A Great White Shark Was in the Long Island Sound! (Or Maybe Not.)

In an image provided by Ocearch, a 'sub-adult' great white shark, named Cabot by researchers. Cabot's recent visits to Long Island Sound were the first time ever that Ocearch had tracked a great white in that body of water, south of Connecticut. (Robert Snow/Ocearch via The New York Times)



Michael Gold

c.2019 New York Times News Service


The shark frenzy created this week by the tracking of a great white shark swimming in the Long Island Sound may have been somewhat unfounded.

On Monday morning, Ocearch, an organization that researches marine life, said it had tracked a great white swimming off the Connecticut coast, toward the sound’s western end.

The sighting of the aquatic predator, coming just days before Memorial Day weekend and the start of summer beach season, spun up a virtual sharknado of headlines and social media posts.

But don’t cue up the “Jaws” theme just yet. Some 12 hours later, the same shark’s tracker said the creature was in the waters well off the southern shore of Long Island — a discrepancy that led Ocearch to re-examine whether the shark had ever been in the sound to begin with.

“He either was in the sound or he was never in the sound,” John Kanaly, an Ocearch spokesman, said. “We have calculated that he wouldn’t have had time to go all the way around the island and back.”

If all of Ocearch’s data were accurate, the shark would have had to cover close to 200 miles in half a day — a trip that Kanaly said was not likely. He said the discrepancy was probably caused by issues with the shark’s tracker.

Ocearch, which has been tagging and tracking marine creatures since 2007, had a “pretty high degree of certainty” on Monday morning that the shark’s tracker was correct, Kanaly said.

The group’s online tracking map showed three pings between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Eastern time from the shark’s tracker near Greenwich, Connecticut, a town of about 60,000 people near the western end of 110-mile Long Island Sound.

Given the shark’s proximity to the shore, Kanaly said, Ocearch wanted to share its location. So on Monday, Ocearch posted on Twitter that it was the “first time ever” the organization had tracked a large white shark in the sound.

A quick Twitter search proved this not to be the case. In September 2016, Ocearch shared that it had tracked a then-juvenile shark in the Long Island Sound, far from the coast south of Guilford, Connecticut.

On Tuesday, Kanaly clarified that the shark tracked this week was the first white shark of its large size to ping in the Long Island Sound. He also said Ocearch had never seen a large great white travel so close to the shore.

The shark in question, a male great white, was first tagged off the coast of Nova Scotia last October. Researchers eventually gave it the name Cabot, after the Italian explorer John Cabot.

The marine predator weighed 533 pounds at the time and measured 9 feet 8 inches long.

For comparison’s sake, that length put Cabot at about 40% the size of the titular menace in “Jaws,” a massive 25-foot shark who was both mechanical and fictional. (So, no, you’re probably not gonna need a bigger boat.)

Still, Cabot could continue to grow, according to Tobey Curtis, a shark expert and a fishery management specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries service.

The shark is currently categorized as a “sub-adult shark,” Curtis said — essentially, a shark teenager.

In the time since Ocearch began tracking Cabot, he has traveled from Nova Scotia down south, hitting the Gulf of Mexico in January before doubling back and heading north along the East Coast.

The migration pattern was typical of sharks of Cabot’s age and size, Curtis said. But, he noted, a shark traveling in the Long Island Sound, if confirmed, would be unusual.

While the sound has four native shark species, great white sharks are not among them, according to Dave Sigworth, a spokesman for the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Connecticut.

However, great white sharks have been known to migrate along the South Shore of Long Island as the water warms up during the summer, Curtis said. Researchers had previously identified a nursery for newborn and juvenile sharks in that region, he pointed out.

“It’s the only area of the East Coast where there’s a high population of newborn or juvenile white sharks,” Curtis said.

After a prolonged decline, the great white population is believed to be rebounding, Curtis said. He pointed to increased sightings as evidence that measures implemented by the federal government to prohibit the fishing of white sharks had been working.

Still, despite the new shark abundance, rest assured, Sigworth said: “It’s OK to swim in the sound.”

Shark attacks are relatively rare, Curtis said. “Millions of people are swimming in the ocean every year,” he added, “and the risk of interactions, even in hot spots, is very low.”

The last recorded shark attack in the Long Island Sound was in 1961, Sigworth said, and humans likely posed more of a threat to a shark than it did to us.