It Was a Sunfish! Not a Shark! Well, Technically…

Well, pretty much everybody went bananas last week when it was “reported” that sharks were spotted in the ocean on the East End. The sharks were spotted flashing their fins where bathers normally would be, and people were advised not to go into the water.

Every single news report, EVERY SINGLE ONE, inaccurately portrayed these sharks as a very real danger to swimmers. Each article made it sound as if you headed out into the water, you would be eaten by these terrifying beasts. It’s a real shame, because it couldn’t be farther from the truth, and shame on the media for dramatizing this “event.”

First of all, the “sharks” that were spotted were not dangerous or lethal in any way, in fact, the species is quite common in the Hamptons—they are called basking sharks and are also known as “sunfish.”

When I was a teenager, I used to lifeguard at Main Beach in East Hampton and those were among the most pleasant summers of my life. I even wrote a musical based on those summers, and one thing that would happen nearly every one of them is that sunfish, or basking sharks, would be spotted and we would get all the people out of the water. We did not do this for the safety of the swimmers who were absolutely in no danger, except for the psychological danger of swimmers thinking that they were swimming in the water with Jaws. [expand]

When all of the swimmers got out of the water, everybody would marvel at the sunfish. They would marvel at how large they were and how lazy they appeared to be. We would then field questions, pretty much all day, explaining to swimmers that the sharks were not dangerous and there was nothing to worry about.

This was quite unlike the headlines we saw last week of “SHARKS SPOTTED, SWIMMERS ORDERED OUT OF THE WATER,” which scared just about anybody that read it. People began to theorize: Is global warming causing them to be here? Is this the apocalypse? No, you idiot, they are just sunfish, and it’s not a big deal.

And if the truth be told, I’ve gone swimming with them.

Back to my lifeguarding days. When everybody got out of the water, nearly all of the lifeguards, myself included, would take turns paddling out into the water on a surfboard to pet the sunfish.

I can remember very clearly, a lifeguard, Sean Kennedy (who at that time was sort of a legendary guy who I’ve heard has since joined the military) and Mica Marder (an artist who runs his own landscaping company like his father did) headed out into the sea to check out the basking sharks, and I remember watching Sean through my binoculars at the top of the lifeguard stand, literally jump on top of one of these sharks and go for a ride. The shark then went underwater, and Sean followed the shark down under by holding onto its fin. He was playing with the shark the way anybody would play with a friendly dolphin while on vacation at Seaworld.

Sean later explained to me on the beach that he went for an underwater ride with the sunfish and that it was one of the coolest things that he had ever done. We all talked about it later and we always looked forward to the days when we would see sunfish in the water because it meant that we would get a break from watching the water and could go out and check out some nature.

So, go ahead and swim your hearts out, and if there has been any confusion about these creatures, I hope this article has cleared it up. [/expand]


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