The ultra-high ocean temperatures that have helped brew all the humidity around here and set off a record number of tropical storms also appear to be luring sharks to near-shore waters in the Northeastern United States.

None have yet been sighted near the shore at Jersey beaches, but double the usual numbers have been reported near Long Island. Nassau County on Wednesday deployed shark-seeking helicopters.

And they likely aren’t too far from the Jersey Shore. “There’s always sharks off the coast,” said Nicole Grandinetti, general curator of the Camden Adventure Aquarium.

But despite the well-publicized fatal attack by a great white shark in Maine’s Casco Bay this week, shark experts say that people aren’t particularly appetizing to most of those finned predators, and that for the most part, humans have nothing to fear but shark-phobia itself.

“If they preyed on humans, there would be humans dead everywhere,” said Simon R. Thorrold, a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. “It would be a bloodbath out there.”

By contrast, said Grandinetti, “humans kill millions of sharks a year.”

Don’t sharks kill humans?

Sometimes they do.

In 2019, sharks were blamed for killing four people worldwide, which was in keeping with annual averages. No deaths occurred in the United States, according to data maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History, affiliated with the University of Florida.

Of 41 “unprovoked” shark attacks in 2019, 21 occurred in Florida, and the majority involved surfers and boarders. One occurred last year in New Jersey, and one or two in 2018, said Rutgers University professor Thomas Grothues, but those resulted only in “lacerations.”

Grandinetti said a fatal shark attack hasn’t occurred off New Jersey in 100 years.

At least one U.S. fatality has occurred in 2020. The Maine Department of Environmental Resources said that it was a great white that attacked and killed Julie D. Holowach, 63, of New York City, on Monday. The department said that it was the first shark fatality in the state’s history and that the only other confirmed shark attack had occurred 10 years ago.

Thorrold said that thanks to federal protections, the great white, which likes temperate waters, has been prospering in higher latitudes, as have seals, which the great whites greatly enjoy eating.

What’s behind the recent sightings?

The unusually warm Atlantic waters likely are enhancing the northward migrations, according to the experts, and “we have plenty of warm waters,” said Grothues.

Sea-surface temperatures continue to run several degrees above long-term averages off the Atlantic Coast. Some of that water vapor over the ocean has migrated to the mainland, which is why it’s been so steamy. Meanwhile the ninth named tropical storm has popped up in the Atlantic, a record for so early in the season.

The Atlantic and Delaware Bar are on fire in this image of sea-surface temperatures posted on July 28, 2020. Warm oceans have been helping supply our humidity.
Rutgers Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory
The Atlantic and Delaware Bar are on fire in this image of sea-surface temperatures posted on July 28, 2020. Warm oceans have been helping supply our humidity.

In Long Island, a bull shark sighting was reported. That species favors subtropical waters, said Grotues.

Staying safe in the water

It is unwise to pet a shark, but panicking might be worse, says the aquarium’s Grandinetti.

Experts offered several tips, including:

  • If you encounter one, don’t make a splash, lest it confuse you for a dinner attempting an escape. Instead, walk slowly toward the beach.
  • Swimming in groups is almost always safer. Individuals might be mistaken for prey.
  • Swim in prime time. Dawn and dusk are sharks’ busiest hunting hours.

At a briefing Wednesday, Laura Curran, the Nassau County executive who ordered the helicopter patrols, also recommended something that might be New York-specific: Don’t wear glittering jewelry. A shark might mistake it for the bright scales of a fish.

Grandinetti says that rather than being feared, sharks “should be more revered.” They play a “critical role” in the ecosystem with their voracious eating habits.

Still, the sight of those fins can scare the daylights out of swimmers and many likely will not follow her advice.

“Watch the shark,” she said. “Be amazed by it.”