Posts Tagged ‘sieswerda’

Survivor. Photo by Barry Masterson of Kayak Staten Island.

Sharp-eyed Nature Calendar reader Christopher Johnson spotted this seal casually sunning its shark bite wound on rocks near Swinburne Island, in a gallery published at SILive.com (Staten Island Advance, photo by Barry Masterson, co-founder of Kayak Staten Island).

The question is whether this bite occurred in local waters or if the seal is healing up from an attack out east. Breathe a little easy, for now, says Paul Sieswerda, a shark expert and seal watching guide (and fellow Frisian). Paul has kindly written about sharks for Nature Calendar before, and was profiled in The New Yorker for his seal trips. I got to know him when I broke the story of seals returning to New York Harbor a decade earlier in the New York Times. That discovery was made by fellow kayakers (I joined for the confirming trip), who have now gotten familiar with porpoises.

It seems inevitable that larger sharks will return to our waters as the estuary grows cleaner and more bountiful. Prospects for that are good, if unnerving, with the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape Initiative fostering the process. Last summer a NYC beach was closed in the Rockaways after a thresher shark sighting, but sadly the specimen was found dead the next day. A series of attacks in New Jersey became the stuff of legend nearly a century ago. Several sources report large sharks being caught off of lower Manhattan before the 20th century, perhaps attracted by rotting meat scraps tossed into the Hudson River. It also seems the Narrows were then, as now, a hot spot for finding larger creatures. A fun exploration of this topic by Tom Vanderbilt was published in the New York Times a few years ago, bearing this gripping image from the New York Historical Society.

Chaos in the Narrows (circa 1880). Collection of the New York Historical Society.

If you see a shark, please report it to the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Seascape Initiative. If you see a marine mammal or turtle, even in good health, please report it to the Riverhead Foundation. If you have the urge to get out there among the big fish, please volunteer at a community boathouse on the NYC Water Trail.

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Great white and Trey Snow by Thomas Peschak. 

Now that we’ve stirred mild worries in you with entries about a Bald Eagle attack hoax and the surprising (and real) presence of wild sharks of New York City (May 23), let’s go for broke and combine the two themes: shark attacks!


To be honest, this is more of a personal concern. From August 13 through August 27, I will kayak a 300-mile “Memory Paddle” circumnavigation of Long Island to raise funds for the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation. I’m budgeting a little time to loop wide at Montauk, in hopes of seeing some “charismatic megafauna” in our local waters. Marine biologist Arthur Kopelman, president of the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, provided the tip that in August there’s a chance of a paddling encounter with sea turtles, pilot whales, dolphins, and…Great White sharks. While I’m a little astonished and disoriented by the idea that I’ll be 40 on August 20, I would still like to live to mark the day. Not that I can complain too much about my upcoming challenge – CRESLI offers viewing tours from the safety of a chartered motor vessel.






Lucky for me, National Geographic Adventure has kindly produced a series of Survival Guide videos, including one for shark attacks. In short, “go for the eyes.” I suppose it will be playing in an endless loop in my mind from, say, August 18 through August 21.


WikiHow goes a little further, offering the paradoxical advice that one should clutching onto his or her shark attacker to avoid chunks of flesh being thrashed off. The user-generated service also advises against screaming, unless you’re sure that it’s about to make you its next meal. Scream, check. Hug shark, check. 


Actually, I will also rig my break-apart paddle to have a sizable blade in the middle or paddle throat base, for easy and quick conversion into a spear. A POD (Protective Oceanic Device) to magnetically irritate the prey-sensing ampullae of Lorenzini of a Great White seems like a bit of overkill (or overpleasedon’tkillme).


It seems most Great White attacks are really the predator’s investigations and errors. When we’re swimming we are a novelty, and so the bites are often the shark’s means of testing our taste, or perhaps any unexpected defense response. The human body lacks the nutrient and fat content of a seal, which is typical prey, so there’s a good chance that a Great White will leave after a nibble. Losing a limb, or part of one, could end in death from blood loss, regardless of the shark’s disappointment.


That optimistic assessment is disputed by some researchers. Marine biologist John McCosker has long noted that the relatively low human fatality rate could be due to our frequent escapes after the first bite. Solo divers fair less well than those who use the “buddy system” of mutual aid.


When in a kayak or on a surf board, we humans exhibit a silhouette that’s very similar to a seal’s. One typical method of attack is to lunge from below, darting inward from a seal’s ventral blind spot. In moments, as recounted in Susan Casey’s book The Devil’s Teeth, the seal is decapitated. In a not-quite-worst-case scenario, a surfer or kayaker can send a Great White home with a mouth full of plastic or fiberglass but be left bobbing in the big blue.


A Great White that senses there’s something odd about the kayak or surfboard form has another means of assessing his potential meal. The species has an usual ability to “spy hop,” that is to look around above the water’s surface. In the photo above, taken in South Africa by Thomas Peschak of Trey Snow (both marine biologists), a Great White is peacefully tailing a marine biologist for a little while out of simple curiosity. One factor in the biologist’s favor might be that Great Whites are notably less aggressive during mating season, and feed much less. Yes, it’s “make love, not Jaws” though Nurse Sharks seem to go in for a bit of rough love.


Now if only I could persuade them to get amorous in August…Would Ravel’s Bolero carry well underwater?


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