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Shark Sightings Sparking Concern

A least one adult great white has been spotted among sharks cruising through the surf zone.

August 27, 2003|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Tuesday was typical of the last few days for surfers at San Onofre State Beach. The marine layer gave way to sunshine early, the waves were small, rolling in slowly and gently -- and much of the chatter, in and out of the water, was about sharks.

"Everybody's talking about them but sharks have always been here," said Bruce Price, 56, after a morning surf just north of Old Man's, a spot popular among longboarders because of the easy way in which the waves break. "There are a lot of sharks between here and Catalina. I'm not too concerned."

In other words, you'd have to be a surfer to understand that very few things will keep them out of the water.

Lifeguards, scientists and campers, meanwhile, have expressed varying degrees of concern about an apparent increase in shark visits close to shore recently at the southern end of the park near San Clemente. Some of the sharks are large and at least one has been identified as an adult great white.

"Maybe they have good karma and don't have to worry," Robert Lea, a Department of Fish and Game biologist in Monterey, said of the surfers and their attitudes. Lea was only half-joking, having been present for the autopsy on a Central California swimmer killed by a 15- to 18-foot great white last week off Avila Beach.

That incident was followed by reports of frequent shark sightings off San Onofre, made by Marines in helicopters from nearby Camp Pendleton. Those sightings, first reported Friday in The Times, have since become public knowledge and San Onofre has suddenly gained a notoriety nobody thought it would ever have.

Michael Domeier, president of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research in nearby Oceanside, referred to the Trail One area near the southern edge of the state beach -- about a mile south of Old Man's -- as "a shark magnet" and questioned the sanity of anyone paddling out there.

"You wouldn't enter a grizzly exhibit at the zoo," Domeier said. "Only people with no brains in their skulls would be out there right now."

Lifeguards, meanwhile, were keeping a close eye on the surf zone, trying not to let hype affect their decision-making. They've put up signs warning of an increase in shark sightings but have not closed any of the park's beaches.

"We've seen sharks at Trail One for years -- mostly what we think are mako and thresher sharks," said Brandon Boisseranc, a state beach lifeguard for the last eight years. "Our guards have even paddled out to see if they could tell what kind they were."

Boisseranc added that the "apparent" increase in shark activity is not yet being viewed as a threat to public safety "but it may be cause for concern." For the time being, he said, it remains for surfers and swimmers to decide whether they should go in.

Although scientists have been unable to explain what's drawing the sharks to the Trail One area, Domeier said the decaying remains of a whale buried near there last year "may have resulted in chemical leaching into the ocean" during higher tides, luring sharks from afar.

If that's the case, he added, the risk of attack on humans is greater than people might think, because "when a shark gets the right stimulus, it will react."

Domeier identified one of the sharks as an adult great white of undetermined length after viewing aerial photographs taken two weeks ago. The Marine helicopter pilots, who have been seeing sharks every few days since July 21, estimated the two largest at 15-17 feet.

Adult great whites, generally those 12 feet or bigger, feed predominantly on large marine mammals such as elephant seals and sea lions. There have been no seals and very few sea lions in this area recently.

Lea called Domeier's assessment regarding the rotting whale carcass "highly speculative" and wondered about some of the size estimates. It would not be uncommon, he added, for smaller sharks that feed on fish -- among them juvenile great whites -- to be in the area if there were lots of fish.

Since Friday, TV news footage has shown mostly smaller sharks swimming as close as 30 yards from surfers.

Tuesday, as Price was getting out of the water at Old Man's, two sharks, the larger about eight feet long, could be seen from the bluff above the beach at Trail One, cruising slowly through the surf zone.

Bob Eames, 63, of Orange, was one of two surfers in the water.

"I've been coming here since I was 17 and have never had an incident," the former Marine said.

At Old Man's, the waves were slightly bigger and surfers were taking turns enjoying long, lazy rides shoreward. If they had any worries, they didn't show.

John Jensen, 52, of Upland, said, "The odds of being attacked are probably like [those of] going down in an airplane crash," he said. "Besides, surfing is part of my life and my soul. If you can't surf, why live?"

Tom Robb, a regular in his 50s, said he welcomed the sharks and associated hype because they helped keep the crowds down.

"Tell people we see great whites all the time and would recommend people go surf somewhere else," he said.

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