The just off the shoreline at in Westhampton Beach are most likely harmless, slow-moving basking sharks, according to Chris Paparo, senior aquarist at Riverhead’s Atlantis Marine World.
“They are big sharks — the second largest shark next to the whale shark,” he said. “Their large dorsal fin tends to strike fear in everybody. If you’ve seen the movie, Jaws, you know a big fin is a bad thing, but not when it comes to basking sharks.”
Paparo said basking sharks can grow up to 40 feet with three-foot-high dorsal fins. Typically, however, the basking sharks spotted in local waters are only about 20 feet long, which Paparo said is still a very large shark.
“They generally show up around the end of May and early June to feed,” he said. “They will stay around as long as there is food; sometimes a day or two, sometimes longer.”
Paparo says basking sharks have no teeth. Instead, he said, they have gill rakers and feed similarly to whales.
“They open their mouths and feed on plankton and anything else at the surface. They are not hunters and do not chase fish,” he said.
While a basking shark can’t eat a human, Paparo said it is best to steer clear of them simply because of their size.
“You don’t have to go running out of the water if you see one, but they could hit you with their tail. They are also a wild animal so you don’t want to get in their way if they get spooked.”
Paparo also noted that basking sharks are listed as “vulnerable” animals.
“They are an easy target and are over fished,” said Paparo. “Their populations have seriously declined over the last few years. They are also easily hit by boats."
“If you're in a boat steer clear,” he said.