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Shark Fear Isn't a Factor at Beach

Sightings of three great whites are drawing crowds to a popular surf spot near San Onofre. Officials warn of possible closures.

August 30, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Three adolescent sharks dubbed Sparky, Fluffy and Archie have been cruising around the surf line near the San Onofre nuclear power plant for several weeks now, their fins cutting the water's surface from time to time with menacing effect.

Far from inspiring fear, however, the sharks are drawing crowds, curious sightseers who stream in to catch a glimpse of the animals, thought to be no longer than 7 feet.

Chief Ranger Don Monahan said several people have asked him, "What time do the sharks appear?"

"It's as if they believe this is SeaWorld or something and they want the time for the next showing," he said.

State beach officials are taking the matter more seriously. For days they have debated closing the waters off Trail 1, an off-the-beaten-path beach just south of the power plant in San Diego County popular with surfers.

With the Labor Day weekend here and a surfing tournament scheduled next week, they said they are prepared to close the beach if they believe the sharks pose a danger.

Already, they have posted signs along the strand warning swimmers of the risk, and lifeguards plan to tell beachgoers as they arrive over the weekend about the sightings.

It has also brought out a take-life-as-it-comes attitude with hardened longboarders.

Surfers, who gave the sharks their cartoon-like monikers, were as blase as ever Friday, telling tales of paddling within inches of them.

Several said they were bumped by the sharks as they passed under their surfboards.

A senior lifeguard said one shark drifted under his paddleboard.

"Being from Florida, I've seen sharks in the water all my life," said San Onofre veteran Jerry Kearns, 52.

Sharks "have been in these waters thousands of years," he added philosophically.

As a prank, one of Kearns' buddies swam beneath his surfboard and yanked his leg.

"They all laughed," he said. "Hey, even I thought it was funny after a while."

But even the surfers showed a degree of respect Friday by moving slightly to the north of Trail 1.

"These are big fish and potentially dangerous," Monahan said.

So far, no attacks have occurred.

The only thing Kearns and his surfing buddies encountered Friday were some nice waist-high waves as they surfed the Point, about a mile north of the last sighting.

Don Benson, 74, of Dana Point, another San Onofre regular, was in the same area as Kearns. He said he would feel uneasy surfing alone at Trail 1.

"There's no safety in numbers either," he said. "But, psychologically, it feels safer."

Nearby, Eric Ojeda, 36, of Rancho Santa Margarita and his 9-year-old son, Micah, took advantage of a sunny summer day to sit in folding chairs on the sand and sip cold drinks after a surfing session.

"We visited Trail 1 right after the first sighting a week ago," Ojeda said.

"But we didn't see any sharks. We saw porpoises."

The sightings began in late June and gradually increased through the summer.

Last week, experts documented and identified the three great whites, lifeguard Steve Long said. The sharks are probably cruising over an offshore reef in search of small fish and other food, he said.

Though no one is certain how long the sharks will remain, they already seem to have a following.

Clyde and Anna Dechert, a couple vacationing from Colorado, said they read about the sightings in the newspaper and drove down from a nearby campground in an effort to catch a glimpse of a great whites.

"It's kind of a novelty for us," Clyde Dechert, 60, said.

"We don't get to see sharks where we're from."

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