“Sometimes you see things and your mind plays tricks on you,” said Kevin Dean, a Cal Poly alumnus and avid local surfer. “As a surfer, you’re constantly scanning the water.”
He’s referring to sharks.
This conditioned awareness of the swift movers below the waves in the chilly Central Coast waters isn’t a new phenomenon.
George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History said that being out on the open ocean creates a unique dynamic between people and nature.
“Living in a caveman world, watching out for predators … the only place you really see that (now) is if you’re a surfer on the Central Coast of California,” Burgess said.
The primary attackers of humans include great whites, tiger sharks and bull sharks, all of which are large in size and go after large prey items. These are mostly involved in “bump and bite” attacks, as Burgess describes in the International Shark Attack File. Smaller species of sharks are more likely responsible for the “hit and run” type of attacks. Surfers attest to accounts of these attacks on the Central Coast.
Just last weekend, a surfer at Shell Beach said he bumped by something in the water.
“I heard an ‘Oh, shit’ and saw a kid scrambling to get back on his board with a scared look on his face,” said Judd Andolina, a surfer visiting the area for the weekend. “The guy said something just bumped him.”
Andolina said the friend he was surfing with spotted the shark a few minutes earlier and identified it as five-foot-long leopard shark. All involved paddled out of the water with the next set of waves, Andolina said.
According to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, there have been 96 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks resulting in eight fatalities in California since 1926. Seven of those attacks and two of the eight fatalities were in San Luis Obispo County.
San Diego County and Monterey County are the only others with as many fatalities, the most recent in San Diego in 2008. Great whites are estimated to make up 76 percent of these attacks.
The two fatalities in San Luis Obispo County began with Cal Poly student Peter Savino in 1957 at Morro Rock followed by Deborah Franzman in 2003 at Port San Luis in Avila Beach.
Burgess said each decade sees more attacks than the previous one, in part because of the growing human population and because “we are putting more people in the water every year,” he said.
“With the evolution of wetsuits, we can put more people in (the ocean) where the great whites live,” Burgess added.
Surfers are the number one target group. In the 1950s, the majority of shark attack victims worldwide were swimming in the ocean. The next 40 years saw a complete transition when surfers began to make up the greater proportion of attack victims from the 1980s on.
That said, there’s a surprisingly low fatality rate for surfers from shark attacks in California. Burgess said surfers have a board, they are typically better swimmers and their buddies are normally there too.
“They are smart guys when it comes to the ocean,” he said.
In February on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, leading white shark researchers gathered for an International White Shark Symposium to discuss conservation policies and modern threats.
Listed as a threatened species in the Pacific, great whites have been on the protected species list in California since 1992. Douglas Long, chief curator of natural sciences at the Oakland Museum said researchers have a tentative count of white sharks in the northeastern Pacific through long-term tracking.
“Over the years, (they) count the number of individuals … how many are new and how many (they) keep seeing,” Long said.
This comes to an estimated 200 to 300 white sharks at any given time.
Researchers at the Marine Conservation Science Institute have also compiled satellite tagging studies that help inform about swimming depths, migratory patterns and temperature changes. They’ve found that sharks are traveling much longer distances than originally predicted, many to the middle of the Pacific.
“Those same sharks go to Baja and Hawaii,” Long said about sharks in the northeastern Pacific.
Since sharks (great whites specifically) move further north in fall, research also indicates that when ocean water heats up the shark populations can rise.
“An El Niño year or a warm summer can increase numbers because more sharks move up north,” he said.
This is mainly because their prey (elephant seals, harbor seals and smaller sharks) head north.
Greg Weisberg, chief harbor patrol officer for the Port San Luis Harbor district said they get reports of anywhere from two to four sightings each year. This includes a two-page questionnaire that the harbor patrol decides as being credible or not. It includes questions like how they swim, the shapes of the fin, the color and how far away the person was from the shark.
“Most are non-credible as far as a white shark,” Weisberg said.
He explained that lifeguards will often get people coming up and asking about sharks and if there are any in the water. If a credible sighting or an attack does occur, the harbor patrol will post warning signs for three days as more of an educational period than an indication of time before it’s safe again.
“(The postings are) to educate the public that it’s a wild and dangerous environment and that there’s sharks out there,” Weisberg said. “It really doesn’t have to do with whether the water is safe or not. The shark could leave and come back.”
Weisberg also said it’s pretty common to see sea lion and seal carcasses washed up on the beach with obvious attack wounds, one of which came up on the dock last summer, hosting a “pretty big bite” according to Weisberg.
“We see about three to five every fall,” Weisberg said.
He did point out that a sea lion can get bitten by a shark and travel hundreds of miles, often surviving the attack, citing a biologist at the California Department of Fish and Game.
In his 18 years of working for the Port San Luis District, Weisberg said he has never seen a great white, but has witnessed a few thresher sharks.
“I’m a pretty avid surfer and ocean swimmer … If I knew there was a big white shark I would get out of the water,” Weisberg said.
Kevin Dean spotted what he thinks was a white shark in November just before Thanksgiving Day. He was surfing at Montaño de Oro to the right of Spooner’s Cove on an outer reef break about 100 yards out. He said he saw a shark fin as he was coming up a wave about 40 feet beyond his friend. Dean said he knew it wasn’t a dolphin due to the shape of the fin.
“When you see a dolphin fin you know, and I’ve never seen a shark before,” Dean said.
The two waited for the next wave and rode in. Dean explained it wasn’t the same feeling he thought he would feel after spotting a shark.
“I thought I’d be freaked out and start hyperventilating,” Dean said. “It was more of a feeling of disbelief. ‘There’s no way. It can’t be.’”
Despite the shark encounter, Dean went back to check the surf at Spooner’s the very next day.
“If the shark had wanted to eat us, he could have,” Dean said.
At the same spot Dean was surfing, 30 years earlier, lifeguard Casimir Pulaski was bumped and had a bite taken out of his paddleboard by a great white. In the same year, 1982, John Buchanan, 17 at the time, had a similar attack at “The Rock” in Morro Bay.
A few ways to reduce the risk of a shark encounters, posted by Burgess on the International Shark Attack File, include to avoiding entering the water if: it’s dark because sharks have a “competitive sensory advantage,” you’re bleeding or menstruating and if you’re wearing jewelry because reflected light can resemble fish scales. He also encourages staying in groups and not assuming that porpoise sightings mean a lack of sharks since their prey is similar.