Drones Enhance Shark Surveillance as New Yorkers Remain Alert to Increased Encounters

by Gabriel Martinez
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shark encounters

In response to a surge in shark encounters along New York’s coastline, drones are now deployed to sweep over the ocean, actively monitoring the waters for potential threats while beachgoers exercise increased vigilance.

Over the past two days, five individuals reported shark bites at some of the state’s popular beaches, prompting heightened surveillance measures.

The recent sighting of a 10-foot (3-meter) shark on Thursday led authorities to prohibit swimming at Robert Moses State Park, the same Long Island beach that postponed its July 4 opening due to the presence of a group of 50 sand sharks detected by a drone.

“We are now more alert than ever,” stated George Gorman, the park director in Long Island. “We have drones in the sky that monitor the waters. We have lifeguards on WaveRunners who keep watch.”

While shark encounters were infrequent just a few years ago, reports of shark bites have been on the rise. Last year alone, eight individuals reported shark bites while swimming in the shallows off Long Island’s beaches.

“This year, we’ve already had five bites,” Gorman noted, “and the season has just begun.”

Despite the injuries not being severe, the increase in shark sightings and encounters is a cause for concern among officials and the public.

Cary Epstein, a lifeguard supervisor who operates drones at Jones Beach, explained how these small battery-powered aircraft conduct three daily sweeps: one before opening, another midday, and a final round before the beach closes.

Using the drones provides lifeguards with an additional perspective that is otherwise unavailable from the beach. Epstein demonstrated the drone’s patrol process off the coast of Long Island, controlling the aircraft from a small box equipped with controls and a display screen. The drone effortlessly took off, hovered above the sand, accelerated over the water, and gradually vanished as it approached the horizon.

“While being stationed on an elevated lifeguard stand, you can see upwards and outwards, but you can’t see straight down,” Epstein explained. “When sharks are feeding on fish, it becomes very clear to us. You can see it without any doubt.”

However, Epstein cautioned, “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Only two months ago, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the addition of ten drones, bringing the state’s squadron total to 18, to monitor shark activity near New York’s beaches.

“With New Yorkers and visitors preparing to enjoy our beautiful Long Island beaches throughout the summer, their safety is our top priority,” Hochul stated in May. “This year, we are taking further action to protect beachgoers by increasing surveillance to monitor shark activity near South Shore beaches.”

Some argue that the increase in shark sightings indicates a healthier ecosystem. Cleaner waters allow small fish, which are prey for sharks, to thrive. Consequently, more small fish swimming closer to shore attract sharks.

Before 2022, New York had recorded only twelve unprovoked shark bites. Over the past decade, there were only four reported shark bites, according to data from the International Shark Attack File, which tracks shark attacks worldwide.

Florida typically leads the United States in shark bites, with sixteen reported last year—twice as many as second-place New York.

From his vantage point on the sand at Jones Beach State Park, lifeguard Carl Nowicki scanned the water for any signs of activity that might attract hungry sharks, such as large schools of baitfish.

“If a drone spots a shark, we won’t alert beachgoers until they are out of the water to avoid causing panic,” he explained. “Once everyone is on the sand, we will be fully transparent. We don’t want to create a panic on the beach.”

Mike Berchoff, enjoying the sun and water at Jones Beach, now enters the water with more caution. He does not want to become the next shark bite victim.

“I only go up to my waist. That’s it,” he said. “I don’t venture further out.”

Berchoff noticed an increase in drone activity, which provides some reassurance that beachgoers will be promptly alerted if there is danger.

The first recorded encounter of the summer occurred when a 15-year-old girl felt a bite on her leg while swimming. Shortly after, at a different beach, another teenager had to paddle back to shore after something nibbled on his toes.

On the Fourth of July, two men reported bites possibly from sharks in separate encounters that were 60 miles (97 kilometers) apart.

However, these incidents do not reflect the terrifying horror depicted in the fictional town of Amity Island in the movie “Jaws.” It is unlikely that the recent encounters involve the awe-inspiring great white sharks that typically inhabit deeper waters and are rarely seen close to shore.

Around a dozen species of sharks swim off the coast of Long Island, none of them particularly aggressive. This includes sand sharks, which are common in the area and can reach nearly 15 feet (4.6 meters) in length. While their sharp, jagged teeth may be unsettling, these giant fish are generally calm and prefer to avoid human contact. A juvenile shark nursery is known to exist off Fire Island.

Shark biologists emphasize that sand sharks are unlikely to attack humans unless provoked. Interactions with swimmers are typically unintentional.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about shark encounters

How are drones being used to address the rise in shark encounters along New York’s coast?

Drones are being deployed to patrol the ocean waters off New York’s coast and monitor for potential shark threats. They provide aerial surveillance, allowing authorities to detect and track sharks in real-time, enhancing beach safety measures.

Are the shark encounters in New York’s beaches becoming more frequent?

Yes, shark encounters in New York’s beaches have been increasing. Last year, there were eight reported shark bites, and this year, the season has just begun, but there have already been five reported bites. The rise in encounters has led to heightened surveillance and vigilance among beachgoers.

What types of sharks are typically found along New York’s coast?

Around a dozen species of sharks swim off the coast of Long Island, where New York’s beaches are located. The most common species in the area are sand sharks, which can reach lengths of nearly 15 feet (4.6 meters). However, these sharks are generally docile and do not pose a significant threat to humans unless provoked.

Are the drones only used for shark surveillance?

While the primary purpose of the drones is to monitor and detect sharks, they also provide additional surveillance for general beach safety. Lifeguards can use the drones to identify other potential hazards, such as large schools of baitfish or any unusual activity in the water that may pose risks to swimmers.

Do the increased shark sightings indicate a healthier ecosystem?

Some experts suggest that the increase in shark sightings may indicate a healthier ecosystem. Cleaner waters support the thriving population of small fish, which are prey for sharks. As more small fish swim closer to shore, it attracts sharks. However, it’s important to note that the rise in sightings also raises concerns and prompts authorities to enhance safety measures for beachgoers.

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