the group portrait

Shark Spotters

Looking for what lurks off New York’s beaches.

A sand shark. Photo: Brian Finke
A sand shark. Photo: Brian Finke

For most New Yorkers, proof that apex predators have returned in large numbers arrived in a series of hair-raising news flashes about shark attacks on beachgoers. The first nibble came in June when a man swimming at Jones Beach suffered a “possible shark bite” to the leg; this incident was quickly followed by five more reports of shark bites happening off Long Island in a three-week span. But for Greg Metzger, the chief field coordinator for the SOFO Shark Research and Education Program, evidence of a thriving New York shark population has been found here for a while.

“We’ve been seeing more and more sharks for nearly ten years now,” says Metzger, a high-school science teacher who spends his summers captaining boatloads of shark researchers. “As sad as it is that these individuals had a bad day, the uptick in negative interactions and shark sightings is really a result of positive conservation efforts.”

Crew members, from left, Brianna Cahill, Lucas Ludica, Charles Garra, Greg Metzger, Brittney Scannell, Walter Zublionis, Anthony Bruno, and Kyle Martin. Photo: Brian Finke

Most summer mornings, Metzger meets a rotating crew of graduate students, research technicians, and marine scientists — the Matt Hoopers to Metzger’s Captain Quint — whose organizations charter his boat and shark-tracking services to conduct field work. Since co-founding an independent shark-research cooperative in 2015, Metzger has worked with researchers from ­universities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of ­Environmental Conservation, the Wildlife Conservation ­Society, and shark-research behemoth Ocearch. “I grew up on the south shore of Long Island, and I don’t remember hearing about any bites,” says Walter Zublionis, a volunteer SOFO captain (day job: software engineer) who has fished with Metzger for years.

In 2016, the team identified a rare nursery of great-white sharks four miles off Hampton Bays, a breakthrough discovery for researchers studying the animal’s migratory patterns, and Metzger helped attach a satellite tracker to a juvenile’s dorsal fin, making it the first-great white pup to be tagged in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to great whites, SOFO voyages have collected data on sandbar sharks, dusky sharks, threshers, sand-tiger sharks, makos, blue sharks, blacktips, spinners, and others.

Metzger reeling in and tagging a sand shark. Photo: Brian Finke
Photo: Brian Finke

“Greg doesn’t like to be called a shark expert, but he definitely is,” says Brittney Scannell, a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook University’s marine community ecology lab. “It can be intense when there’s a shark on the boat. There’s no messing around. He cares a lot about keeping the animal safe and doing good science — which is important to us when we’re looking for someone to collaborate with.”

Metzger isn’t much of a swimmer, so his up-close encounters don’t get in the way of his summer relaxation. Mercifully, none of the recent bites have resulted in serious injuries. For the most part, the victims — a pair of lifeguards, two surfers, and a hapless bather standing waist-deep in the surf — suffered cuts and scrapes.

“I have a 4-year-old daughter, and I wouldn’t think twice about her jumping and swimming in the ocean,” Metzger says, before adding, “as long as it wasn’t in the morning, it wasn’t in the evening, there weren’t large schools of bait fish around, and there weren’t whales and dolphins and birds feeding. We need to educate ourselves on when it’s appropriate to swim in a more conserved ocean.”

“These sharks aren’t looking for a human to bite,” says Zublionis. “No way.”

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Shark Spotters