Matt Hollander, a 16-year-old Pierson student, was waiting to catch a wave off the shores of Sagg Main beach, when he felt a large set of teeth sink into his foot and bite down. Hollander’s foot instantly went numb. He was able to paddle back to the beach on his board. Several surfers helped pull him out of the water and up to the lifeguard stand, leaving a trail of blood on the sand.
Earlier that same day, Friday, July 24, several surfers fled the waters with minor bites on their feet and hands. Local fisherman blame these wounds on passing schools of bluefish, an aggressive breed of fish, who were feeding on bunker, a small fish commonly used for bait. Hollander’s parents, however, believe their son was bitten by a Mako Shark, which was most likely feeding on the bluefish. Shortly after Hollander was transported to Southampton Hospital at around 2:45 pm, town lifeguards closed the beach for swimming and it remained closed for the rest of the day.
“There are a couple of theories [of why this happened]. But the fact that it happened is not a theory,” reported Allyn Jackson, superintendent of parks and recreation for Southampton Town. “Over the years, every once in a while we see a feeding frenzy of bluefish, where the bluefish [feed] on top of the water. My understanding is that this was different. There was no indication of any kind on top of the water. You really couldn’t see them.”
On Friday morning, swimmers spotted bluefish under the clear waters. A Sag Harbor mother, who asked to remain anonymous, said she felt a bluefish slap her leg as it swam by. Jay Brunner, a local lifeguard with 20 year’s experience, happened to be off duty on Friday and was spending his morning surfing when he noticed several fellow surfers swimming to shore with cuts and scraps on their feet. Brunner said it isn’t uncommon for bluefish to feed in East End waters, but he believed the volume of bluefish related injuries on Friday was unusual.
“I have been coming here a long time and it isn’t normal to have multiple people wounded [from bluefish],” remarked Brunner.
Bluefish are a notoriously predatory fish and have extremely sharp teeth. According to Sag Harbor fisherman Al Daniels bluefish weigh on average ten to fifteen pounds and grow up to 36 inches long. When feeding, said Daniels, bluefish have been known to chase bunker towards the shore making it easier to corner and feed on the fish. Fisherman use bluefish as bait to catch tuna and sharks.
According to Matt Hollander’s father Alvin, a local fisherman witnessed Matt being dragged from the water and after seeing his wound believed a baby Mako Shark was the culprit. Matt had two, evenly spaced, deep punctures on the side of his right foot.
“Given the surf conditions and the nature of Matt’s wound, that was his best estimate,” explained Alvin. “These are deep puncture wounds. He has a severed vein and his muscle was protruding.”
“The lifeguard who carried me to the parking lot said it didn’t look anything like a bluefish bite,” added Matt. “I never saw what bit me, but I felt a large mouth bite down on my foot and then it let go and then it was numb from then on.”
Matt believed he was around 300 feet from shore, which Jackson points out is outside the purview of the town’s lifeguard staff.
Once he arrived at the hospital, Matt’s doctors didn’t stitch up the wound because they feared doing so would lead to an infection which would have forced them to amputate his leg.
“The doctor got all serious and looked me in the eyes and said ‘if we give you stitches or if you do anything on your foot, we may have to amputate,’” recalled Matt.
His doctor stitched up the wound on Monday. As Matt recuperates, he is counting the days until he returns to his duties at a surf instructor at a local summer camp. Despite his injury, Matt says he will continue to surf.
“I’ll be back out there as soon as they tell me I can,” remarked Matt.
Although Matt and his father believe a baby Mako Shark caused his injuries, local fisherman Daniels says it is possible for a bluefish to cause a severe wound.
“I think it is true that they, [bluefish and Mako Sharks], kind of go together,” noted Daniels. “But a fifteen pound bluefish could literally bit your finger off.”
Jackson reported that lifeguards checked the beach waters on Saturday morning for schools of bluefish but found none. He chalks up Friday’s incident to a freak occurrence.
Above: Hollander, still in his wet suit, rests on a Southampton Hospital bed with his injured foot bound up. In this picture, the sheets of the bed are soaked in his blood.