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A Shark Attack Brings More Reports to Surface

August 22, 2003|PETE THOMAS

California's first fatal shark attack since 1994 occurs and in its wake comes the inevitable ripple effect....

A day after Tuesday's deadly attack on Deborah Franzman, by a great white as she was swimming near seals and sea lions off Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo, a Santa Maria angler said he saw the same shark in the same general area nearly two weeks ago as he and a friend were trolling for halibut.

The shark was estimated at 15 to 18 feet by state marine biologist Robert Lea.

"It was a 19-footer and I know it was 19 feet because it was exactly as long as my boat," said Don Chavez, 37, a former commercial fisherman who said there was no mistaking what kind of shark it was. "I saw its head, its eyes -- the whole thing. It came right up next to my boat and I told my buddy to get ready at the controls in case it started hitting the boat."

Chavez, who was six miles south of where Tuesday's attack occurred, in about 60 feet of water half a mile from shore, said the shark swam alongside and past his boat, then turned around and appeared briefly at the stern before sinking down and disappearing from view.

"You would not believe how big around it was," he said. "It was probably three feet around just where the tail met the body. I picked up my cell phone and immediately called all my surfing buddies, but I didn't call the authorities. I feel bad about that now, but what would they have done?"

Probably nothing. Offshore shark sightings do not typically result in calls to action.

*

Meanwhile, in Southern California....

If you're a surfer planning a trip to San Onofre State Beach, you might want to know that there has been at least one large great white "camped out" just south of the nuclear generating plant, according to Michael Domeier, president of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research and a prominent white shark researcher.

Domeier this week positively identified the animal based on aerial photographs provided by the U.S. Marine Corps.

They were taken by members of a helicopter unit, who saw five smaller sharks July 21 and since have seen as many as two much larger sharks every few days, as close as 100 yards from the beach.

"After talking with the other pilots, we believe the big sharks we saw were 15 to 17 feet," said Maj. James E. Fox Jr., an officer stationed at Camp Pendleton. "I saw them personally five times, but recently there has been only one."

Domeier, whose organization has been involved in a long-term white shark tagging study at Guadalupe Island off Baja California, said he has wrestled with his conscience for days over what to do with the information and has been considering issuing a news release announcing the frequent presence of the shark.

"I didn't want to be perceived as the person to strike the fear of God into everybody out in the water," he said.

In an e-mail sent Wednesday to Fox and copied to The Times, Domeier wrote, "After [Tuesday's] fatal shark attack I was wondering if we should put out a press release about the presence of the shark off San Onofre.

"If you had seen it only one day I would not have bothered, but your guys have seen it regularly for three weeks now. Perhaps people should know about it and let them decide if they REALLY want to go surfing at Trestles!"

Trestles is a good jog up the coast. There are several popular surf spots closer to the generating plant, the closest being accessible by Trail One at the southern end of the state beach.

"One of our [lifeguards] has spotted a shark more than once at Trail One, just south of the power plant, but he thought it was a mako shark," lifeguard supervisor Joe Layng said.

Layng was unfazed when told it might be a great white.

"Those things aren't going to bother us," he said. "No one's complained. There's no hysteria and no one jumping and screaming, 'Sharks!' "

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How volatile is this situation?

"The bottom line is, those surfers are much more likely to be injured in a car accident on the way to the beach, especially on that freeway," said Chris Lowe, a shark researcher and professor at Long Beach State, referring to Interstate 5. "That there hasn't been an attack [despite the close proximity of the sharks to the surfers] really speaks toward the [low] probability of shark attacks -- that these are really rare events."

Southern California coastal waters are considered a nursing ground for adult great whites during the spring and there is a chance that the smaller sharks seen by the helicopter pilots were great white pups.

However, Lowe said, the pupping season has been over for several weeks and he could not explain why the larger shark or sharks keep appearing in the same area, other than to say they're probably feeding on sea lions.

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White sharks appear seasonally at elephant seal rookeries off Northern California, such as the Farallon Islands, Ano Nuevo Island and Point Reyes, but otherwise their movements remain largely a mystery.

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