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Renewed Shark Scare Extends Closing of Beaches

Ban is a further blow to the tourist season at Central Coast town.

August 26, 2003|Sally Ann Connell and Monte Morin | Special to The Times

AVILA BEACH, Calif. — After a great white shark killed a swimmer off this scenic Central Coast resort last week and a commercial fisherman reported seeing a shark preying on a seal there over the weekend, authorities announced Monday that the beaches would remain off-limits to swimmers until at least Wednesday.

Word of the second shark sighting and the extended swimming ban have brought a grim notoriety to Avila Beach and could hasten the end of the summer tourism season at this resort nestled amid rolling hills, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The interruption of the season comes just as the town is beginning to recover from a massive oil cleanup that crippled its downtown.

The beach remained mostly vacant Monday, and some businesses reported a drop in customers.

"It's all people can talk about," said Arica Cain, manager of the Sea Barn, a beach and surf apparel shop. "The visitors are curious. They've seen it on every news station in the world."

The Saturday sighting followed the Aug. 19 death of sociology professor Deborah Blanche Franzman, who was swimming among seals 75 yards offshore. It was the first fatal shark attack in California since 1994, and the 10th since the early 1950s. Some experts say that, to a shark, the silhouette of a swimmer in a wetsuit and fins, like the gear Franzman was wearing, resembles a seal, a shark delicacy.

Deke Wells, captain of the Mello Boy, said he was chasing bait anchovies early Saturday morning about 400 yards offshore, north of the Avila Beach pier, when he spotted the shark.

"I saw a silver streak and a big splash. I asked my man if it was a whale or something, and he said it was a great white shark. It was big, too big really to estimate, could have been anywhere between 15 and 20 feet," Wells said. "It had jumped clean out of the water and taken a seal by the tail."

The few tourists who made their way to the water's edge Monday said they were content to remain on the sand.

Jeff Marquez of Costa Mesa was walking along the Avila harbor front with his 3- and 5-year-old children. "We had already booked the hotel in Pismo Beach when we heard about this, and we still came," Marquez said. "We were going to be spending most of our time in the hotel pool, and we still are."

The beaches that will be kept closed by the Port San Luis Harbor District until Wednesday, at least, are Avila Beach, Old Port Beach and Fishermen's Beach. The district's operations manager, Casey Nielsen, said the district was trying to get shark experts to indicate when swimming might be safe.

Members of the harbor commission were expected to talk about the issue at a meeting tonight.

"We're tentatively planning to open on Wednesday, but we may not, depending on what the commission decides," Nielsen said. "I don't think experts can say with any real certainty when it's safe."

Douglas Long, a marine mammal expert with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, said there can be no such assurances.

"I'm always asked by authorities if they should close the beaches and for how long," he said. "There's always been white sharks. There will always be white sharks, since they are protected by law. We just cannot say what a white shark might or might not do."

A great white also recently was sighted off San Onofre State Park, where officials have posted a sign warning swimmers and surfers. The shark, as much as 15 feet long, has been seen 50 to 60 yards offshore, generally south of the nuclear power plant, said Joe Layng, a state lifeguard supervisor.

"One of our lifeguards saw it, and a couple of surfers have seen it," Layng said. "It's been kind of loitering out there."

In Avila, townspeople in many ways are just getting back on their feet after a multi-year cleanup by Union Oil Co. Unocal purchased most of the downtown area, tore down businesses and excavated the dirt in 1999, in one of the most expensive oil cleanups on the West Coast. Businesses started returning in 2000, but there are still some empty lots with approved plans for hotels and apartments.

While the beach reopened in 2000, some popular businesses didn't return until last year.

Steve Goodale is the general manager of the Old Custom House, a restaurant and tavern on the waterfront. He said that business usually slows this time of year, but that the local community puts on festivals to attract crowds.

"The traffic on the streets has definitely slowed down," Goodale said. "That definitely has to affect businesses. We just won't know how big of an impact it's going to have for a while. With Labor Day weekend, if there aren't big crowds, we'll know."

Some weren't dissuaded from going into the water.

"A bunch of restaurant workers from San Luis Obispo jumped off the pier last night and swam in," said Denise Kurtz, 46, from Bakersfield, who said she visits frequently because her mother has a mobile home nearby.

"The beach was packed here Sunday despite all of this."

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