From: Vol. 1, Issue 10, May 25-31, 2006
By Karin Gallagher
San Clemente Times
The truth about great white shark sightings in San Clemente
The next time you think you’ve had a hard day at work, consider Steve Long. As reports of juvenile great white shark sightings came pouring in at the Trail One section of San Onofre State Beach in 2003, Long, visitor services superintendent for Doheny, San Clemente and San Onofre state beaches, and former lifeguard chief for 28 years, did what any right-minded, senior-level marine safety professional would do: He grabbed his 11-foot paddleboard and headed straight for the water.
To help positively identify the white sharks and advise people to stay out of the water, Long paddled through the breaking waves and toward the reported sharks. Sure enough, there they were. “I got close enough that I could reach down and touch them if I wanted,” he recalls. “Their behavior was very passive as they swam back and forth in patterns over a reef, and it was an opportunity to observe them up close. It was pretty exciting, but after I had done it, I wasn’t about to do it again.”
But by the time Long got into the water, the sharks had already been nicknamed by local surfers who had been spotting them for months but continued surfing unalarmed because they believed them to be benign juveniles. The surfers named them Sparky, Fluffy and Archie-the last one after Echo Arch, a section of the beach at Trail One.
Surprised that white sharks swim in San Clemente waters? They’re not alone. Other sharks identified locally include blue sharks, which tend to be spotted from boats further offshore, while both thresher and mako sharks, identifiable by their distinctive tail fins, are occasionally seen close to the surf zone. Most commonly, inshore, there are benign sharks-horn sharks or leopard sharks-that are passive reef dwellers.
“What we see anywhere close to the surf tends to be smaller, juvenile sharks,” says Long. “They’re not threatening, per se, as the ones we see relatively close tend to be 6 feet or under.” Not threatening to humans, that is. The juvenile sharks that frequent our waters-in a classic food-chain example of bigger fish eating smaller fish-feed on fish smaller than themselves. “We’ve learned that the juveniles tend to graze or forage on small crustaceans, sting rays and mackerel, which are plentiful down at San Onofre,” says Long. “Through the San Clemente area we have a combination of reefs and sandbars. Reefs provide a food source for small sharks and they will eat small crustaceans and graze in and around the shallows.”
San Clemente waters also play host to swell, angel, smoothhound, soupfin (also called tope) and hammerhead sharks. “We see all kinds of sharks,” says Jim Serpa, supervising ranger at Doheny State Beach. “They’re here, and they’ve been here forever. We’re not seeing any rise in shark attacks. They don’t like us; we’re not their primary food. That’s the main message I try to get to the kids I teach: they’re not looking to get you.”
Kids aren’t the only ones with a soul-deep, primal fear of being eaten alive; in fact, few things can evoke as much instinctual fear as sharks can. Often vilified and mostly misunderstood, though, sharks play a critical role in the ocean’s ecosystem and, with an existence that dates further back than dinosaurs, have evolved into one of nature’s most efficient species. Although scientists today know of nearly 400 species of sharks swimming in the world’s oceans, we only see about 10 species in our local waters-and really only need to be concerned about the whites, says Serpa.
In 2004, a rare year in the history of our town’s life aquatic, two white shark encounters in San Clemente made national headlines. The first occurred in June, when a surfer was rammed on his board by what was thought to have been an 8-foot great white. Later that same summer at 204s (a surf spot on North Beach), a surfer was bitten by what was later identified by shark expert Ralph S. Collier as a juvenile great white measuring approximately 3 feet long. “Interspace measurements of the razor-like cuts to the bottom of [the surfer’s] right foot are consistent with lower jaw dentition interspaces of a juvenile white shark 37 to 43 inches in total length,” concluded Collier on his Web site.
The increasing number of humans recreating in the waters off San Clemente might explain why sharks are being noticed more often; there are simply more people there to see them. “San Onofre has probably had juvenile sharks passing through the area for years, we just have more public down there than we’ve ever had and more surfers in the water,” explains Long. Another suggestion for the white shark presence during 2003-2004 was that they were attracted to a decomposing, 50-foot fin whale that had drifted south from the waters off Newport Beach.
“There was some speculation that the sharks were drawn to the area because the lifeguards had buried a large whale carcass [at Trail One] the previous winter,” says Long. “Periodically we’ll have a whale, most commonly a gray, that has died out in the channel someplace and it washes up onto the beach. This particular whale had been spotted offshore with large white sharks feasting on it. As it washed into shore the sharks followed it all the way in to the beach, through the surf, grabbing a bite to eat, then flopping back into the surf.”
As it’s extremely difficult to remove a whale carcass, marine safety officials typically wait for a good minus tide, dig as deep a hole as they can, and push the carcass into it and bury it, where it will decay over time. Some people speculated, although professionals and academics remain unconvinced, that as the whale carcass decayed and oozed, the juvenile sharks that appeared later were also attracted to the scent.
“I would say that it’s coincidental,” says Long. “When the whale beached and it had the sharks following it, it was pretty obvious [why the mature white sharks were there]. And then even after we had buried it, there were large sharks in that area for a couple of days because there was juice from the whale draining out. But then the juveniles appeared later, so it’s unclear as to why they were there. It wasn’t the first time a whale has been buried.”
Shark encounters are clearly the exception, not the norm. According to the International Shark Attack File, in 2005 there were only 58 unprovoked shark attacks on humans, 38 of which occurred in the United States (18 of which were in Florida alone; only three were in California). So, out of a population of nearly 300 million people the risk of being attacked by a shark is about one in eight million.
In fact, if you’re going to be injured by any sort of marine life in the water, chances are it will be by a stingray, says Kade Boisseranc, senior lifeguard supervisor for the City of San Clemente. The stingray-a flat fish with a long, whip-like tail that has a barbed spine that tapers to a very sharp point-is not aggressive, does not attack humans and will often swim away when startled. However, bathers who step on the flat of the stingray’s back as it rests on the ocean floor may find themselves on the painful receiving end of a venom-filled defensive sting. (Lesson here? It’s always best to shuffle your way into the water.)
What kinds of precautions do beachgoers need to take to protect themselves from sharks? “I would certainly use caution,” advises Serpa. “Pay them the respect they’re due. Don’t do anything silly. Don’t go surfing or into the water if you have large, bleeding wounds. If you cut yourself, get out of the water. If you’re spear fishing and dragging along a fish that’s struggling or bleeding profusely, get out of the water.”
Serpa says the real risks at the beach include getting hit by a surfboard, stepping on broken glass or coals on the beach, rip currents, exhaustion, stingrays, sunburn and dehydration. “Always go to the lifeguard station,” instructs Serpa, “where they’ll tell you where the safest areas are and to stay away from the rip currents. Lifeguards are your eyes on the beach; use them.”
Putting Things into Perspective
What are the chances of being attacked by a shark? Slim to none, says Doheny’s Supervising Ranger Jim Serpa. “Compare the number of people in the water in Southern California every day against the number that gets bitten by sharks and it’s infinitesimally small,” he says. In fact, according to the National Safety Council, your odds of dying from the following injuries are far greater than by being attacked by a shark.
Dying from falling down stairs: 1 in 180,000
Drowning in your bathtub: 1 in 800,000
Dying from being struck by lightning: 1 in 4.4 million
Being attacked by a shark: 1 in 8 million