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Drones sweep for sharks along New York's coast during rise in encounters with beachgoers

Cary Epstein, lifeguarding supervisor, operates a drone during takeoff for a shark patrol flight at Jones Beach State Park, Thursday, July 6, 2023, in Wantagh, N.Y. Drones are sweeping over the ocean off the coast of New York’s Long Island to patrol the waters for any danger possibly lurking. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo/AP
Cary Epstein, lifeguarding supervisor, operates a drone during takeoff for a shark patrol flight at Jones Beach State Park, Thursday, July 6, 2023, in Wantagh, N.Y. Drones are sweeping over the ocean off the coast of New York’s Long Island to patrol the waters for any danger possibly lurking. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

WANTAGH, N.Y. (AP) — Off the coast of Long Island, drones sweep over the ocean, patrolling the water for any danger that might lurk below the surface as beachgoers grow more vigilant because of a recent spate of shark encounters.

Over two days this week, five people reported being bitten by sharks at some of New York's most popular beaches, leading to heightened surveillance of the area's waters.

The sighting of a 10-foot (3-meter) shark on Thursday prompted officials to keep people out of the water at Robert Moses State Park, the same Long Island beach that delayed its opening July 4 after a drone spotted a group of 50 sand sharks off the coast.

“We are now more vigilant than ever,” said George Gorman, the state's park director in Long Island. “We have drones in the sky that watch over the waters. We have lifeguards on WaveRunners that watch over the waters.”

Just a few years ago, encounters with sharks were rare. But more recently, reports of sharks biting people have increased. Last year, eight people reported being bitten by sharks swimming in the shallows off Long Island's beaches.

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

Even if the injuries have not been serious, he and others are concerned by the rise in shark sightings and encounters.

Cary Epstein, a lifeguard supervisor who pilots drones at Jones Beach, said the tiny battery-powered aircraft make three sweeps each day: once before opening, then sometime midday and a final round before the end of the day.

“Despite the nervousness over what’s going on right now in New York, people swim in the ocean every day, and they have for centuries,” he said. “But we do have to remember that we are cohabitating, and this is their house.”

Drones provide an additional vantage point unavailable to lifeguards on the beach, Epstein said as he demonstrated how he uses the drones to patrol the waters off Long Island.

As he operated one of the drones from the beach, he stared into a small box equipped with controls and a display screen. The craft lifted off, hovering over the sand until it hurled forward over the water and turned into a mere dot as it approached the horizon.

“When you’re up in an elevated lifeguard station or a lifeguard stand, you can see up and you can see out, but you can’t see straight down,” Epstein said. “When we do have sharks that are eating on these fish, it’s very, very clear to us. You could see it, no questions asked.”

But, he warned, “just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

Just two months ago, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the addition of 10 drones to its squadron, bringing the total to 18 that can be used to monitor shark activity along her state's beaches.

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

An increase in shark sightings might suggest a healthier ecosystem, some say. Cleaner waters allow the small fish that sharks feed on to flourish. More small fish swimming closer to shore means more sharks nipping at their tails.

Prior to 2022, New York had only recorded a dozen unprovoked bites. Over the last decade, there were just four people bitten by sharks, according to data compiled by the International Shark Attack File, which tracks shark attacks around the world.

Florida is usually the country's leader in shark bites. There were 16 last year, which was twice as many as runner-up New York.

From his elevated perch on the sand at Jones Beach State Park on Thursday, lifeguard Carl Nowicki pointed his gaze out to sea, scanning the water for activity that might attract a hungry shark, such as large schools of bait fish.

“If a drone has spotted a shark, we won’t alert the patrons until they’re all out of the water because we don’t want them to freak out,” he said. “We’ll be very transparent once everyone’s on the sand. We don’t want to cause a panic at a beach.”

Mike Berchoff, who was enjoying the sun and water at Jones Beach, goes into the water more cautiously these days. He doesn't want to be the next beachgoer to be bitten by a shark.

“I just go out up to my waist. That’s about it," he said. “I don’t go all the way out there.”

He’s seen more drones taking off lately, which he said provides some reassurance that beachgoers would be alerted of danger.

The first known encounter of the summer happened Monday, when a 15-year old girl felt a bite on her leg while swimming. At a different beach soon after, another teen had to paddle back to shore after something began nibbling on his toes.

A day later, on the Fourth of July, two men reported bites possibly by sharks in two separate encounters 60 miles (97 kilometers) apart.

This is not the same kind of horror that terrorized the fictional East Coast town of Amity Island in the terrifying movie thriller “Jaws.”

For one thing, it’s unlikely the marine animals involved in recent encounters were the fear-inducing great white sharks that linger in deeper waters and are rarely seen close enough to shore to be of real concern.

About a dozen species of sharks swim off the coast of Long Island, none of them considered particularly ferocious, including the sand sharks that are more common in the area and grow to nearly 15 feet (4.6 meters). Their sharp, jagged teeth might cause a fright, but the giant fish are usually docile and typically avoid human contact. A nursery for juvenile sharks is known to exist off Fire Island.

Sand sharks are unlikely to attack humans unless provoked, according to shark biologists. If they do interact with swimmers, it's usually unintentional.