Possible Shark Encounter Investigated After Area Man Files Incident Report

Brush Occurred May 20
By Gina G. Scala | Aug 14, 2019
Photo by: Ryan Morrill

Ship Bottom — What was filed as a shark encounter in the waters off Ship Bottom shortly before Memorial Day weekend with the Global Shark Attack File, an arm of the Shark Research Institute, could have been just that, or it could have been a brush with a dolphin.

“It’s highly unusual,” Marie Levine, founder and executive director of the Princeton-based Shark Research Institute, said Monday of the incident’s proximity to the shoreline, noting Paul Sykes, 67, of Little Egg Harbor was about 80 to 100 yards out on the Eighth Street beach. “It’s a very rare occurrence.”

She said Sykes was reluctant to file a report at all because he was unsure of whether he was bumped by a shark while body boarding between noon and 12:15 p.m. on the Monday before Memorial Day, or a dolphin or some other large fish species. A large school of dolphins was spotted about 4 miles offshore around the time of the incident, and white sharks had been reported along the New Jersey, New York and Connecticut coasts, Levine said.

“I am an experienced waterman, having been an Atlantic City lifeguard and a surfer/bodyboarder my entire life,” Sykes said in the incident report he filed. “I’ve seen many dolphins, some sharks, and a few whales fairly close to me, but have never had a physical encounter.”

That all changed on May 20 when alone in 7 to 8 feet of water, on the outer edge of the sandbar with 3-foot waves breaking, Sykes was hit on his left side around the hip area, according to the incident report. In the report, he said he was resting, with his lower body, legs and swim fins in the water, chest and arms on the board, after paddling out after catching a wave.

“I was knocked off the board and about 3 feet across the water. I went under for just a second and came up and saw a fin next to my board, approximately 12 inches high in the white foam. I pulled my board to me on the attached leash, got on the board and began paddling for shore,” he said in the incident report. “I did not see a fish body or the fin again.”

Levine classified the incident as a collision and said ramming is used by some shark species.

“The fin was about 12 inches,” Levine said. “It would be a relatively small shark.”

Sykes was not bitten or injured, he said in his report to the Global Shark Attack File, and Levine isn’t surprised by that.

“No human is on a shark’s menu,” she said, adding, “If you’re not swimming with sharks, you’re not swimming in a healthy ocean.”

Still, the mention of sharks in ocean waters almost always evokes fear reminiscent of scenes from “Jaws.”

“I think Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida are sensitive (to shark discussions),” Levine said. “Massachusetts because they have white sharks in an area where seals have returned. New Jersey is hypersensitive because of the early attacks” more than a century ago in Beach Haven and north.

Florida, specifically New Smyrna Beach, likes to call itself the shark bite capital of the world, she said.

“It’s not,” Levine said. “It’s the shark nip capital.”

Still, she said there are some areas in the world where no one, not even locals, want to wade into waters because of sharks. Mostly, though, sharks don’t want anything to do with the human species. When an attack does occur, she said, it’s likely the shark was frightened or felt threatened.

“You need to have common sense,” Levine said. “No one goes up to a snarling dog and pets it.” The same logic applies.

Levine, who has worked and dived with sharks in 43 countries, said the increase in the number of shark sightings isn’t surprising. Part of it is technology; drones allow visibility into areas where there wasn’t always a view. Whether any of it is related to climate change is anyone’s guess, she said.

“It’s a good question,” she said when asked. “No one (that she knows of) is really studying that.”

— Gina G. Scala


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