LIDO BEACH, NY — It was a classic early summer Friday at Long Island’s Point Lookout Beach, as beachgoers splashed about in the foaming waves and basked under the sunny skies.
But further out, just behind the swimmers, was a more pressing scene: a lifeguard on a jet ski circling non-stop while Nassau County police officers surveyed the water with boats and helicopters.
It was an example of increased shark patrols along Long Island’s more than 100 miles of beaches, following a sharp spike in sightings last summer.
“It’s become part of our daily routine,” lifeguard chief Justine Anderson said of the shark patrols her town of Hempstead lifeguards began this summer. “We will patrol throughout the day and respond immediately if we receive a report of a shark sighting.”
In the past, shark sightings have been extremely rare, Ms. Anderson said. But on a daily basis last summer, sharks feeding on baitfish came alarmingly close to swimmers, necessitating the temporary closure of swimming areas along the Long Island shoreline.
So far this summer, a 10-foot mako shark washed up at Point Lookout over Memorial Day weekend, prompting another round of shark headlines. And just this week, authorities said a man swimming at Jones Beach may have been bitten by a shark.
Lifeguards working on Long Island beaches during the summer have traditionally been expected to simply be on the lookout for the occasional dorsal fin and judge the validity of reports from nervous beachgoers who swear they’ve just heard the second coming of “Jaws.” have seen.
But now Long Island lifeguard departments — which at the same time face staffing issues amid a shortage of national lifeguards — are taking the shark situation more seriously.
On Friday, Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman held a news conference at nearby Nickerson Beach to announce that the county’s police force will be stepping up both boat and helicopter patrols this summer to cover the coast every hour to drive.
Numerous other Long Island departments have also begun adopting new shark surveillance strategies, adding drones, jet skis and paddleboards, and online shark tracking to their lifesaving tools. Local police departments are also now tasked with patrolling sharks by boat and helicopter.
At Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Park, nearly 20 lifeguards, park officers and other beach workers were recently trained to operate a fleet of seven drones as part of a new aerial shark surveillance program.
“It’s like a new world that we live in,” said Cary Epstein, a veteran warden at Jones Beach, which along with Robert Moses State Park employs about 375 lifeguards. “In my 25 years as a lifeguard, we’ve never had to do that.”
“That’s not ‘Jaws,’ we’re not talking about a big white man-eating machine — but if a thresher shark comes through and nibbles your foot, that could be a problem,” Mr. Epstein said.
A new drone unit at Jones Beach follows Mr. Epstein’s example; He began patrolling the waters with his own drone last summer after another guard suffered a lacerated leg while swimming, believed to be by a shark. A day later, swimming was suspended due to a shark sighting.
“We are definitely on the alert and doing our duty of care,” Mr. Epstein said, noting that they “are not searching for sharks unnecessarily.”
The City of Hempstead Beaches this summer hired extra lifeguards to watch out for sharks and mobilized a shark patrol on jet skis and a team of drones. In addition to water rescue techniques and CPR, the city’s marine wardens are also trained to differentiate between shark species and identify those that are more dangerous to swimmers.
Lifeguards at nearby Long Beach, which closed swimming areas more than a dozen times last summer due to shark reports, have invested in three jet skis to help with shark patrols.
Farther east, lifeguards conduct morning shark patrols on jet skis and paddleboards at Smith Point Beach, beach officials said. They have also started keeping tourniquets in their first aid kits in case of shark attacks.
And in East Hampton, lifeguards are using an online shark tracker to keep an eye out for the return of large sharks like Mary Lee, a 4,000-pound, 17-foot great white shark tagged with a tracking device.
Of course, the mere mention of sharks and summer beaches frustrates marine experts, who say the animals don’t really pose an increased danger to swimmers.
Attacks are extremely rare on the ground, and many experts say shark patrols do little but incite unwarranted terror from sharks.
Hans Walters, a field scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium, who has spent over a decade studying sharks in New York waters, said the recent hype surrounding sharks near the beach has been “greatly exaggerated.”
The threat to humans from sharks is virtually non-existent, he said, and there’s no real evidence that local shark populations have increased in recent years.
“The danger to humans is negligible,” he said.
There may have been only a dozen documented shark attacks in New York waters going back centuries, he said, and most of those were accidental collisions that resulted in a laceration rather than a shark actively biting a swimmer.
Swimmers should be assured, Mr Walter said, that sharks are not interested in them.
“If anyone has been in the ocean, they have already swum with sharks,” he said. “You just don’t know.”
The main reasons for the increase in sightings, according to Mr Walters, are an increase in surveillance and a surge in the sharing of civilian phone and drone footage, which circulates widely on social media and inevitably makes headlines.
“These sharks aren’t looking for people,” he said. “They’ve roamed the ocean for millions of years, and there aren’t any sharks this year, last year, or the year before that. We’re just looking for them more.”
However, with public concern increasing, many beach operators are trying to reassure beachgoers that they are taking care of them.
“When the Mako washed ashore, it raised concerns among local residents,” said Hempstead Town Warden Don Clavin. “So what we wanted was for them to be sure that our people are out there taking all these precautions, everything is being monitored and we’re doing everything.”
Spinner sharks feeding on baitfish off the coast are regularly sighted in Long Beach, lifeguard chief Paul Gillespie said.
But while dismissing much of the shark hype as media and political hype, he added, “You can’t poop it either, so we always investigate every report by getting the jet skis in the water and looking up and down the shoreline.”
On the city of East Hampton’s beaches, sharks feeding on bait several hundred yards away are tolerated, but swimming is restricted when they get much closer than 200 yards from shore, said John Ryan Jr., the lifeguard’s chief City.
“They feed on bait — they don’t cruise the coast looking for people,” he said. “But if you don’t do anything and then something happens, that’s a problem.”
Chris Stefanou, 26, a Long Island fisherman who participates in a state shark tagging program to monitor shark migration, said he’s seen more sharks in local waters each year as water temperatures have risen.
There’s a growing local presence of hammerheads and bull sharks, which have previously avoided the colder local waters, according to Mr Stefanou, who said he’s caught nearly 1,000 sharks – up to 14ft long – while surfing from local beaches been the last nine years. (He shows off his catches on Instagram.)
“There are more and more sharks in the water, which sounds scary,” he said. “But it’s actually a good thing because it reflects a healthy ecosystem.”