Eric Martin and Valerie Hill, co-directors of Manhattan Beach’s Roundhouse Aquarium, left work on Monday at around 8:30 p.m. after a long day – summer camp in the morning and a board meeting in the evening.
Walking down the pier, they noticed a fisherman with a heavily bent fishing pole. He must have caught an extremely large fish, they thought.
“Someone got a bat ray,” Martin told Hill, as they walked up the pier. While he disliked seeing them get caught, it wasn’t illegal. He didn’t plan on interfering.
That’s until he faintly heard someone say “great white.” His ears perked.
“Let me see what this guy has,” Martin told Hill, as he strolled toward the fisherman. Martin leaned over to get a glimpse at the catch.
Holy crap, he thought, that’s a great white shark.
In fact, what the man had on his line was the fifth great white shark caught on the Manhattan Beach pier since 1980, Martin said. The shark – about five to seven-feet long and more than 100 pounds – was a baby, probably not more than a year-and-a-half old, Martin said.
Martin determined the shark was female. “If it had been killed it would’ve been a tragedy anyways because there’re not a lot of fully mature great white sharks up and down the Pacific Coast,” he said.
Plus, he said, it was beautiful. “They aren’t as dangerous as people think.”
The fisherman needed to cut the line. Instead, the fisherman was dropping a large, round net into the ocean.
The line, Martin noticed, was assembled for shark fishing – a steel leader connected to a circle hook.
“You have to cut the line,” Martin told him. “You cannot kill a great white shark. That’s the law.”
The man allegedly refused. Martin explained that great white sharks were federally protected, and threatened to call the police. “If you don’t let me cut this line right away, you will go to jail and you will get a fine,” Martin recalled saying.
The fisherman didn’t budge, Martin said.
“I don’t think he understood the urgency,” Hill said.
Martin squeezed his way closer to the line, but was pushed out by three of the fisherman’s friends, he said.
When Martin realized the fisherman didn’t speak English, he recruited a husband and wife couple fishing on the pier to translate.
Martin explained that great white sharks must be swimming to breathe. If the shark’s head got caught in the net, it wouldn’t be able to pump water through its gills, and would end up dying and sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
Hill, watching the drama unfold, had to react. It was her first time ever seeing a great white shark – she wanted to document the moment. But the two parties remained arguing.
She pulled out her iPhone. “Do I hit camera? Or police? Camera or police?” Hill recalled thinking.
She called the police. “If it turns into a physical fight, and he gets punched, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Hill said, explaining her decision.
The man translating for Martin had a knife in his tackle box, which he handed to Martin.
Within five minutes, Martin managed to cut the line, against the fisherman’s will. “He’s going to be mad at me, but I just saved his butt,” Martin said.
“If you hook onto something big, the person’s adrenaline rolls. You want to catch it,” Martin said, adding that fishermen like taking pictures to prove and share their catches. “It could be an ego thing.”
While Martin managed to cut the line, the hook remained in the shark’s mouth. Without the line, however, the shark could easily free herself from the hook. “She can cut that line like a piece of cake,” Martin said.
What followed the rescue was a learning experience for bystanders, Martin said. “We had other people coming up to us and asking us questions,” Martin said. “Is it common for this (to happen)? Is it safe? Why does a shark have to stay swimming? How long does it take for shark to actually start being mature to have babies?”
Hill was happy to turn the sighting and rescue into a teaching experience. “Our goal is to educate as many people as possible about the ocean, the animals, and human interactions, both good and bad,” she said.