By Katie McFadden
“It wasn’t a matter of if, but when?” local fisherman Pat Butera of Forever Two Worlds said. For the first time in 70 years in Rockaway, on the evening of Monday, August 7, a shark bit a woman. Thanks to the quick-thinking actions of lifeguards, that 65-year-old victim is alive.
Senior lifeguard Romeo Ortiz was underneath a lifeguard chair occupied by a rookie guard at Beach 59th Street when he heard the screams of a woman in the water at around 5:45 p.m. on Monday. Ortiz, with more than 10 years on the job, as well as military training, jumped into action, running into the water to rescue the woman who was only shoulder-deep. When he got to her, he found himself in a pool of blood, but that didn’t deter him. Ortiz brought the victim onto the sand and realized the severity of the situation. As he noticed a massive chunk of the back of the woman’s left thigh and buttocks missing, with a wound exposed down to her femur, his first thought was to make a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. He took a pair of lifeguard sweatpants and tied it above the wound.
From two beaches away, nine-year guard Billy McDonnell arrived on the scene. “I grabbed the buoy rope and used that to double down the tourniquet. It was really bad. We held the tourniquet as tight as we could while trying to keep her awake,” McDonnell said. For about ten minutes, Ortiz, McDonnell and their supervisors held the woman’s hands and spoke to her, trying to help her remain calm and stay conscious until further help arrived. As this took place, multiple pieces of the woman’s bitten off flesh were washing up on the shore.
NYPD arrived on the scene in an ATV. McDonnell says one of the officers had a professional tourniquet, which he used, tripling down on the effort to stop the woman from losing all of her blood. The lifeguards and officers helped position the woman on to a backboard and the NYPD drove her up to the boardwalk, where an ambulance met them to transport her to Jamaica Hospital in critical condition. It was those actions that may have saved the woman’s life despite the severe injury. She has since been identified as Tatyana Koltunyuk, a regular beachgoer.
The incident resulted in NYC Parks closing Rockaway Beach on Tuesday, August 8, out of an abundance of caution, as NYC Parks employees patrolled the shores, and FDNY and NYPD explored the ocean with drones, helicopters and boats, in search of other sharks. Beaches reopened on Wednesday, August 9.
But it left many wondering what may have bitten Koltunyuk, and why. The Rockaway Times reached out to local and international shark and marine life professionals for their expertise. After sharing photos of the victim’s bite marks with Dr. Gavin Naylor, Program Director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, who handles the International Shark Attack File, the world’s record on shark attacks, he confirmed that a shark was behind the damage. That would make this the first shark bite in Rockaway in 70 years, since 15-year-old Alan Stevenson was bitten in the leg by a sand shark while he was surf fishing on September 3, 1953, according to the Global Shark Attack File.
Without DNA evidence but assessing the images and information given, Dr. Naylor has a theory on what may have caused this latest bite. “These are bite patterns of teeth consistent with something like a bull shark or a juvenile seven-to-eight-foot white shark,” he said. If it was a young great white shark, Dr. Naylor said bites like this are in their nature. “The little ones are like puppies, they’ll bite anything,” he said. Asked about other possibilities like a sand tiger, a spinner shark, a thresher shark or even a blue fish, Dr. Naylor ruled them out completely.
Dr. Naylor said, “This was a purposeful bite. Not a predatory bite. This is what we call a hit and run, where a shark comes up to something in the water, bites down on it and moves on. It wasn’t trying to come back to consume the victim.” Due to this, and the rarity of shark attacks, Dr. Naylor said he doesn’t believe a repeat is likely. “I would say every time you rank all of your daily activities by their risk, you would find swimming in the ocean is way down on that list. I don’t think people should be too worried,” he said.
Butera, a longtime local fisherman who runs the fishing charter, Forever Two Worlds, and knows the local waters better than many, also believes the bite came from a juvenile great white. “Just looking at the jawbone of a juvenile great white, that was it—that was the bite on this lady,” Butera said. “There have been a lot of juvenile white sharks in the area this year. There’s been a lot of sharks out here. Whites, hammerheads, black tips, dusky, tiger sharks, spinner, sand tigers, mako, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some bull sharks,” he said. “Our oceans are healthy now. This isn’t a bad thing. We gotta respect that this is their house and we’re just a guest in it when we enter.”
And Butera has a few theories about this attack. “I don’t think this is a coincidence but last week, these bunker boats came up here and fished for three or four days with purse seine nets and scooped up a lot of the bait in our area. I went out the following day and it was hard to find bait. When there’s a lot of bait out there, the sharks leave us alone. They stay where the bait is. When there’s no bait around, they go searching,” Butera said. This, in combination with the water conditions on Monday, may have led a curious shark on the hunt closer to shore. “The water was stirred up on Monday. When it’s stirred up, there’s a lot of oxygen in the water and the fish and sharks are very active, they go on the hunt. We had heavy winds, which stirs up the sand and it’s not as clear, so the bait gets disoriented. When the water is murky, it makes it easier for predators to ambush their prey,” Butera said. Dr. Naylor explained that murky water, combined with a time like 5:45 p.m., not only make it harder for people to see beneath the surface, but for sharks to see what they’re hunting. “These animals make mistakes. When we can’t see through the water, they can’t see through the water. They use other senses to detect things, they don’t have hands to sample things with,” he said. Unfortunately for Koltunyuk, it seems she was mistaken prey.
To prevent an attack, best thing people can do is be educated. One tip is to go swimming during prime daylight. Frequent ocean-goers, like surfers, may want to invest in wearable products that deter sharks, like Sharkbanz. And there are signs to look out for that will tell you when it’s time to take a break from the ocean and head to the pool. “Beware of bait on the surface. If you see fish jumping out, don’t swim there. If you see birds working above, don’t swim there. And honestly, it all comes down to that gut feeling. If you think you see something or get that eerie feeling, it’s best you go with your gut and get out,” Butera said.
As for Koltunyuk, she remains in serious but stable condition as she continues to recover. Her family is grateful to those who saved her life. And the feeling is mutual. “We’re just happy she’s alive,” McDonnell said.