Roundhouse Aquarium co-director Eric Martin snapped this shot of a white shark last July. Photo courtesy of Roundhouse Aquarium
Great whites have captured the Beach Cities’ attention.
According to some databases, there were more shark sightings in 2013 than in years prior, but no one really knows whether that’s because populations are rebounding or because iPhones and GoPros and the internet make encounters so much more public.
A video of a great white off Manhattan Beach went viral in October, airing on a handful of TV stations and earning more than 230,000 hits on YouTube.
In July, a baby white shark threw El Porto into a particular panic. The sighting was headlining news for regional stations. Online forums erupted with hysteric commentary – “I hate sharks,” one person wrote; “How are we going to protect our kids?” mused another – but longtime local surfers just shook their heads, knowing full well the commonness of shark encounters in the South Bay.
Dr. Christopher Lowe, head of the shark laboratory at California State University Long Beach, said Beach Cities residents are encountering juvenile white sharks with increasing frequency simply because local populations are rebounding.
State regulations aimed at reducing coastal water pollution and eliminating inshore gill netting likely contributed to the population recovery, he said. 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.
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, said 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. “[In 2012] 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.”
The increased numbers of local sightings mirrored a larger statistical trend. Down the entire West Coast, shark encounters were more common this year than in years past, due in large part to the fact that greater numbers of people are entering the ocean.
Ralph Collier, president and founder Shark Research Committee, a non-profit organization that records all shark sightings along the Pacific coast of the U.S., confirmed that 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.”
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 are believed to spend several months at depths of between 1,000 and 3,000 feet before again heading north.
Some seem to be lingering; two surfers reported seeing a five-foot great white in Hermosa Beach on Dec. 8.
If there is one thing about sharks Martin wants people to remember, it’s that as important cogs in the marine machine, they deserve respect and awe from those humans who visit their habitat.