I’ve spent the better part of two decades surfing and paddling in the breeding grounds of great white sharks.
Growing up outside the San Francisco Bay Area I cut my teeth at spots like Montara, Año Nuevo and Ocean Beach, all breaks well within the “Red Triangle,” the West Coast’s infamous white shark haven. 18 years spent stroking through shark city, and for the first 15 I’d never seen one in person.
In the spring of 2015, I was paddle surfing with a group of buddies at Trails in San Clemente. It was a warm, clear morning with light wind, glassy water and great visibility despite a modest swell. The kind of easy morning that leaves a SoCal surfer floating through the day on a cloud.
After we had our fill of waves on a lonely sand bar, it was time to catch a wave in and head to work. Dave and I were the last guys out, waiting on an incoming set for our rides in when I spotted a fin. It was in the surf zone maybe 50 feet from where we stood.
“Check it out--a dolphin,” I motioned to Dave.
Then I noticed the fin wasn’t moving, not bobbing and dipping the way dolphins do. It held its place pointing directly at us, motionless.
“That’s a shark!” Dave yelled as he pivoted and caught the first wave of the set. Realizing he was right, I panicked and took a plunge. I surfaced and sat up on my board in time to catch the unmistakable silhouette of a juvenile white shark--roughly eight feet long--illuminated in the translucent back of the next peaking wave. It still hadn’t moved.
I scratched into that same wave and bee-lined for the beach, more stoked to catch a closeout than I’ve ever been. Back on terra firma, I went straight to the lifeguard to report what I’d seen.
“You mean you’re not going to do anything about it?” I said, confused.
“There’s not much we can do,” the lifeguard responded casually. “This is their home; sightings like this happen every week. They’re mostly babies and they’re usually more afraid of us than we are of them.”
Turns out these sightings are a daily occurrence at many West Coast beaches, especially between the warmer months of May and October. Last May, multiple sharks were sighted just offshore from Long Beach nearly every day. The same month near San Clemente, officials spotted a paddler surrounded by more than 10 white sharks in the immediate vicinity. Another report saw 25 sharks sighted in a single day just offshore from Capistrano Beach.
"This is the beginning of what we call shark season in Southern California,” said Christopher Lowe, professor and director of the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach.
10 Sharks Sighted Near San Clemente, California - May 10, 2017
“This exact same scenario occurred last year,” Capt. Cameron Abel, a member of the Long Beach Fire Department’s Marine Safety Unit said of the area’s sightings. “They were around most of the summer. We’d spot them periodically ... and toward the end of the summer, they disappeared.”
It makes sense. While the numbers remain unknown, West Coast shark populations seem to be on the rise and the population of humans in the water definitely isn’t shrinking. More people plus more sharks equals more encounters, and last year the media took note. But is this really something to be afraid of, or is the media frenzy just waxing Spielberg?
Last year tied the record (originally set in 2004) for having the most shark attacks on the West Coast. There were nine in total, all presumably by great whites, none fatal.
West Coast shark sightings have increased in recent years. So have the seasonal ocean temperatures along the coast. Adult sharks have babies off the West Coast that typically migrate south when the water gets cold and head north again when it warms back up.
The past couple years have seen many arriving earlier and leaving later, presumably because of the warmer temperatures. Thus, most of the sharks sighted in California last year were juveniles (smaller than eight feet), and it’s generally understood among the scientific and lifeguarding communities that most of them want nothing to do with us.
In fact, lifeguards don’t even clear the water for sightings of white sharks under eight feet long, hence the disturbing calm I experienced with the lifeguard that day at Trails.
“(The media is) not clarifying that these are babies and they are using our beaches as nurseries,”explains Lowe. “These beaches are being used as cradles.”
To put things in perspective: a person is more likely to die by lightning than by shark attack. A person is way more likely to die in a car. The vast majority of West Coast surfers never encounter a white shark. But you shouldn’t be oblivious to the potential.
“The public has to learn to live with these predators once again,” Lowe said. “We have to now learn to share these environments.”
Luckily, measures are in place to make that adaptation smoothly. Law enforcement in Southern California routinely monitor the coastline by helicopter for preventative shark sightings and spread awareness when a specific area is especially sharky.
Meet the Clever Buoy--the latest technology in shark attack prevention
New technologies called Shark Mitigation Systems (SMS) that use sonar and identification software to detect and report sharks are now in place at many popular beaches around the world.
There are even shark deterring wetsuits and board designs available on the market.
Given that white sharks are one of the oldest species on the planet, it’s surprising how little humans really know about them. What we do know is that the ecosystem is constantly evolving and we humans are evolving with it--our technologies, our realities and our fears. And while I am not oblivious, I will continue to take my chances on dreamy morning sessions at Trails, even if I’m not always the only one in the lineup. -MM