It is Sharktober. This is the term surfers refer to the months bordering and including October when peak white shark activity and shark attacks occur along the central California coastline. The Bay is the center of the Red Triangle. This area bounded by Bodega Bay, Big Sur and the Farallon Islands, has nearly half of the recorded white shark attacks on humans in the US. Over 80% of recorded shark fatalities along the west coast are north of Point Conception. If you surf, swim or dive in the ocean in this area, the odds of an encounter with a white shark are higher than most other places.
Yet even in these months of peak white shark activity, shark attacks are extremely rare, more rare than being struck by lightning, falling in the bathtub or even selfies. Survival odds of a white shark attack is high at 90% along our coastline, and can be increased following sensible behavior. A Stanford study, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 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.
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, the population of northeast Pacific sharks once overfished is on the increase. Nearshore observations of white sharks, particularly off southern California where the juveniles and young frequent are increasing. 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. 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. This Sharktober we can avoid incident by following the suggestions below so that both humans and sharks can swim unharmed.
- Avoid areas with high activity of seals in the water or where they haul out.
- Don’t enter the water in areas of known shark activity. Known surfing hot spots 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. Our 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.
11. 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.