It’s been a week of apocalyptic newsfeeds in Orange County, California, be it the doom of Nuclear Waste or, most recently, a burst of shark encounters in and around SoCal lineups. On Saturday, 35-year-old Vista resident Leeanne Ericson was bitten by a great white off San Onofre and remains hospitalized in critical condition. It marked the second attack in 11 months in Orange County. And that’s not counting the multiple sightings throughout North County, San Diego the last few days.
In an OC Register article published on Monday bluntly titled, “After Orange County’s Second Shark Attack In A Year, Should We Be Freaking Out?”, Dr. Chris Lowe, director of the California State University-Long Beach Shark Lab, explains how the bites have not occurred in isolation, but rather, have followed a pattern for years: around this time of year, groups of young great whites will congregate close to shore in “hot spots,” or regions in which sharks periodically frequent. These places, unsurprisingly, are the sites of the recent encounters and attacks.
So, which regions along the California coastline do Lowe and his research team describe as “hot spots”?
“Anywhere from mid Santa Barbara down to Ventura,” Lowe said in a recent phone call. “All of Santa Monica bay is a hot spot. Huntington Beach, from Belmont Shores down to Huntington Beach pier. And finally, from Dana Point to San Onofre.”
According to Lowe, fishery data that dates back 100 years shows how juvenile white sharks — not full-grown adults, he notes — have been tracked particularly and densely in the areas around Ventura, in Santa Monica Bay, off Huntington Beach, and San Onofre. Baby great whites, and those that are one-, two-, and up to three-years old, seem to prefer these zones around the start of summer.
“To give you a frame of reference, a baby is about five feet long at birth,” Lowe says. “They’ll grow a foot a year for their first three years. You figure, a three-year-old is now getting up around 8-9 feet long. The majority of what we see, from May to October, are babies. Those are sharks that can be anywhere from 5 to 5-and-a-half feet long. Once they find one of these hotspot beaches, they can be there for a month straight, and then they might hopscotch to these different hotspot beaches.”
Lowe says that pockets of baby sharks will move in these areas from one summer to the next. One focus of his team’s research is to uncover why, and to find answers to discrepancies in the sharks’ trends. For example, San Onofre, where Ericson was attacked, seems to attract slightly older sharks; Lowe described it as more of “the kindergarten” for great whites.
“That’s where those toddler sharks will hang out. Not the babies, but those two- to three-year olds. And we’re not sure why. What makes San-O different for slightly older baby white sharks from those at other hotspots? We’re working to find out,” says Lowe.
Another reason for the shark activity, says Lowe, could be that our oceans are comparatively healthier than they were 40 years ago. Our water quality along the Pacific is generally cleaner, and marine mammals — an à la carte favorite for great whites — are better protected under improved fishery supervision.
In turn, seal and sea lion populations are climbing. And shark populations are climbing, thanks to the same fishery-protection overhauls. A food source that has long been scarce along Southern California beaches, then, is seeing a seasonal bump in numbers closer to shore, and sharks are moving closer to the buffet.
“Many of those seals and sea lions are migratory,” says Lowe. “They’ll migrate to the middle of the Pacific. But in the summer and early fall, those animals will come back to beaches, and that’s where we tend to see adult great whites show up. The sharks are just following their food source.”
In July and August, once the elephant seals and those other seals leave for California’s offshore islands, which are major marine mammal nookeries — places like the Channel Islands, the Farralons, and Guadelupe Island — those sharks tend to disappear, too.
Lowe admits that much of great white research is a work in progress, and plenty of unknowns exist. It’s a cause for much of our societal fret around sharks in the first place — we don’t know the full scope of what’s going on underneath us, what’s calculating our movements beneath the surface, until it’s too late. But Lowe says there’s a fine line between savvy shark-sense and crippling fear.
“What people have to remember is that millions – and I mean millions and millions of people – use California waters year round, for all sorts of water activities. The fact that these encounters happen still so infrequently kind of makes you wonder whether you need to worry about it. When you think about people in car accidents, we look at that as an acceptable risk even though it’s outside of our control. When you start considering that framework, and you put that perspective out there for going into the ocean, you should ask yourself if we should worry that much about sharks. It’s one thing to be aware and to be cognizant of that, but it’s another to be scared.
“With that said, people need to be shark-smart when they go in the water. If you’re out and there’s a dead marine mammal floating near you in the lineup, you should probably move.”