Atlantic Beach Shark Sightings Likely Harmless Basking Sharks

Shark sightings have been reported in the water near Atlantic Beach twice in the past week. This shark was spotted on July 24, 2013. (Credit: Rick Weinstock/Atlantic Beach Manager/Lifeguard)
Atlantic Beach lifeguard manager Rick Weinstock took this photo of a shark spotted offshore recently. (Courtesy of CBS News)

Two shark sightings in about a week that caused a scare among surfers and swimmers at Atlantic Beach appear to have been of a harmless basking shark, according to a marine biologist.

Witnesses and lifeguards reported the shark sightings 70 to 100 yards offshore on Sunday, July 21 and again on Monday, July 29, sending shivers down spines of Long Island swimmers.

“We shut the water down for less than an hour, it was precautionary,” Hank Ottolia, a Sunny Atlantic Beach Club Lifeguard, told the Press. “We took everyone out, then didn’t see it for a while and let everyone back in.”

Kimberly Durham, a marine biologist with the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, said that she viewed the shark sighting witness’ photo of a dorsal fin when it aired on News 12 Long Island. WLNY first reported the story.

“If I just look at that photo it screams basking shark to me,” said Durham, the Rescue Program Director for the foundation. “These guys are completely harmless but they can be certainly a little bit concerning.”

Basking sharks, like one 10-feet long that washed up dead three weeks ago in nearby Long Beach, mostly eat plankton and krill, which they scoop up by swimming around with their giant mouths wide open. In other words, they’re not the aggressive predators like Great Whites, but they can grow to be up to 40-feet long.

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Basking sharks are the same species that were spotted hanging out off the coast of Cupsogue Beach in Westhampton Beach County Park in June 2011. Suffolk County parks officials ordered everyone out of the water in that case because they didn’t want people harassing the sharks.

Durham notes that these are the first shark sightings of summer that she’s heard—she’s been busy with mostly dolphin reports lately—but that such reports are not uncommon is the time of year when there are more ocean beach swimmers and the sharks’ food source is closer to shore in the warmer water.

The sightings also coincidentally occurred just days before Shark Week, the annual Discovery Channel programming block of shows about sharks.

But, harmless basking shark or not, one seasoned surfer who spotted the fin while surfing in Atlantic Beach last week high tailed it out of the water as quickly as possible.

“I notice something strange in the water,” said the surfer 50 years of riding waves worldwide under his belt. “I look and see it’s a white dorsal fin cutting smoothly through the water about 10-12 feet from me across the line that I had just traversed a minute ago. I look closer and see beneath the surface a brown body. Yes, it was a shark. I’d say less than 6 feet long.”

That’s when he said he made a break for land.

“I calmly raised my legs out of the water and onto my board,” he said. “I also lifted my arms out and laid on the board for about 30 seconds then started to take short strokes paddling in. I called to my son who was paddling back out and gave him the sign to head in. He looked perplexed until I yelled ‘shark!’”

To report beached marine life call the Riverhead Foundation’s 24-Hour Stranding Hotline at 631-369-9829.