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Avila Beach Nearly Deserted Over Shark Fears, Swim Ban

Holiday tourists mostly stay out of the water, and instead attend a reggae festival or go fishing.

August 31, 2003|Sally Ann Connell | Special to The Times

AVILA BEACH, Calif. — About 400 people were on beaches that normally attract thousands on a three-day holiday weekend, officials said, as a ban on swimming continued because of increased great white shark activity in the area.

The occasional child played in ankle-deep water near Avila Pier, but otherwise people stayed out of the water, in accordance with a five-day ban imposed by the Port San Luis Harbor District. The swimming ban is scheduled to extend through Tuesday.

The port policy, adopted after a 15- to 18-foot great white shark attacked and killed Deborah Blanche Franzman on Aug. 19, calls for a five-day ban after any reported shark activity. The current closure follows the discovery of a juvenile sea lion that washed up on Fishermen's Beach on Thursday, apparently after being killed by a great white shark.

Although the beaches were relatively vacant, tourists did turn out to listen to reggae music and go fishing, but parking was not the nightmare in Avila Beach that it usually is on weekends.

At Pismo Beach, further south in San Luis Obispo County, lifeguards were advising people to stay out of the water, following an unconfirmed report of a very large fish swimming with marine mammals.

"We put a boat in the water and a helicopter in the air, but we could not confirm that there was a shark in the area," said Phil Veneris, battalion chief for the combined Pismo Beach-California Department of Forestry.

Mitchell Scott, 11, of Kingsburg was one of the few entering the water at Avila Beach as he used a skim board in the shallow white water, under the watchful eyes of his parents.

"You can see how it has affected everything here. This beach is usually packed on a weekend," said his mother, Diane. "You're always reminded by signs in a campground that you are in a bear's environment. When you go in the water, you are in a shark's environment. We can't forget that anymore."

Despite the nearly empty beaches, the town attracted a crowd for a reggae festival at Avila Beach Golf Resort. Almost 600 people listened to the music free on the sand across San Luis Obispo Creek from the concert, while a larger crowd was inside. Business owners and employees either reported being concerned about slow business, or fed up with constant media inquiries about the shark attack.

"Normally, on a Saturday, we don't even sit down. And I brought my homework out here to do, and I get to eat lunch. That should tell you something," Natalie Ballesteros said as she worked at the California Hot Dog Co. stand near the pier. "I've got too much free time."

Avila Beach is only beginning to get back on its financial feet after a multiyear cleanup by Union Oil Co. of one of the largest oil spills in the Western United States. Unocal bought up most of the downtown area, tore down the businesses in 1999 and removed the oil-tainted dirt in an effort that cost an estimated $120 million because of fines, settlements and cleanup costs.

Popular businesses such as Mr. Rick's tavern, the Sea Barn clothing store and the Old Custom House restaurant only returned to the waterfront last year.

"It's not really affecting us so much in here," said Jason Watson, bar manager at Mr. Rick's. "People still have to drink. But everybody asks us about the attack, and we say it happened right out there, but not to worry. It's not a land shark."

In all, the harbor area contains three piers, three beaches and the gate to Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Usually filled by Thursday night before a holiday weekend, recreation vehicle spaces near the port were available late Saturday.

"It's so much slower than you ever see on a weekend," Juanita Haket of Santa Maria said as she sat outside her RV with her husband, Fred. "But we don't have children to have to keep out of the water. That's why you don't see more families here. They come for the water."

Even at the port, though fishing boats were being launched and small groups gathered to see 40 seals and sea lions fighting for dominance of a nearby dock, there was some word that business is down.

"This is not affecting the people who get on the boats to go fishing," said Brian Gardner at Patriot's Sportfishing. "But we see less walk-in traffic to buy anything else. We're selling fewer candy bars and drinks."

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