The fear of being eaten. It’s not a standard emotion that shoots through our bloodstream on a daily basis, but it got us watching Jaws over and over. There are more than 350 species of sharks, according to Klimley and Ainley’s, “The Biology of Carcharodon carcharias,” but only one seems to make headlines constantly: the great white shark.
With minimal coverage of great whites in scientific literature before the 1990s, we know relatively little about these cartilaginous ocean dwellers because of their large size and the uncommon occurrence of running into one. They’ve taken the heat as a most-feared predator in the ocean, especially in the cold waters of California.
Many locals and visitors in the Central Coast have a conditioned and very real fear of great whites. In many cases it’s the number one reason people won’t enter the ocean water, aside from the chilliness. Is it justified? How many really lurk beneath the waves and are we even a part of their meal plan?
Douglas Long, chief curator of natural sciences at the Oakland Museum of California and research associate in the Department of Ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences said there are about 40 species of sharks off the California coast, and according to Dr. Royden Nakamura, professor in the biological sciences department at Cal Poly, only about 12 or 13 species are common to the Central Coast.
“Of these the only ones known to kill people are great whites,” Long said.
Long said there are an estimated 200 to 300 great whites spanning the California coast down to Baja California and west to the Hawaiian Islands. Researchers have a general understanding of their migration patterns, but at any given time it’s impossible to know how many great whites are roaming a certain area. Much of this information is from recovered shark-bitten pinnipeds, fin-footed mammals.
With so few great whites in the water compared to the mass of ocean they travel, why is the Central Coast a haven for great white fear? The answer is their prey, as Long explained. The whites go where their food goes. When the rate of shark sightings increase, that means the food source is increasing. They typically head north in the late summer and fall and move to the south or Central California in the winter and spring.
“They aren’t wandering for no reason,” Long said.
Two of the eight fatalities from great white attacks recorded on the California coast since the 1920s have been on the central coast, more specifically Morro Bay and Avila Beach. Long explained that there are sharks in the water everyday and if they wanted to eat people they would.
“(There) isn’t a single case of a shark actually eating a person as food,” Long said. “Sharks have been hunting pinnipeds for 12 million years. Humans have been in the water for the last few 100 years.”
Long explained that sharks have a search image. As a predator, the shark is going by a silhouette it sees on the surface.
“We probably don’t fit into that search image,” Long said. “There are other ways to die in the ocean. Four to eight people in the Bay Area alone are just washed off the beach by sneaker waves each year.”
Nakamura said it’s rare to come by a great white and the fear is overrated.
“I’ve seen a lot of sharks and I’ve never seen a great white shark in the water all the times I’ve been out there,” Nakamura said.
He was on a field trip in Morro Bay with a class the day Deborah B. Franzman was killed at Avila Beach in 2003. He said they heard there was a shark incident and they didn’t really believe it.
“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Nakamura said. “You don’t do swimming around with pinnipeds.”
Nakamura said his friends used to be avid spear fisherman, but after seeing a few great whites attack baby seals they don’t continue the hobby as much.
“They are really hardcore folks,” Nakamura said. “Most of us don’t really worry about it, but incidents happen.”
Nakamura also pointed out there are more frequent encounters with great whites, not necessarily because their populations are rising, but because ours is. There are simply more people in the water.
Nakamura said it’s about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the Hawaiian Islands he says a lot of surfers won’t go out in the early mornings because of tiger sharks. A rebounding green sea turtle population has facilitated a growing number of their predators, tiger sharks.
“It’s a peace of mind game especially if you are out there by yourself,” Nakamura said. “It’s better to meet up with a great white than a tiger shark. If it goes after something, it’s going after it.”
Great whites have been around for 350 million years and the ocean is clearly their domain, but research shows they aren’t after terrestrial human flesh.
“It’s like the lottery,” Long said. “Yeah, the odds are against you, but someone’s got to win.”
Place your bet.
Thursday: The science scope will include a history of attacks and the central coast scoop on Carcharodon carcharias.