The Little Mermaid isn’t the only sea dweller that wants to “be where the people are.”
The record-setting shark sightings and attacks of 2022 — around New York and other East Coast states — may not be a coincidence or viral myth: Contrary to popular belief, these oceanic predators really do frequent waters near crowded urban areas, according to a scary new study by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science in Florida.
“We were surprised to find that the sharks we tracked spent so much time near the lights and sounds of the busy city — often close to shore — no matter the time of day,” said Neil Hammerschlag, the UM shark research and conservation program director who helmed the shocking research published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.
“We really thought they would, because studies of big land predators have found that wolves and bears and kind of the big land carnivores tend to avoid being around big cities,” he told Reuters. “[But] that’s not at all what we found with the sharks.”
Hammerschlag wanted to see if similar to these terrestrial carnivores, sharks steered clear of densely populated areas amid increasing urbanization worldwide.
To find out if this was the case, scientists monitored shark movement using a method called passive acoustic telemetry, according to a University of Miami press statement. Specifically, the scientists outfitted three different species of shark — bull, nurse and great hammerhead — with transmitters that emit ultrasonic sounds.
These were then linked to subaquatic “listening stations” off the coast of Miami and the Florida Keys, which gathered data regarding the sharks’ activity.
“When a shark swims within a few hundred feet of one of those listening stations, it can detect that transmitter, hears it, and will record that … that shark swam by that location,” Hammerschlag said. Researchers found that sharks were “spending quite a lot of time close to what we call like urban areas.”
“These sharks were cruising up and down the coastline in areas that, you know, there are people that bathe in the ocean,” the conservation crusader elaborated. “And we saw that, you know, even some aerial drone footage we saw of people out, you know, on Miami Beach and, unknown to them, there were sharks swimming around them, which is pretty crazy.”
It’s unclear why sharks prefer hanging out by metropolises, but scientists speculate that they become acclimated to urban sights and sounds, Reuters reported. Another theory is that these aquatic city slickers are attracted by land-based activities such as anglers discarding fish carcasses.
In light of these findings, the idea of going to a city beach might seem like “ringing a dinner bell” a la “Jaws.” However, Hammerschlag said that this discovery should actually reassure the public, given the comparatively low numbers of attacks.
“Although this might make you a bit nervous, to me it just proves the point that sharks, you know, really don’t want to bite people, and that, in fact, sharks really tolerate people and tend to avoid them,” the shark-lover insisted. “But it just shows that just humans are not on the menu when it comes to sharks.”
In fact, this habituation to human hubs is “probably worse for the sharks than it is for us,” according to Hammerschlag.
“By spending so much time close to shore, sharks are at risk of exposure to toxic pollutants as well as fishing, which could impact their health and survival,” the scientist explained in the University of Miami statement.
Nonetheless, the findings coincide with a rash of attacks and sightings near population centers along the Eastern Seaboard.
Just last week, two people were chomped on in the waters off Myrtle Beach, South Carolina — with one of the victims requiring hundreds of stitches after the vicious attack.
Meanwhile, New York waters have seen a major spike in shark bites, including six incidents off Long Island in July alone.