There's an old saying about sharks in the line-up that goes: "If the water tastes salty, there's sharks out there." As surfers and ocean swimmers we thrust ourselves into the food chain, casually entering a wildlife environment without any hint of trepidation. And for decades, surfers in Southern California enjoyed a relatively carefree existence when it came to sharks, specifically indigenous great white sharks. But with the occurrence of two significant shark attacks in the past 11-months alone in Orange County, those times appear to be changing.
A terrifying attack by a large shark on a swimmer just inside the surf zone last Saturday at Church's, a popular wave 1/4 mile south of Lower Trestles (one of the most crowded spots on the West Coast), leaves a single mother of three in a coma clinging to life. Combined with another non-fatal attack in nearby Corona Del Mar last Memorial Day, the situation leaves one of the most densely populated surf regions on the planet reeling.
Additionally, in the past week there's been a spate of sightings from Dana Point to San Onofre, numerous close encounters, beach closures and some alarming video imagery (including drone footage of nine 8-to-10ft. sharks trolling Beach Road in Capistrano) has people wondering if this is the new normal.
Marine Biologist Christopher Lowe, from CSU Long Beach and Director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, told the OC Register this week, "We should be worried, to an extent, but we should also be encouraged," referring to shark protection laws instituted in the 1990s.
The inference being that in Southern California at least, we have an ecosystem and habitat on the rebound. Until that point, gill netting by commercial fishing in local waters had decimated shark populations from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Though now mostly eliminated and much more stringently policed, gill netting catches nearly everything in its path and sharks paid a heavy toll. New policies and techniques even allow for many trapped juvenile white sharks to be placed back into the sea after being caught. But that's mostly in deeper waters, far beyond shallow beaches.
So, what's the rub down in OC? What's with all the increased activity? Has the southern boundary of the infamous "Red Triangle" been expanded from its traditional location well north of Point Conception to include Southern California and points to the south? For the uninitiated, the Red Triangle is an arbitrarily denoted historically sharky zone where most of the deadly shark attacks in California have occurred over the years. With borderlines traveling west from Big Sur up to the Farrallon Islands situated 30-miles offshore of San Francisco Bay, then spreading north to Bodega Bay in Sonoma County, it's both a badge of honor and fearful reality to live inside its boundaries.
Although not much is known about the elusive, mature great white shark, scientists and experts from the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab explain that there are a myriad of reasons for the increased shark activity in recent years, both man-made and environmental. According to Lowe, the list includes increased shark and pinniped populations due to institutional protections, the El Nino weather pattern and rising oceanic water temps worldwide. Not to mention Southern California has been, and remains, a great white nursery. And it's been so for a very long time.
A massive increase in the marine mammal population locally -- the white shark's preferred diet -- since protection was implemented in the 1970s has provided plenty of sustenance for adult females (average size, 14-to-16 feet, 3,000 lbs.) rearing their young pups at places the CSULB Shark Lab calls "hot spots." Some of the those hot spots include Santa Monica Bay, L.A.'s South Bay, north Huntington Beach, San Onofre and La Jolla. Nevertheless, take a look at a harbor seal some time, they're like chicken nuggets to white sharks, adult sea lions are like an over-sized burrito. It's a simple equation, really: apex predators + ample food = a larger, more sustainable shark population.
Another easy explanation for the rash of sightings could be the exponential growth of SUP (it's amazing how much more you can see standing six-feet up) and the ubiquity of GoPros, drones and camera phones. Nowadays, every other SUP rider at San O's Dog Patch has a GoPro strapped to his paddle, and every pier fisherman's got an iPhone that shoots in HD.
To be sure, with surfing's ever-growing popularity there is a heightened state of shark awareness globally. During the Internet Age of instantaneous news, word of an attack spreads virally across the planet in minutes. Whereas in the past, a newspaper article in Australia or Indonesia about a shark attack may or may not have ever made news in America or Europe.
Just this past April, for example, a teenage female surfer was killed in West Australia while her horrified father watched in vain from the line-up. The story lit up the web and social media. Two months prior in Reunion Island, a local bodyboarder named Adrien Dubosc was fatally injured by a shark. Most locals think it was likely by an aggressive Bull Shark, which have the frighteningly uncanny ability to swim in freshwater, too. Both stories made front page news in the media.
Dubosc was the 23rd attack to occur since 2011 on the island, and the ninth fatality. In Reunion, some experts and locals think the invasive bull and tiger sharks are more prevalent now that most of the territorial, but not deadly, reef shark species have been eliminated from Reunion's near shore reefs. Many locals believe this is due to over-fishing and reef poisoning from agricultural pesticide run-off. Although there isn't much hard data to support it yet, it's clear that human interference is having an impact on sharks and their behaviors in all our oceans. Shark activists like Ocean Ramsey are on the front line of conservation and raising awareness, speaking out against shark culls, shark netting and shark fin fishing.
What does seem obvious is when it comes to separating humans and large sharks, meshing works. In the years from 1900 to 1937, 13 people were killed off NSW surf beaches by sharks; over the next 72 years, the death rate fell to eight, only one of which was at a meshed beach. This in a period when the NSW human population rose from 1.4 million to seven million - and way more people began going to the beach.
Many places like Durban, South Africa and Sydney, Australia have implemented shark nets at their most popular beaches to varying degrees of success. However, the efficacy of their protection is highly disputed. In Ballina, Australia, for instance, debate rages between locals over instituting shark nets after two attacks in ten days along its sandy beaches in October 2016. Veteran surf journalist, Nick Carroll, said this in an opinion piece on the topic for CoastalWatch.com:
So what are the alternatives besides netting? There are several, including shark culling, which remains a lightening rod for discussion. Both Kelly Slater and Reunion-born WSL Championship Tour surfer Jeremy Flores were crucified on social media when they called for a controversial shark cull on Reunion after the fatal attack on another bodyboarder in February. Environmentalists suggest that shark culls are ineffective and only aggravate an already delicate balance, while the opposition say the life of a human being is more valuable than those of a hungry shark. For the record, Slater who is a noted environmentalist, later retracted his statement, marking it down to an emotional outburst during a distressful time.
Technology, as is often the case, may be our best option. There are a number of shark deterrent products on the market, including wetsuits, wristbands, leashes, and yes, even a spray. Many of the existing products available incorporate either electrical or acoustic signals meant to irritate sharks into moving away from the impulse. Do they work? Who knows, but any shark deterrent with a "your results may vary" disclaimer may be too high a price to pay for some. Then again, there's always Christian Fletcher's go-to approach -- he carries a pocket knife in his wetsuit, just in case.
Yet, despite all of this troubling new evidence, your odds of getting hit by a shark still remain astronomically low. Southern California surfers have much higher chances of winning the lottery or getting struck by lightening, than being bitten by a shark. In the end, a bit of self-awareness, surfing with a buddy, and a healthy sense of humor about our own insignificance in the ocean environment may be the keys to living alongside our pelagic landlords. Unfortunately for Southern California surfers, the new reality means the landlords have moved back in, and they're living downstairs.
One final note to keep things in perspective: An Australian-born pro skater once quipped, "Surfers are crazy. What you deal with out in the water is like me skating around a street corner and a grizzly bear jumps out and starts chasing me. You're all nuts."