Rockaway Beach closed after shark bite puts woman in hospital

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By Dan Sears

The entirety of Rockaway Beach was closed to swimmers and surfers on Tuesday after a shark bit a woman in the leg as she stood in the water on Monday evening, according to a parks department spokesperson.

The 65-year-old woman was wading near Beach 59th Street just before 6 p.m. “when she felt a sharp pain to her lower left leg causing her to fall backwards into the water,” a NYPD spokesperson said.

Police said lifeguards on the beach applied a tourniquet to the woman’s leg. She was taken to Jamaica Hospital. The NYPD spokesperson said she remained at the hospital Tuesday in “stable but serious condition.”

Diane Chang, a doctor who works at Rikers Island, said she was on the sand with her son when lifeguards came to the woman’s rescue.

“We saw the police come and we saw the woman’s left leg sort of covered in blood,” Chang recalled on Tuesday. “She looked like she was out there swimming and it was in a section where there are lifeguards… I don’t think she’s doing anything that was against the rules.”

Police were using drones on Tuesday to patrol the waters off Rockaway Beach where the woman was bitten. City officials banned people from entering the water along the beach’s 7-mile shoreline throughout the day, but the public was allowed to access the sand and boardwalk.

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“We hope for a full recovery for this swimmer,” said parks department spokesperson Gregg McQueen. “Though this was a frightening event, we want to remind New Yorkers that shark attacks in Rockaway are extremely rare. We remain vigilant in monitoring the beach and always clear the water when a shark is spotted.”

Over the Fourth of July weekend, three swimmers and a surfer reported being bitten by sharks off of Long Island beaches, though none of the injuries were considered life-threatening.

Monday’s shark bite may have been the first in the Rockaways since June 25, 1950, according to a review of newspaper archives. Joseph Falango, who was then a 16-year-old student at Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens, was bitten in his legs that day while swimming with his friends off Beach 103rd Street, according to coverage by the New York Times and other outlets. Falango was reportedly hospitalized and received 25 stitches.

Scott Curatolo-Wagemann, a marine biologist on Long Island’s east end and an investigator with the Global Shark Attack File, said the incident on Rockaway Beach is a cause for concern.

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“Definitely within the last two years, the numbers are higher than they had been in a while,” Curatolo-Wagemann said of unconfirmed shark bite reports.

Curatolo-Wagemann cautioned that other sea animals, like bluefish, may be behind some reported bites.

Shark bites typically occur when the predators are hunting and happen upon human swimmers. “It’s people recreating in the same area where sharks live,” he said.

The state has recently increased the use of drone cameras to spy on sharks and other marine threats. Lifeguards and other authorities then clear the ocean if if the sharks get too close to shore.

Curatolo-Wagemann said he has noticed newer species, like the spinner shark and blacktip shark, entering warmer waters in the New York area likely due to climate change. He said improved water quality has also brought in bait fish hunted by sharks.

The rebounding of the seal population has also been linked to shark encounters in Massachusetts and California, though there is little evidence that it’s occurring to the same degree in New York waters, Curatolo-Wagemann added.

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To limit the possibility of encountering sharks, Curatolo-Wagemann shared a few safety tips: Swimmers should stay away from people who may be fishing, as well as areas where birds may be diving into the water and catching fish. It’s safer to stay in a group rather than swim alone, and beachgoers should always heed safety signage and warnings from lifeguards.

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