Shore shark report: It's safe in the water

A manatee may soon join a bevy of sea creatures - sharks, Portuguese men-of-war, whales - that have visited the waters off New Jersey this summer.

But beachgoers should not fear the ocean; the water is fine, the shark population is the same as in years past, and the Portuguese men-of-war are dwindling.

Several manatees were believed to be between Maryland and Delaware on Friday, and one appeared to be heading north, said Robert Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

He warned shoregoers - particularly boaters - to stay away from the manatees if they see them. Boats often run right over the creatures, he said.

And, while reports of shark-infested Jersey Shore waters may be circulating on social media, Schoelkopf said the number of shark sightings had been consistent with previous seasons.

"Unfortunately, now we have people with their iPhone cameras taking pictures," Schoelkopf said.

"Sharks have lived in the ocean since the Earth cooled," said Bob Considine, press director for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "What's new is camera phones on everyone who is walking the beach and the Internet. . . . It magnifies everything."

The DEP does not monitor sharks, but the agency has been keeping track of sightings of Portuguese men-of-war, the clear jellyfish-like creatures whose venom can be deadly.

"I think we are through the worst with the Portuguese man-of-war," Considine said, attributing the early-summer uptick in New Jersey sightings to an "unusual event" - a warm water current combined with winds blowing from the east.

He said the DEP logged several dozen sightings on beaches in the end of June.

"Since then, we've just had reports of a few stragglers," he said.

The New Jersey Poison Information and Education Center has received no calls regarding man-of-war stings, executive director Steven Marcus said, but "that doesn't necessarily mean they're not happening."

"I would remind people to stay away from the doggone things," he said.

In Brigantine, two children accidentally stepped on a Portuguese man-of-war a few weeks ago, said Mike Morrell, assistant chief with the Brigantine Beach Patrol.

They were taken to a hospital to treat a rash that spread to their legs, he said.

Brigantine has buried 20 men-of-war this summer. The DEP advises beach patrols to bury the creatures up by the sand dunes - they are harmless when dry.

Ocean City has not had Portuguese man-of-war or shark sightings in two weeks, said Ronald Kirk, a lieutenant with the Ocean City Beach Patrol.

"A lot of times, people think it's a shark, but it's a skate," a fish related to sharks, Kirk said.

Sharks off the Jersey Shore are seldom dangerous, he added.

The Cape May Beach Patrol has logged a few man-of-war sightings - no stings - but zero shark sightings this summer, said administrative assistant Joe Sutter.

While sitting on the beach, Considine said, he has overheard conversations - mostly jokes - regarding the possibility of sharks in the water.

But that has not kept people away, he said.

Cape May, Brigantine, and Ocean City Beach Patrols all report that beaches - and the water - are as crowded as ever this summer.

"People shouldn't be afraid to go in the water. The water quality's great," Considine said. "If you put the sharks and Portuguese man-of-war out of your mind, you're going to have a great time."

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