevedo pointed out, “we’ve had how many interactions this summer? Six? Seven?”

If the return of sharks changes the way we swim, and surf, and experience the water, the changes will probably be gradual—a series of realizations, over time, that we don’t quite use the beach the way we used to. In Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, where great white sightings routinely empty beaches, summertime already feels a little different. There are signs warning beachgoers of the risks and buoys placed strategically around shore to record the comings and goings of the predators. People are advised to stay out of the water if seals are present. Areas around the world that regularly see shark attacks have implemented, to name just a few, shark-spotting towers, shark-spotting cameras, underwater electric shark barriers, and, in the most barbaric cases, systematic culling of local shark populations. None of these systems is foolproof, and all of them have their costs. I can’t imagine any of them doing much to help New York beachgoers avoid interacting with sharks.

Ultimately, we’ll probably have to cede a little ground to sharks, at least in the way we think about the water. A century ago, when the Atlantic Ocean around the East Coast of the United States was full of sharks, people didn’t recreate there in the same way. It wasn’t because of the sharks, exactly. Surfing, as it is practiced today, hadn’t been invented. Statistically speaking, fewer people (even those who worked at sea) could swim. The ocean was seen by most as one of the world’s many off-limits regions—a foreboding place, hostile to the human beings unfortunate or brave enough to end up in it. And it kind of was.

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It’s easy to forget, especially with such diminished wildlife populations, that New York City’s 8-million-plus residents live, by nature of their proximity to the sea, on the edge of a literal wilderness. I don’t mean to knock the rest of the region’s ecological riches—I have seen spectacular natural beauty in New York City and the areas that surround it, and even dedicated a good portion of my life to teaching young people about it. But the ocean is wild. There are serious animals there, the types of big predators that people travel to Alaska and Yellowstone to go see. As populations continue to rise, and with more people than ever using the water, encounters seem inevitable.

Aerial patrols along the coastline of New York seem, to me, like an expensive way of telling us what we already know: During the summer, along the Atlantic Coast of the United States, there are a lot of sharks in the water. Patrols also make closures more likely on days when the water is clearer—conditions that, statistically speaking, are lower risk for shark attacks. The New York City parks department’s policy (or, at least, tendency) of closing beaches for swimming when a shark is spotted near shore also seems a little silly. If we know that they are around, whether or not we see them every day, then what difference does it make? Besides, if the city closes the beaches every time someone says they see a fin, what are they going to do in the unlikely event that someone gets seriously hurt, or killed? Once you’ve closed the water, there’s not much left in your toolkit.

In early August, Capt. Vinnie Calabro picked me up at Marina 59, in Jamaica Bay, a short walk from my apartment. He stood at the center console of a 21-foot Maritime Skiff—named, like all of the boats in his charter fleet, Karen Ann, after his wife. Calabro is tough-looking and quiet, with a New York accent. After a long career in the Department of Correction’s Harbor Unit (the maritime outfit that would, in theory, respond if an incarcerated person ever attempted to escape Rikers Island by swimming), he makes his living in New York’s highly competitive charter fishing world the only way possible: by finding fish again, and again, without fail, for the people who hire his company Karen Ann Charters to take them out.

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“We’re different,” he explained, “in that we guarantee fish. No fish, no pay.”

Calabro writes a weekly fishing report in Rockaway’s local weekly, the Wave. To my unusual charter request—no fishing, just a trip out along the Queens shoreline to look for sharks—he replied, “Yeah, OK. They’re out there.”

A few days later, at 5:30 p.m., we were riding out under the Marine Parkway Bridge on our way toward the inlet. As it happened, this wasn’t Calabro’s first non-fishing charter of the year. A group of birders (“my people,” I told him) had recently hired him for a trip around the edge of Broad Channel. A rare shorebird called a Hudsonian godwit had been seen in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, and they had hoped to get a better look at some of the less accessible shorelines from the water. Calabro and I talked a little bit about local wildlife: the striped bass, the oystercatchers, the glossy ibises that nest somewhere near the marsh islands around the North Channel Bridge near JFK Airport. When I asked what he thought of NOAA’s proposal to designate Hudson Canyon a marine sanctuary, he gave a big thumbs up. “Good idea,” he said. Not every fisherman agrees.

We rounded the jetty at the tip of Breezy Point, bringing the Atlantic Ocean and the Rockaway shoreline into view. The wind had come up a little, and the water was choppy. The late afternoon glare gave the surface an almost impenetrable luminous sheen. An osprey, tired of fighting the breeze, was perched on a tower above the jetty, content to stare out at the ocean for a while. Finding schools of bunker would be a little more difficult than we’d hoped in these conditions.

As Quevedo had told me, those bunker, or Atlantic menhaden—which Calabro described as “the most sought-after fish in the ocean”—are the key to the marine food web that sharks more or less dominate from June to October. While people don’t eat bunker directly, they’ve played a variety of roles in local human history and commerce for more than 300 years. Native Americans used the fish to fertilize crops. In the 19th century, their oil lit lamps and lubricated machines. Today, they’re fished by the metric ton for fleets working for the Omega Protein company, which processes them into fish oil supplements and food for livestock and pets. Bunker spend the summer in vast schools, sometimes miles wide, off the East Coast, where they swim in dense circles, filter-feeding on plankton, spawning, and getting devoured by striped bass, bluefish, dolphins, whales, tuna, osprey, gulls, cormorants, gannets, and just about everything else in the ocean, including, of course, sharks. In Calabro’s skiff, just like in Ben’s kayak, finding bunker was the key to finding sharks.

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Even with all the glare and chop, a seasoned charter captain can read the ocean for fish. When a great black-backed gull that had been gliding above the surface paused, and then climbed up about 20 feet, Calabro turned the boat immediately.

“That bird just went high,” he said. Sure enough, there was a school of bunker at the surface, agitated and packed in tight, a sign there were predators underneath. There was a good chance, Calabro thought, that a shark or two was down there.

We made a pass, with me on the bow looking down. The fish whirled, changed directions, dodging our shadow as well as whatever was eating them below. We circled back again and again. I saw some suggestive shapes, flashes in the water at the bottom of the school, but nothing definitive. While I was staring down at the bunker school, during one of the passes, Calabro saw a shark appear in the outline of a wave and called out to me. By the time I looked up, it had disappeared.

So it goes with sharks. Watching them isn’t as easy as watching other kinds of wildlife. To see birds, a pair of binoculars and a little patience is enough to get started. Dolphins and whales regularly come up, by necessity, to breathe, and are easy enough to spot along the East Coast that an entire industry has sprung up around them. (In New York City, the whale-watching boats leave from Sheepshead Bay.) Sharks, on the other hand, can survive indefinitely without breaking the surface. They’ll stay down as long as there’s food for them there.

“I think I saw a shark,” Calabro called out again, pointing just off the boat. I caught a glimpse of a white shape as it disappeared, like a ghost, off one side of the boat. A moment later, when a second one appeared, he amended his assessment: “Not a shark: cownose ray!” There were two, then 10, then hundreds moving around the boat. They flapped their wings slowly, moving north toward the city’s shoreline, catching the sun just below the surface. In the crests of the waves, where the light penetrated the water a little better, we could sometimes make out dozens grouped together. The Karen Ann was floating through a school that seemed to stretch endlessly back toward the horizon.

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Shadows in the water that could be sharks but are actually cownose rays.
Cownose rays surround the Karen Ann as the author searches for sharks near Breezy Point. Russell Jacobs

Rays are close evolutionary relatives of sharks, sharing the taxonomical subclass Elasmobranchii, a group of cartilaginous fish that can be traced back hundreds of millions of years. The grouping is distinguished by, among other things, perpetually generating rows of teeth and oil-filled livers that, in lieu of the swim bladders that most fish have, regulate the animals’ buoyancy. Unlike sharks—whose teeth are, of course, pointy and sharp—ray teeth are more or less flat. Their jaws look more likely to laminate an arm than sever one.

Calabro and I drifted with these shark cousins for 30 minutes, watching them pass in and out of sight around the boat. Cownose rays, he explained, kick up the sand on the bottom with their wings. Sharks will sometimes follow schools to eat the fish and crabs that they disturb on the ocean floor, occasionally even hunting the rays themselves.

Eventually, with the wind continuing to build and the light starting to fade, we turned around. “The only shark we’d really see now,” he said, “would be a big hammerhead on the surface.”

On the way back to the marina, Calabro killed the engine briefly to answer his phone. It was another fisherman, calling to check in on his day. After a brief conversation, he told me that his friend had been catching sharks all evening—lots of them. They had been there with us, just slightly out of view.

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Recently, I got word that a sea turtle that looked like it might have been killed by a shark had washed up on the beach near my apartment. I walked down the shoreline to find the remains of an enormous loggerhead sprawled on the sand near a jetty. The turtle had been ripped in two horizontally—its entire back half was missing. If a shark had done this, it had been a large one.

I sent pictures to someone I know at the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, an organization that does work with mine. Currently, one of their scientists is overseeing a research project about sea turtles with three of my students.

The carcass of a sea turtle, severed in half across the torso.
A sea turtle that may have been killed by a shark recently washed up on a New York beach. Russell Jacobs

I got a call back from Helen Watrous, one of their field biologists. It was often difficult to determine, she told me, whether a sea turtle had been killed by a shark or a vessel strike, but shark attacks are generally messier than boat collisions. I sent her all of the photos I had taken—close-ups of the wound from different angles—and she called me back.

“Based on the jaggedness of the flesh wound,” she said carefully, “it looks more like a shark.”

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Adult loggerheads like this one can weigh more than 400 pounds. The axis along which it had been cut in half looked to be more than two feet. As someone who has cleaned my fair share of fish, it was difficult to imagine the amount of force required to rip through a turtle, shell and all, like that.

A few days later, Calabro sent me a video from another charter he’d taken soon after ours. The boat was alongside a school of bunker, a little larger than the school we’d circled off of Breezy Point. There was no need to gaze into the water to look for the sharks. Fins tore through the fish, breaking the surface everywhere. The bunker, desperate to avoid the predators, were frothing at the surface in a panic. It was the kind of feeding frenzy that gave rise to the expression, with the city’s shoreline tilting back and forth in the background as the Karen Ann rocked.

“If people knew,” he told me, “how many sharks there are out here, believe me: They wouldn’t be swimming.”

Years ago, when I first began to process the fact that there were more sharks along the northeast than just about anyone realized, I assumed I’d slowly come to see them as just another seasonal feature of my local natural landscape. Just like the migratory birds that passed through in the spring and the fall, and the calendar of local flowering plants, and the striped bass runs, they would find their place in my broader understanding of the ecological systems that surrounded me. So far, they’ve defied my efforts to subsume them that way. I’ve learned a fair amount about their feeding habits—the way they move between the enormous schools of bunker along the shore; the way they use their tails to stun fish, before circling back to devour them. I’ve even looked a few of them in the eye up close. Still, they remain, in my mind, something separate, not fully related to my pursuits as a naturalist. It might have to do with how difficult it is to look at them in the wild, but I think it’s at least in part the lingering stigma they carry: a subconscious, internalized fear. Maybe I watched Jaws too early, or too often, as a child.

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The other week, I brought my students to the American Museum of Natural History to see an exhibition about sharks. While they took pictures of one another in an enormous life-sized replica of an extinct megalodon’s jaw and played with some of the virtual-reality exhibits (“hunt like a hammerhead!”), I spent some time walking around and reading the smaller text boxes on the displays. “A shark’s stomach acid,” one read, “is so strong it can dissolve shells and bones.” Another showed a diagram of a shark, from the front, next to a similarly oriented image of an airplane. The fixed lateral fins, it explained, like the wings on an airplane, allow sharks to use the lift force to accelerate upward while they thrust with their tails. Sharks have razor-sharp teeth, which regenerate in endless rows in their mouths. Anatomically speaking, they basically are the eating machines described in Jaws. When I asked Quevedo during our conversation why, if sharks were so statistically unlikely to hurt us, they loomed so large in our imaginations, he didn’t hesitate. “The fascination,” he’d said, “is a shark can wipe you out whenever it wants, and they’re in the ocean where you can’t see them!”

I think it’s OK to admit that sharks are terrifying, despite the fact that mosquitoes and even hippos—as another infographic at the exhibit reminded—kill many more people than sharks in a given year. While those statistics might hold true for the global population, a near-daily ocean swimmer in the United States like me is surely more likely (even if the odds are remote) to be killed by a shark than a hippopotamus.

The process of learning to live with sharks might turn out to be more psychological than practical: The paradox is that we take sharks both too seriously and not seriously enough at the same time. Information about the actual species that live around us, and how they behave, might go a long way toward debunking the mythical man-eating shark that we’ve conjured up in our minds. Once a week this summer since the string of shark incidents along Long Island, my roommate Ben has been teaching 11- and 12-year-olds in the local day camp about the various species that inhabit the water off of the south shore, with an emphasis on how undangerous they are. In his free time, he recently paddled out in the kayak with a snorkel mask instead of a fishing rod and leapt overboard into a school of bunker, hoping to get a peek. He figures, why not? But importantly, he knows they’re in the water with us. Even down in New York, south of the critical mass of white sharks and where a bite is unlikely to cause anything worse than a gash and some stitches, it’s a good idea to make sure that every lifeguard has the basic equipment (gauze pads, bandages, tourniquets) and training to deal with the rare medical emergency caused by a shark.

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Like any biologist you’ll find, I’m overwhelmingly in the “sharks belong here” camp. Humans pose a far greater threat to sharks—which are hunted for their fins, dragged up as bycatch in commercial nets and longlines, and more—than sharks pose to them. Still, it’s worth being honest with ourselves about what it means to say we want to “save the sharks.” Protecting sharks—a cause I support with all my heart—comes, eventually, with trade-offs. It’s easier to advocate for sea turtles and shorebirds, which ask next to nothing from us: tape off a beachfront, put up some signs, and you’ve gone a long way toward helping them out. Sharks want to swim around with us, just out of sight, in an environment where we are at our most clumsy and vulnerable. We’ve been boogie boarding in their backyard, and after decades of pretending they weren’t there, we’re going to have to learn to share the ocean with them.