Underwater tax

Drones used to look for sharks off the coast of New York

Image credit: Dreamstime

Lifeguards have begun to use drones to monitor the ocean off the coast of New York’s Long Island after five people were bitten by sharks during the last week.

Although sharks used to be rare in New York, the increase in sightings of these animals during the summer has prompted the use of new technologies to ensure people's safety. 

Over two days this week, five people have reported being bitten by sharks at some of New York’s most popular beaches, with a 10-foot (three-metre) shark being spotted yesterday, Thursday 6 July, at Robert Moses State Park, in Long Island.

This same beach also delayed its opening on July 4th 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.”

Shark sightings have increased over the last ten years, according to officials. Prior to 2022, New York had only recorded a dozen unprovoked bites, and just four people had been bitten by sharks over the last decade, according to data compiled by the International Shark Attack File, which tracks shark attacks around the world.

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

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 around 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 added.

“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,” he 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, governor 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 beach-goers 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.

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

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