Rachel Reeves

Great white hype: The truth about white sharks and what their local presence means

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Roundhouse Aquarium co-director Eric Martin snapped this shot of a white shark last July. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Aquarium

Roundhouse Aquarium co-director Eric Martin snapped this shot of a white shark last July. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Aquarium

A baby white shark threw El Porto into a panic last week.

Tuesday afternoon, officials in a Sheriff’s Department helicopter spotted two shadowy shapes moving through the surf. Promptly they took to the P.A. system, issuing orders for swimmers and surfers to clear the water. A jet ski, manned by lifeguards, knifed through the waves in pursuit of the offending creatures. A lifeguard followed suit on a rescue board, as did a speedboat. Onshore, TV cameras were rolling.

But the four- or five-foot animals (estimates differ) were oblivious to the ripples of fear their presence generated. The sharks approached the shore and, their childlike curiosity satisfied, went quietly home, into the depths from which they came.

“The shark showed curiosity; it never really appeared aggressive toward the boat or toward anybody,” Lifeguard Captain Kyle Daniels said.

“It was just checking things out. There was a paddler in the water right next to it and there was no threat to the paddler.”

That night, as online forums erupted with hysteric commentary – “I hate sharks,” one person wrote; “How are we going to protect our kids?” mused another – the juvenile shark went about its usual underwater business.

White shark sightings like last week’s are becoming more frequent in South Bay waters. Most of the recorded shoreline sightings in recent South Bay history involve white sharks, although leopard sharks and grey smoothhounds are also frequent visitors. Further out, mako, soupfin, horn, and swell sharks have been known to surface.

Between November 2011 and October 2012, there were at least seven great white sightings in the South Bay shoreline. Last summer, a fisherman caught and released four great whites off the Manhattan Beach Pier; last winter, a seven-footer occupied the same area for three weeks.

Surfers spotted baby great whites for several consecutive days last week in Manhattan Beach, even after the evacuation at El Porto. A prone paddler reported a white shark sighting near Breakwall in Redondo Beach on Sunday.

But longtime local surfers know documented sighting data are conservative and incomplete.

“There are tons of sharks out there,” said Mike Purpus, who’s been surfing South Bay waves for 54 years. “They’re all over the place.”

More sharks?

Dr. Christopher Lowe, head of the shark laboratory at California State University Long Beach, believes we’re seeing more white sharks because local populations are rebounding.

State regulations aimed at reducing coastal water pollution and eliminating inshore gill netting likely contributed to the population recovery. California legislators further demonstrated their commitment to shark protection when they enacted a shark fin ban on July 1.

But so little is known about sharks that scientists cannot be certain how significant a rebound sharks are experiencing, if any at all. Theories differ.

Lowe believes there are more sharks in the South Bay because there are simply more sharks along the coast.

He knows that most of the white sharks spotted around the South Bay inshore are young. The biggest in recent memory was about eight feet, though babies can grow up to 10 feet long. Adults can be up to 20 feet in length.

Lowe believes we see relatively smaller sharks in local waters because the Santa Monica Bay is an ideal place for babies to safely explore the underwater world – to find their fins, so to speak. Using tagging and tracking methods, he has learned that the South Bay is a “nursery area” for young sharks learning to feed and protect themselves. He and other experts are still unclear about where the actual birthings occur.

“We think they come in to these habitats to learn how to feed and to provide them with safety from larger predators… I think this is really just about increasing numbers of sharks and Santa Monica Bay is a very productive area and a good place for a young shark to learn how to catch abundant prey,” Lowe said.

A large white shark with the remnants of an elephant seal in its mouth. Photo courtesy of Ralph Collier

A large white shark with the remnants of an elephant seal in its mouth. Photo courtesy of Ralph Collier

Another viable, and non-conflicting, explanation is that increasingly warmer water temperatures are attracting more rays to the shallow waters of the South Bay and the sharks are following in hot pursuit.

Eric Martin, co-director of the Manhattan Beach Roundhouse Aquarium, says the reason for a heightened shark presence in South Bay waters is simple: their prey seems to have migrated south from Malibu.

“These sharks used to hang out around Malibu and Gladstone and all the locals knew about them… About a year ago, I’m guessing due to food, the shark population decided to move into the South Bay,” he said. “Last year it was the Manhattan Beach Pier. Now it seems like it’s the El Porto area.

“A lot of people blame it on pollution, but there are so many different factors – ocean currents, cold water currents and warm water currents and upwellings. I think these are just natural changes.”

Encounters

The increased numbers of local sightings mirror a larger statistical trend. Shark encounters are becoming more common along the entire West Coast, due in large part to the fact that greater numbers of people are visiting beaches and using oceans.

Ralph Collier is president and founder of Shark Research Committee, a non-profit organization that records all shark sightings along the Pacific coast of the U.S.

He confirms shoreline interactions between sharks and humans have increased in recent years.

“We just have a lot more people today surfing than we had 10, 20 years ago. We have a lot more people in kayaks, a lot more people swimming, so you’re looking at population dynamics between humans and sharks,” he explained.

“If you have one person in the ocean at a particular location and you have a single shark, mathematically you’d have x probability of the two of them coming into contact with one another, but if you take that same lone shark and you put 100 people in the water at that same location you’ve increased the probability that the shark is going to have an interaction with one of those individuals.”

As shark encounters multiply, so do shark attacks. According to Collier’s database, before 2000 there was an average of two attacks per year along the West Coast; now the average is about six. Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics show that since 1950 there have been 101 shark attacks on humans in all of California. Of those, 13 were fatal.

However, the department’s website also says this: “It is important to note that even though human use of the water over the years has greatly increased due to the growing human population and the popularity of surfing, swimming, and scuba diving, white shark incidents have not increased in a parallel manner.”

The odds of being killed by a white shark (one in 11 million, according to National Geographic estimates) are still drastically smaller than the odds of dying in a car accident (which, by National Safety Council calculations, are one in 84).

“The probability of [a fatal attack] is still ridiculously low,” Lowe said. “You still have a much better chance of getting killed driving to the beach than you would from a shark, yet people have no problems jumping in the car and find that an acceptable risk… so why does that attitude change in regards to ocean related risks?”

Jaws

Martin believes the panic people feel when they hear about sharks is irrational and a result of Hollywood’s hyperactive imagination.

“There’s so much fear about sharks, but it’s more dangerous to cross the street [than to encounter a shark],” he said. “I mean, I’d rather go swim with the sharks than go to downtown L.A. at 2 in the morning.”

For decades, film and television have depicted sharks as mindless murderers with gnashing teeth and voracious appetites. The most famous example is, of course, the 1975 thriller Jaws, whose theme song still makes people’s skin prickle with goosebumps.

It’s worth noting that years after the Jaws movie premiered, the man who wrote it expressed regret for feeding the shark hysteria. Before he died, Peter Benchley was quoted as saying: “[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.” He became a passionate advocate for shark protection in the later years of his life.

Last week, the Syfy Channel premiered Sharknado, a star-studded series about sharks and tornadoes decimating the human population. The #Sharknado hashtag exploded on social media site Twitter, affixed to posts praising the series and demanding a sequel.c jaws

Collier believes that already, humans are hard-wired to fear the unknown, and that this onscreen demonization of the shark feeds that inherent phobia.

“Most individuals are uncomfortable in the ocean to begin with,” he said. “Think about this: If you’re taking a hike in the mountains and you look a half-mile up ahead of you and on the side of the hill you see a big black bear, that’s a potential threat to you but you can see it.

“Now you can avoid it, you can turn around and go the other way, you can turn around and check it’s not running after you. There are a number of things you can do to protect yourself, but when you’re in the ocean and you’re swimming and you look down in the water you can only see four to five feet, so it’s the unknown – what you can’t see – that scares you.

“In the back of your mind [the shark] is coming after you because of all the movies you’ve seen that make [sharks] look like mindless killers, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.”

The white shark

So what, then, is the truth?

“White sharks are intelligent,” Collier said. “They learn. They remember. They make cognitive decisions. They’re not a big, dumb animal, or an eating machine as a lot of people think.”

An emerging biological theory is that the ratio of an animal’s brain size to that of its body is an indicator of its intelligence. If that’s true, sharks have one of the highest ratios for fish – a ratio similar to that assigned to mammals and birds.

Scientists know that white sharks exist off the shores of the United States, South Africa, Japan, Oceania, Chile, and the Mediterranean, but still know very little about the geographic distribution and size of their populations.

We also know that sharks are social creatures; great whites engage in social interaction, and have been sighted body slamming to show dominance. They also aggregate and migrate in schools, and are believed to follow specific migratory routes.

A research paper published in Proceedings, the scientific journal of the British Royal Society, shows that white sharks follow a “highly structured seasonal migratory cycle with fixed destinations, schedule and routes.”

White sharks tend to hang out in the South Bay in the summer – it’s warmer and it’s breeding season for the elephant seal, a favorite prey – and are believed to give birth around this time.

Researchers have determined they leave in the winter and migrate south, to an area between Baja California and Hawai’i that has earned the nickname White Shark Café. There, they spend several months at depths of between 1,000 and 3,000 feet before again heading north.

Distinct white shark populations don’t seem to intermingle. White sharks that migrate between the California coast and the Hawaiian Islands, for example, don’t seem to interact with white sharks that travel between South Africa and Australia.

Studies have shown that sharks are selective eaters, and there is absolute consensus in the scientific community that sharks do not see humans as food. Even great whites – the species that has fatally attacked more humans than any other – are not believed to prey intentionally on humans.

“Over 85 percent of the shark related bites on humans result in no removal of flesh,” Lowe said.

“In most cases, a shark may bite a person and then swim off despite the fact that a person could be mortally wounded.”

Juvenile white sharks feed on fish, small sharks, and rays; adults eat these plus seals, sea lions, dolphins, scavenged whale blubber, seabirds, and marine turtles. They are undeniably curious, however. More often than not, when they bite a human it’s not predatory but inquisitive.

“There are more cases every year where a white shark will come upon an individual in the water and turn and swim off. Once they recognize, and use all sensory systems to determine, this isn’t natural prey, they leave,” Collier said.

Tipping the biological balance

Like the mako – an occasional visitor to the South Bay – the white shark is an apex predator, meaning it sits at the top of the food chain. But while white sharks do not have a natural predator, pollution, shark finning, and overfishing have put extreme pressure on the species.

Shark populations do not absorb the impact well, as they do not reproduce at high rates. They can live for up to 30 years and often do not sexually mature until they reach 18. (The persistence of mystery surrounding sharks is such that researchers aren’t even certain what their manner of reproduction is; sharks, after all, live in a habitat humankind has only recently been able to truly study.)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s website says this: “Most sharks are vulnerable to overfishing because they are long-lived, take many years to mature, and only have a few young at a time. Recovery from overfishing can take years or decades for many shark species.”

A white shark caught and released last year off the Manhattan Beach Pier. Photo courtesy of Eric Martin

A white shark caught and released last year off the Manhattan Beach Pier. Photo courtesy of Eric Martin

This is a cause of great concern for some conservationists and shark advocates, as the most recent census counted just 219 great whites off the coast of California. As sharks do not surface to breathe, it is nearly impossible for scientists to determine a global population count, though some sources estimate it’s around 10,000.

While California has banned the killing of white sharks, environmental groups are pushing for federal protection. This month, the National Marine Fisheries Service dismissed a petition in favor of listing the white shark as endangered; currently it is listed as vulnerable.

A press release issued by the Center for Biological Diversity called the government’s denial of the petition “indefensible.”

Sharks as protectors

In some ancient cultures, affording sharks respect was a no-brainer.

According to traditional Polynesian belief systems, sharks played a dual role: they were a food source, but they were also deities and revered spirits.

Some New Zealand Maori legends describe sharks as helpers who would surface from the depths to assist people in distress, most commonly voyagers whose canoes had flipped.

One of the principal gods in Fijian lore was Dakuwaqa, who took the form of a shark. Even today, local fishermen offer him a gift before beginning their day’s work. In Hawaiian culture, sharks were protectors, or deified ancestor guardians. Many families still recognize their aumakua, their shark guardians.

In Papua New Guinea, people continue to practice the art of “shark calling,” or persuading sharks into shallower waters. This they consider a divine right.

In most seafaring and ocean-centric cultures, sharks inspired not fear but reverence. Martin believes that by interacting more often with sharks, people will begin to embrace their local presence.

“There are all these stories about great whites being these massive monsters, but whoever’s seen a wild great white shark, big or small, knows that all of a sudden fear gives way to amazement and you don’t want to run,” he said.

“I’ve run into that so many times on the pier. People say, ‘What a beautiful animal,’ and they don’t want boats around or anybody to touch these things. I love it when people change like that.

“That’s what we need, a change. That’s what happened off Malibu, and that’s what was happening off the Manhattan Beach Pier. Now the locals are treating this as something special. But in El Porto right now, there’s a lack of knowledge.”

He believes education is the key to breaking down the walls of fear separating humans who use the ocean and creatures that inhabit it.

Lowe agrees.

“Think about what we know of wolf or bear behavior and how public attitudes have changed over the last 100 years,” he said. “These animals were feared as well, but now we look at them differently now that we know more about their behavior and their biology.”

Sharks as part of the whole

One biological fact most people fail to consider, Collier said, is that the shark is a vital cog in a functioning ecological machine. In some places, the systematic slaughtering of sharks has created a significant gap in the food chain.

“I think what people need to realize that no matter what ecosystem we’re talking about, whether we’re looking at the jungle or mountains or the ocean, all ecosystems, if we leave them alone, will balance themselves… What takes place when humans step into the picture we set up an imbalance,” Collier said.

“People need to realize that for the last 20 years humans have been catching up to 100 million sharks a year. [Some ecosystems are] just about on the verge of collapsing because they’ve taken so many sharks out.”

He points to the story of Chesapeake Bay as an example of what can happen when there’s a disruption in the natural rhythms of the marine world.

For more than a century, Chesapeake Bay was a lucrative shellfish fishery. But in several decades, the longliner fishery wiped out 90 percent of the area’s shark population, which had an unintended consequence: the unnatural propagation of the cow nosed ray, which feeds on shellfish.

“When all of the sharks were left alone they kept the cow nose ray population in check, and now the cow nosed rays have proliferated to such a point that a colleague told me if he could get all the rays in Chesapeake to come to the surface, he could walk from one side to the other and never get his feet wet,” Collier said.

“The cow nosed ray has decimated the shellfish industry there… and why? Because people are killing sharks in such astronomical numbers.”

Though white sharks are formally protected in California, sharks are still being slaughtered around the world – and much of the time for their fins, which fetch a pretty penny.

Of this stark fact, Martin said: “When you start thinking about it, who are the killers? Is it the sharks or us?”

Lifeguards standing ready

Captain Daniels admits the uproar over last week’s baby white shark sighting was probably overblown.

“I think the Sheriff’s Department did cause panic by hovering over with helicopters and making public announcements to clear the water,” he said. “[County lifeguards] weren’t consulted on that decision.

A white shark caught and released last year off the Manhattan Beach Pier. Photo courtesy of Eric Martin

A white shark caught and released last year off the Manhattan Beach Pier. Photo courtesy of Eric Martin

“Throughout the week we had continued sightings [and] not one sighting has been of sharks that appear hostile. Quite the opposite. They’ve been docile.”

Contrary to some media reports, lifeguards did not close the beaches, though they did encourage Junior Lifeguard groups to stay close to shore on Wednesday and Thursday.

Regardless, Daniels said, lifeguards are trained to prepare for the worst. Currently they are collaborating on a draft shark policy to inform the handling of a possible attack.

“We’re the professionals that are paid to stay calm and think clearly and rationally in an emergency situation, so we’re taking a rational, systematic approach.”

“We have provided some additional patrols with our Baywatch rescue boats and [jet skis], but again, we don’t see this as anything necessarily out of the ordinary. We’ve had a history of sporadic sightings and never has there been any immediate threat to human life or safety.

“More people step on stingrays or have to be rescued in rip currents than we’ve had shark sightings. That’s the reality. You have a greater chance of stepping on a stingray or getting a bee sting or getting rescued from a rip.”

County of Los Angeles Fire Department records confirm there has never been a documented juvenile shark attack in the area.

In the wake of the heavily publicized El Porto sighting last week, the Sheriff’s Department issued a list of “shark safety tips,” advising the public to avoid wearing brightly colored swimwear or shiny jewelry and to swim in groups and close to shore.

This is not a list of tips county lifeguards endorsed, Daniels said. For one, sharks are more likely to mistake a person wearing a wetsuit – not a pink bikini – for a seal.

A white shark off the Manhattan Beach Pier last year. Photo courtesy of Eric Martin

A white shark off the Manhattan Beach Pier last year. Photo courtesy of Eric Martin

As the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website says: “Wearing a wetsuit and fins, or lying on a surfboard, creates the silhouette of a seal from below. Shark attacks are often believed to be cases of mistaken identity, with surfing or swimming humans mistaken for seals or sea lions. Times of reduced sunlight, such as foggy mornings or dusk, are ideal times to be mistaken for a seal.”

Certainly, the threat of any wild animal attacking a human is real. But most people who study sharks agree that the degree of fear people feel over sharks is not proportionate to the actual danger the animals pose.

Martin simply advises people to use common sense, the way they would in the presence of a wild animal on land.

“The only time they get dangerous is if you grab one and pull its tail backwards, but I wouldn’t suggest anybody ever touch a wild animal in the first place,” he said.

He reflected for a moment, and concluded his argument by saying simply: “Sharks live in the ocean. We don’t.”