Saturday, July 23, 2005

If you expect to meet Jaws in Long Island Sound, you better try elsewhere!

If you're the type to stay out of the water after recent shark attacks off the Florida and Alabama coasts, know this: There are sharks in Long Island Sound big, toothy, man-eaters, at that. But also know this: The chances of being bitten by one are roughly the same as your being chosen to lead a Mars expedition.

In 32 years of scuba diving in Long Island Sound, Noel Veroba of Orbit Marine Sport Center in Bridgeport says he's never encountered a shark with teeth. "I've caught sand sharks, but I've never run into a toothed shark," he said. "I know they are out there, but you just never see them."

Shark attacks in Florida, Texas and even New Jersey have become almost weekly news, but the last reported shark attack in Long Island Sound was supposed to have occurred in 1961. No one could be found to confirm that report, however. "Frankly," says John Lenzycki, assistant curator of animals at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, "I doubt that it ever happened. And even if it did, it might have just been somebody whose skin got abraded by being bumped by a shark."

Although Lenzycki, too, has never seen a large shark in Long Island Sound, he says they are there, especially in the late summer. He lists seven shark species as occasional visitors to the Sound. "We've got thresher sharks, blue sharks, sand-tiger sharks, makos, smooth hammerheads, and browns," he said. "The seventh is the smooth dogfish, or sand shark." George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and curator of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, said he'd add the spiny dogfish to that list.

Several of these species have been known to attack humans, he said, but the sand-tiger shark is the only one implicated in an attack on Long Island Sound _ the 1961 incident that no one can confirm. Makos, blues and browns also have an irregular history of attacking humans, Burgess said. But given the millions of people who use the Sound each year and the relative paucity of reported shark attacks _ one in the last 44 years _ Long Island Sound probably ranks among the world's safest places to swim, he said.

There is apparently no record of the much-feared great white shark, of "Jaws" fame, being spotted in Long Island Sound. But Burgess said he'd be surprised if they never enter the waters here. Great whites are among the largest and most aggressive of shark species, accounting for 30 to 50 shark attacks annually. "Whites have gotten near the Sound, and I just can't believe that they haven't been seen there," Burgess said. Sighting of great whites north of New Jersey have been increasing since the Maritime Species Protection Act became law in 1972.

With protected seal populations on the rise, great whites are venturing further and further north in pursuit of their favorite snack. Of the toothed sharks found in Long Island Sound in the summer, the sand-tiger shark, carcharias taurus, may be the most common. The Marine Aquarium at Norwalk has sand tigers on display in its tanks. Growing up to 10 feet long, the sand tiger is often mistaken for a more dangerous mako, mostly because of the impressive triangular teeth that protrude from its large mouth.

One shark expert called the sand-tiger's teeth "some of the wickedest-looking teeth in all of sharkdom." It's not hard to tell the difference between a sand tiger and mako, as long as you don't mind getting close enough to examine their dentures. The sand-tiger shark's teeth have small projections at the base. And the mako's eye is solid black, while the sand tiger's has a central pupil.

Despite the imposing teeth and fierce look, the sand-tiger shark is considered relatively harmless. If left unmolested, it's usually as docile as a housecat. In Japan, sand-tigers are considered good to eat. "Make no mistake. Like many sharks, it is an opportunity feeder. If an easy meal comes within its range, it will go for it," Lenzycki said. Sharks like Long Island Sound when it is loaded with bait fish like menhaden, shad and mackerel that, in turn, attract larger fish, blues, bass and weakfish.


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