Jaws Dropping! Shark Washes Up on Rockaway Beach


 Monday’s beautiful beach day sure was Jaws-dropping. Many beachgoers were on high alert when a fin was spotted in the shallows around Rockaway Beach. They got a closer look at the finned creature—a thresher shark—when it later washed up on the shore on Beach 102nd Street, just two days before beaches were officially opened for swimming.

Earlier in the day on Monday, June 29, whistles were blaring for people to get out of the water as a shark was spotted in the shallows. According to one Parks Department Security Officer, the shark had been spotted struggling on the Beach 86th jetty. He added that another fin could be seen out in the water nearby. With some help from nearby surfers, the creature was freed. It continued to drift uptown, thrilling beachgoers with the unique sight of a shark so close to shore. By mid-afternoon, the shark was seen rolling around the shoreline on Beach 102nd Street, appearing to be bloody, lethargic and seemingly injured. According to bystanders, Parks Department employees pulled the animal out of the water and on to the sand.

The shark, approximately five feet in body, and about 10 feet total with its elongated tail, drew a crowd. The one elongated sickle-shaped fin of the tail is the signature feature of a thresher shark, which are common in the Atlantic Ocean. The creature could be seen flaring its gills and opening and closing its mouth on the sand as it struggled to breathe. Parks Department employees surrounded the animal to keep crowds at a safe distance.

As shark strandings are not a common occurrence in Rockaway, officials from the Parks Department made phone calls to various agencies that could provide the proper protocol on what to do with the injured shark. Calls were made to the NY Marine Rescue Center (formerly the Riverhead Foundation) and the Department of Environmental Conservation.

After about an hour, the shark died. A front-loader was later brought in to remove the shark’s body from the beach.

Thresher sharks are common to the northwest Atlantic Ocean. There are three different species of thresher shark; the common thresher, the big eye thresher and the pelagic thresher. They can grow up to 20 feet long, with their notable long tail, making up about half of their length. They can get up to about 500 lbs. These sharks prefer to hang out in deep, open waters, but can be seen in the shallows when hunting. With a small mouth and a timid nature, thresher sharks are typically not a threat to humans. They prefer a diet of schooling fish. There is only one recorded incident in which a thresher shark attacked a human, and it was provoked by the person grabbing the shark’s long tail. Their tail is known to cause more damage than their small teeth. Thresher sharks use their tail to their advantage while hunting. They often use their tail to lure prey and will slap prey with the tail once it is close, until their prey is disabled, before attacking the their meal.

While not a threat to humans, humans are a threat to thresher sharks. Although not endangered, thresher sharks are considered to be vulnerable by the World Conservation Union since 2007. This is in part because they are a desirable sport fish that can be eaten. Thresher has sometimes appeared on local menus at restaurants such as Whit’s End. Multiple people who passed by the shark on Monday even asked the Parks Department if they could have it, but Parks declined.

Despite their vulnerable status, according to NOAA Fisheries, threshers are currently fished at a recommended level. These sharks are often the prime catch in local fishing tournaments. One such tournament, based out of Point Lookout, LI, was held on Sunday, just one day before Rockaway’s thresher was found. As many as seven thresher sharks were caught during this tournament, the largest being 487 pounds.

Some speculated that the shark injured on Monday, may have been one thrown back in the water from Sunday’s tournament due to its smaller size. Others speculated that it was struck by a boat or attacked by a larger shark. Some thought it was injured on the jetty. It is not common for a thresher shark to beach itself. Last summer in California, lifeguards attempted to pull a thresher shark that had beached itself, back into the water. The shark was found dead on a different part of the beach the next day. It is believed this shark had a bacteria-induced brain infection, which caused it to repeatedly beach itself. It is unknown what happened to the shark that washed up on Monday.

The NY Marine Rescue Center often responds to reports of marine mammals and sea turtles on local beaches, but when it comes to sharks, it is recommended to call the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation at (631) 444-0444.

 By Katie McFadden