Surfing Montauk with Debra Rose

Marine Life

Debra Rose

The abundance of marine life in the ocean out east has made this summer special.   Whale sightings are so frequent they are joining the ranks of viewing deer and seagulls, and surfing among porpoises is no longer exclusive to Hawaiians and west coasters.

What rattles us is the thrashing movement in the water, the fin that appears and disappears quickly, the erratic movements, the Jaws soundtrack that starts to hum in the brain as we squint harder and second guess what we saw.

What are the Odds?  If you know Montauk, the odds are high. We know sharks are present, we are not used to being exposed to them on a consistent basis.  Was that a shark or a blue fish that mistook that swimmer for a snack? We will never know. The good news is we have all heard how we are more likely to be struck by lightning than be eaten by a shark.  Last year 47 people in America, 28 of them in Florida, were attacked, more than sharky Australia (12) and South Africa (3).

Men in Grey Suits:  We are the unwanted house guests in their home, not the other way around, so we must be prepared that going into the sea and encountering a shark is as likely as going into Naturally Good and finding a vegetarian. What we can do is know their environment, and as an experienced skier may say, “pick your line and hope for the best.”

Avoid river mouths, murky water, and estuaries, areas where the ocean joins freshwater.  Bull sharks love this silt-filled water, and great whites and tiger sharks have a penchant for attacking in the deep channels between the distant sandbars and shoreline.  Those boats fishing close to shore and along the Point? Chum from those vessels will become an all-you-can-eat buffet for the men in grey suits as well as other hungry creatures. Bait brings sharks as easily as an open bar fundraiser overserves.

Watching ample size fish jump out of the water is less about how fish define fun and more about being pursued by something bigger and more threatening.  Surfers know (and subsequently do it anyway) to avoid someone surf casting on the beach, and refrain from paddling out at dusk and dawn.  While visibility is less for the person and the shark, we celebrate dawn patrol and take pride in surfing until headlights are required to drive home from our session. While we tend to surf without the presence of lifeguards, they can be a source of information about what has been trending, and what sea life has recently gone viral.

We are Not on the Menu:  Sharks are not into socializing with, and devouring humans as a dietary regime even though it happens.  Do not entice them by wearing bling and playing the fish up for Best Supporting Meal.  Keep your limbs free of anything flashy.  Always follow your instincts when that Jaws music creeps in.  We tend to ignore our own intuition and forget that we too, are animals with instincts.

If a shark is close, you want to show that you are not afraid (say that again) and refrain from paddling like you are on fire to the shore.  Play it cool and don’t invite the exploratory nibble to see if we really are worth the trouble that a meaty seal may be. Why test the resolve of a shark that will settle for a little junk food when all they want is a proper lunch?  Think of keeping eye contact with the shark, as much as you want to close your eyes or focus on escaping, the way you check the horizon for the next wave. You don’t want to get slammed by white water or get caught inside so you face the oncoming waves. Facing down your finned friend with your board or body reduces the comfort sharks may have in sneaking up on you when you are unaware. Ultimately you want to back away.

The Face-off:  So now what? Do you throw down the gauntlet and make yourself into the human predator or do you try your best to disappear and be as non-threatening as possible?   Scientists say to get small and show you are not competing with them when a shark is window shopping, but when they are clearly hunting you can do your best to show them who is on top of the food chain.

We hear about punching a shark in the nose but landing that punch accurately and not to the mouth below is akin to wiping out on your board and being able to grab it by the nose as you resurface. You are moving, the shark is moving, you are panicked but following rule number one and pretending not to be, so aim for the fleshy spots, the gills behind the mouth, the fins.  Use whatever you have on you as object to poke, whack or irritate the shark.  Do not play dead unless you want to win the part.  Sharks gravitate to the lone bait, so make sure you are always with someone in the water and not sitting on the outside of the lineup.

The goal is to extract yourself from the situation, appearing as unruffled as possible. Naturally.  Sharks have been known to attack in shallow water, so safety is reaching the shore.  Minimize your splashing unless you are portraying the prey in distress.  Do what you can to be preventative, such as avoiding the water after a shark sighting and be vigilant.

Otherwise, pick your line and hope for the best.