Sharks in So Cal | Why So Many Sightings?

Sharks in So Cal | Why So Many Sightings?

Recently, standup paddlers were enjoying a pleasant cruise off the coast of Capistrano Beach, CA when an unsettling message came from high above.

“Attention in the water: This is the Orange County Sheriff’s Department .… You are paddleboarding next to approximately 15 great white sharks.”

The helicopter circling above blared that the sharks were as close as the surfline and urged the paddlers to “exit the water in a calm manner.”

Not sure how calm their manner was, but the paddlers would exit the water unscathed. This was just another chapter in what has become an unsettling trend in Southern California.

Just north of this latest encounter, the Long Beach Fire Department’s Marine Safety Unit estimates that 10 to 20 juvenile sharks swim in the area daily. Further south, the beaches from Laguna Beach to San Onofre State Beach have been closed off and on in recent weeks after several recorded sightings of white sharks ranging from juveniles to adults. Not to mention, amazing footage of sharks breaching next to surfers at Lower Trestles.

While the majority of these sightings are harmless, two attacks within the past 11 months has So Cal ocean-dwellers on edge. These include a near-fatal attack of a women swimming near San Onofre State Beach on April 29, and a swimmer who was bitten off the coast of Corona Del Mar last Memorial Day weekend.

So is it time to retreat back to the safe confines of a freshwater lake for our future paddling excursions? That’s up to you.

While shark sightings have undoubtedly increased, there are also more people in the water than ever before. California’s coastal population has tripled in the past 60 years and between surfing, diving, standup paddling, kayaking, and swimming, there are more ways to enjoy the ocean than ever before.

Couple that with the recent boom of affordable waterproof cameras including GoPros and drones. With more cameras and people on the water than ever before, there’s going to be more shark sightings captured and primed to go viral on social media and between news outlets which inflates the concern.

Black-tipped sharks and docile rays share the waters of Bora Bora with swimmers. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

“Shark populations are increasing [in Southern California] because we’ve done a better job at protecting white shark,” Christopher G. Lowe, Ph.D., Professor of Marine Biology at California State University Long Beach and Director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, told our sister site Grind TV. “They have been protected in California for 20 years now. Protecting them from being killed in commercial fisheries has allowed the population to recover.”

Since fishing for white sharks and their prey–seals and sea lions–has been outlawed in California, all three species have seen their populations spike.

Changing ocean temperatures may also share the blame.

“The young white sharks are very temperature sensitive,” Lowe told Grind. “When the water is warm, they like those conditions. When the water is cold, like in our normal winters, they don’t like it and typically leave. When they get a little larger, they’re less susceptible to cold water.”

San Onofre has been a shark hot spot for years, and the surrounding area is well-known as a white shark nursery, with countless sightings and a half-dozen attacks since 2004.

Scientists believe the the recent increase is two-fold–juvenile sharks congregate during this time of year to feed and the ocean temperatures have been increasing.

While sharks have previously migrated south during the colder winters, warmer waters in Southern California have kept them around.  They frequently appear in “hot spots” such as San Onofre and Sunset Beach, before suddenly disappearing to other waters. What makes these “hot spots” appealing is still not completely understood, but it likely has to do with increased food populations.

While these recent shark sightings are unnerving, they shouldn’t stop you from practicing the sport you love. Sharks have always been there but it’s easier to notice them than ever.

To further soothe your worries, standup also gives paddlers added protection against sharks because our limbs are out of the water and we have a better vantage point of what’s in the water around us.

Nevertheless, it’s best to paddle with a partner and look out for warning signs such as a group of seals skimming across the water, signs posted on the beach, or especially if a helicopter tells you to exit the water in a calm manner.

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