When a Shark Is More Gum Than Bite

July 23, 2009 at 2:52 pm Leave a comment

For those who did not catch the news last week, a huge basking shark came ashore to die at Gilgo Beach in Babylon, on Long Island, making for a sad sight, but supposedly, not a real scary one. The countless news reports about the beaching held that these types of sharks posed no danger to humans.

Well, we’ve seen this basking shark movie before, but the plot was slightly different.

When several basking sharks swam into shallow waters off New York a few years ago, the word on the beaches was to stay away. Some reports — some of them shared on the decidedly unreliable word-of-mouth, “beach wireless” — held that these generally peaceful sharks can lash out and pose a potential danger to surfers and swimmers when they are wounded, as they usually are when they come ashore.

Waves consulted a couple of the experts.

The good news is that basking sharks — the second largest known shark species — prefer plankton to humans. Like their carnivorous cousins, basking sharks have hundreds of teeth, which are, however, too minuscule to pose any danger to people (more “Gums’’ than “Jaws”).

“They’re harmless in that they can’t bite people,’’ said Ellen K. Pikitch, a professor at the School of Maritime and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University and executive director of the Pew Institute for Ocean Conservation Science. “They have the same mouth structure as a whale would — they keep their mouths wide open while they’re feeding on very, very tiny food particles.”

But they happen to be large beasts that can do plenty of damage when they’re wounded in the surf.

“When you have an animal that’s 25 feet long that’s thrashing around, that would be detrimental,” said Robert DiGiovanni, the director and senior biologist of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. “The basking shark can weigh 5,000 pounds.”

He added:

They have a lot of power and that could be dangerous to the public. We would always encourage the public, obviously, to stay back and not try to touch it or get close to it. But it’s amazing how many people want to get out there and see it.

Like, seriously. Do you have to get up close and personal with a giant shark?

Waves is an occasional City Room feature chronicling surfing in and around New York City, and the issues important to local surfers. Its author, Jim Rutenberg, is a Washington correspondent who grew up surfing in New Jersey and continues to surf regularly on eastern Long Island. Ideas and comments are welcome at Wavesnyt@gmail.com.

By Jim Rutenberg, Waves
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Natural Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , , , .

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