After the “summer of the shark” in 2017, has the shark issue around Dana Point and San Clemente abated?

By Jake Howard

Last weekend, video surfaced on social media of a woman “nursing” a great white shark back to health in the shore break at Malibu before releasing it out to sea.

The sight of someone in a bikini petting a great white in knee-deep water like it was a cute little dolphin is pretty jaw-dropping, but it got me thinking about our relationship with ol’ Carcharodon carcharias down here in Dana Point and San Clemente.

It was only a couple of years ago that local waters were seemingly infested with great white sharks. On April 29, 2017, Leeanne Ericson was savagely attacked while surfing at San Onofre. She would have lost her life had it not been for the quick response of surfers in the area and lifeguards on the scene. As it was, she suffered severe injuries to her leg.

A juvenile great white shark swims near the Dana Wharf Sportfishing boat in May 2017 near Capistrano Beach. Photo: Eric Heinz
A juvenile great white shark swims near the Dana Wharf Sportfishing boat in May 2017 near Capistrano Beach. Photo: Eric Heinz

That spring and summer, great whites were seen breaching at Trestles, schooling at Capo Beach, swimming inside the harbor in Dana Point. Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater made social media posts about the sharks after surfing Lowers. News helicopters documented them lurking in the near-shore waters numerous times. It seemed as if the baby great whites were everywhere.

But upon seeing the footage from Malibu this weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder if things had actually quieted down or we’d just become more accustomed to sharing the lineup with our toothy friends. They certainly have not been as omnipresent on the local news and social media as they were in 2017. That doesn’t mean that they’re still not out there; they most certainly are. But, to me, they don’t appear to be making as much human contact lately.

In 2018, “there were five authenticated unprovoked shark attacks reported from the Pacific Coast of North America,” according to the Shark Research Committee, which tracks and collects shark-related news and research. None of the attacks was fatal, and none of them involved surfers. On September 29, 2018, a 13-year-old boy was killed in a shark attack while lobster diving off the coast of Encinitas, but the species of shark was not able to be positively identified.

“The number of shark-bitten stranded marine mammals reported in 2018 was greater than the prior year. The location and time of year would suggest an increase in the number of great white sharks utilizing those specific areas,” reports the Shark Research Committee. “However, the frequency of great white shark encounters and observations might be attributable to population dynamics of humans and sharks.”

In 2017, there were two attacks in Orange County. There was the attack on Ericson in April, which appears to be a case of mistaken identity, as it was reported a seal lion actually tried to climb on her board, presumably to escape what was chasing it below the surface. The following month, in Sunset Beach, a surfer was bitten in shallow water. At the time, there was a school of juvenile great whites living offshore in Surfside and Huntington Harbor, which could explain the incident.

According to numerous surfers and paddlers I talked to, there still continues to be a healthy shark population around the San Onofre Trails area, especially in from SONGS, affectionately known as “shark alley” by some.

“I still see them pretty regularly down there, but it seems like they’re just cruising. I don’t know, they’ve been there for a while and don’t seem too interested in what we’re doing . . . but I still wouldn’t go swimming out there,” said one stand-up paddler at Dog Patch.

Meanwhile, they haven’t been seen breaching at Trestles like they had been. And the schools of great whites haven’t been seen as often around Capo Beach, either.

Historically, more great white attacks take place during the months of August, September and October along the West Coast than any other time of year. Surfers make up the majority of the confirmed attacks since 2000. Out of the 108 reported attacks, 62 had been on surfers up and down the West Coast. Interestingly, only one boogie boarder was attacked.

Whatever the numbers say, the old fisherman’s adage remains true: if there’s salt in the water, there are sharks—so don’t be surprised if you see them swimming around while you’re out in their ocean.

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