In May, I participated in a stimulating discussion with white shark survivors Maria Korcsmaros and Leeanne Ericson, scientists, surfers and life safety personnel. Scientists, including CSU Long Beach Professor Chris Lowe, have documented an increase in juvenile and young-of year white sharks along the southern California shoreline in recent years. Tagged sharks, aerial drones and a large aquatic audience have raised the alert that white sharks inhabit these waters. The past 3 year’s unusually warm waters have lead to the sharks staying in the Southern California Bight, instead of heading south in winter in their normal pattern. We are seeing more white sharks off our coastline, and I believe that is a good thing since it is a sign of ecosystem recovery.
The unfortunate (and unusual) attacks on first Maria at Corona del Mar in 2016 and then Leanne last year at San Onofre have raised that alert for some to alarm. Dr. Lowe’s tagging research, and a new smart buoy interactive system by Shark Miigation Systems has hope for state funding if Governor Brown signs a new funding bill that would provide additional research and life safety response and planning.
The event, titled Shark Stories was sponsored by the Orange County Register, and hosted by journalist and surfer Laylan Conelly who has covered the frequency of occurrences and the two women’s tale of survival after their encounters.
Evidence by Lowe and Stanford Biologists from the Tagging of Pelagic Predators (TOPP) suggest that white sharks are recovering in the Northeast Pacific population since protection from overfishing in the 1970s, and certainly more sightings and close encounters with young sharks are occurring in Southern California.
On the panel was former bronzed Aussie pro surfer Ian “Kanga” Cairns, who is championing safety along the southern california waterfront and encouraging new technologies, in addition to working with local life safety organizations. Some of these technologies include Shark Bandz, Shark Shields and smart buoy systems. Low tech includes stickers of eyes, or striped pattern on the bottom of your board, or patterned wetsuits to persuade these ambush predators that you aren’t their favorite prey (seals and sealions).
Although sightings are high, the number and risk of aggressive encounters are are still very low. A Stanford study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment in 2017, finds that despite increasing records of shark attacks, mostly by white sharks in California, the individual attack risk has dropped by more than 91 percent during the past six decades. The study indicates that the highest risk group, Surfers, which have a 1-in-17 million chance of being bitten by a white shark in California.
However these odds don’t comfort when confronted by the man in the grey skin suit. The audience was riveted by the personal experiences of Maria and Leanne – who both have returned (cautiously) to the water.
White sharks, also called great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias), are intriguing to many, repulsive to some and a fact of life if you are a water off the west coast of North America. Protected since 1994, our population, overfished commercially and killed in a backlash to the movie Jaws, is on the recovery. Southern California serves as the birthing ground and nursing area for the young white sharks which consume fish including stingrays. Subadults in the ten to twelve foot range transfer their diet to seals and sea lions which have more calories. Eventually these sharks head north of Point Conception
Mature adults undergo a large offshore migration, leaving the favored feeding grounds where seals and sea lions breed like the Farallon Islands, to an area near Hawaii. In the late summer and early fall, these sharks come back to forage and human encounters peak out in October. The best way to avoid a shark encounter is to avoid locations and seasons where risk is highest, the study’s authors advise.
Over 80% of recorded shark fatalities along the west coast are north of Point Conception. Yet even in the months of peak white shark activity in the fall we call Sharktober, shark attacks are extremely rare, more rare than being struck by lightning, falling in the bathtub or even selfies. If you surf, swim or dive in the ocean in this area, the odds of an encounter with a large white shark are higher in what is called the Red Triangle– the area bounded by Big Sur, the Farallon Islands and Point Arena.
Surfers have the highest risk according to statistics, yet we can reduce that risk (besides trading in your board for golf clubs). For example, the riskiest time and place for California surfers is October and November in Mendocino County. That risk can be reduced 25-fold if you surf in March, and more than 1,600-fold if you surf in March between San Diego and Los Angeles.
Sharks play a vital role in marine ecosystems, and benefit prey populations and even humans by increasing ecosystem health. There is hope that through increased awareness, better data and warning systems we will minimize shark encounters. Individuals can also take responsibility to reduce a shark encounter. Below are suggestions we can take so both humans and sharks can swim unharmed.
- Avoid areas with high activity of seals in the water or where they are known to haul out.
- Don’t enter the water in areas of known shark activity. Known hot spots in southern California include San Onofre, Seal Beach and Sunset beaches. Northern CA hotspots include Humboldt (Bunkers), Dillon Beach, Ano Nuevo and Pt Conception.
- Pay attention to Nature’s signs. Circling birds, splashing water, a dead whale, feeding seals and dolphins may also indicate a shark is near.
- Use the buddy system. Most shark attack survivors lived because they had immediate aid.
- Don’t look like shark food. A dark silhouette may resemble shark prey. Long boarders have lowest risk with swimmers and divers the highest. Patterned wetsuits and surfboards are available and touted by some but not well tested by science or time for this species.
- Low light may add to a mistaken predation. White sharks have an incredible sensory toolkit but are also visual predators. These sharks may mistake swimmers or surfers as a seal or sea lion during hours of low light.
- River mouths or areas of low water visibility can increase risk. White sharks also frequent areas with deep channels and drop offs or canyons.
- Don’t bleed in the water. If you have a cut get out. (The evidence of sharks attracted to menstrual blood or urine attracting sharks is inconclusive.)
- If you see a shark, alert others, stay calm and paddle away avoiding jerky, splashing motions and exit the water. Warn others.
- Observe the signs. Beaches are posted if a large shark is sighted. Some like Stinson Beach have permanent signage. Tweets using the #SharkWatch tag, drone footage and alerts on social media often outstrip the news and can alert ocean goers where high shark activity may be occurring. Sharks patrol areas and are not locals so in time the shark will leave an area.
Final Resort? Shark survivors have described striking the nose, eyes or gills as a successful (and last ditch) approach towards inducing the shark to release them. Return attacks with white sharks are extremely rare and the odds of survival are high with immediate stabilization and care.
See a shark? Send out a tweet to SharkStewards #SharkWatch and we will record the observation and share. Learn more about sharks at Shark Stewards.org
Want to save sharks and protect ocean health? Join Shark Stewards for one of our Sharktober education events and Sharktoberfest celebrations.